The Tuba City Project
The first co-working and business incubation space to provide rural Native American entrepreneurs with financial stability.
We host annual entrepreneurship and innovation workshops (which we call Change Labs) on the Navajo Nation to inspire new thinking, build peer networks, and connect attendees to business mentors.
This 2-minute video highlights the six finalists of the first social innovation challenge for Native American entrepreneurs. We hosted this challenge in Jan 2016, awarding three winners with seed capital and business incubation.
The majority of Navajo entrepreneurs operate in the informal economy, but a few (like the talented Nanibaa Beck) are learning to leverage the web to establish and expend their businesses.
I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
I am over 18 years of age
My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States
Where are you making a difference?
Tuba City, Arizona, 86045
Focus Areas (required)
Business & Social Enterprise
Development & Prosperity
Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.
Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working towards the next level of expansion)
Website or social media URL(s) (optional)
1.Founding Story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed.
The leaders of the Tuba City Project -- Heather Fleming, Jessica Stago, and Natasha Hale -- all grew up on the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the US spanning Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. As youth, each of us witnessed the struggles of persistent poverty on the Navajo Nation, where the unemployment rate has consistently increased in the past three decades. Last year, the President of the Navajo Nation estimated that the Navajo unemployment rate is greater than 50%.
A colleague introduced us in 2013 after recognizing that we each shared the same motivation -- to enable the creation of small businesses on the Navajo Nation as a means to economic growth and the end of cyclical poverty facing our communities.
2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?
According to the SBA, America’s small businesses – some 25M strong – are the strength of the U.S. economy. However, this is not the case on the Navajo Nation. Nearby Albuquerque has 22,000 small business per resident and the Navajo Nation has 0.001 businesses per resident. The lack of entrepreneurial activity on Navajo has negative cascading effects on the economy, contributing to the lack of jobs, financial instability, and persistent poverty.
3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.
Our program will empower families to define and expand their own livelihoods by removing institutional barriers to entrepreneurship (such as the multi-year process to leasing a site to operate your business), eroding social barriers (by increasing the reputation and visibility of indigenous entrepreneurs), and expanding their access to capital (social, human, and physical).
We are launching a 4000 square foot space where Native American entrepreneurs can access the resources they need to start and establish their business. The Tuba City Project space will be the first of its kind on the Navajo Nation, providing the infrastructure, expertise, and rental space. The space will enable entrepreneurs to leapfrog the common entrepreneurial barriers specific to the Navajo Nation -- such as lack of internet connectivity, lack of physical mailing addresses, and the 2-year leasing process to get access to land for your business -- by providing high-speed internet, business mailboxes, desk space and office space, as well as computers, creative and business software, and monthly workshops on branding, website design, financial planning, and leadership and team development.
4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.
The physical presence of our space will signal permanence, signify change, and support the correlation between entrepreneurship and Native American cultural identity. This is important because for the past four years the Tuba City Project team has been able to virtually incubate 24 Navajo-owned small businesses and engage ~400 community members at our entrepreneurship events, but to make a dent in this prolific problem requires more effort. We now see that in order to bridge the gaps in the entrepreneurial ecosystem requires consistent presence and access for potential entrepreneurs.
5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?
Six of the seven banks serving the 27,413 square miles of the Navajo Nation are in the outside border towns. That is one bank for every 28,500 residents, most of which live in the rural areas, sometimes hours from the closest bank. Additionally, entrepreneurs who can access a bank will face hurdles when applying for a business loan. Tribal land is leased by the federal government, meaning most residents on the Navajo Nation cannot own their land or homes, leaving them little to no collateral.
5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:
6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?
There are ample business incubator and co-working spaces in the Southwest, most of which are located in inaccessible urban areas that require a several hour drive. Additionally, urban centers cannot address the unique needs of small businesses located on tribal lands. For example, a co-working space or business incubator in Phoenix would not know how to navigate the 163 steps involved in the business site lease process on the Navajo Nation. In response to this, Navajo Technical University created a space that can provide office space for 6 entrepreneurs on the Eastern edge of the reservation.
7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?
We work with an independent evaluation firm to monitor our theory of change to guiding our activity. Every activity or initiative we take on is designed to target one or more of four target outcomes: an increase in social capital for Native American entrepreneurs, an increase in human capital, an increase in financial and physical capital, and improved social and economic agency. In the past year, our initiatives touched 300 Native American entrepreneurs or prospective entrepreneurs in the Southwest through 8 events and 2 programs. According to our latest evaluation report, our activities resulted in 7 sustained mentorships, assisted 1300 people in accessing info about Navajo business registration, increased access to financial capital, helped 14 Navajo-owned businesses establish a brand and brand identity, enabled 3 entrepreneurs to access needed physical capital to expand, and more.
8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?
In the past our activities have been highly experimental in order to learn quickly and adapt. Our target beneficiary lived anywhere on the Navajo Nation (approximately the size of W. Virginia). Our new place-based strategy strengthens our impact. By targeting a single Navajo community we can track “membership” information, build relationships with and track progress of beneficiaries, and monitor the effects on the broader community. We intend to replicate this model in six communities around the Reservation to eventually make the entrepreneurship centers accessible to all residents.
8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?
Lobbying, Policy Change
9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?
In developing our plan for the 4000 square foot center for Navajo small businesses, we interviewed a variety of co-working and business incubation spaces around the US. Co-working spaces are a low-margin business and our target beneficiaries are the most impoverished in the United States. We expect that 75% of our activity will require consistent subsidy in order to make services accessible to Native American entrepreneurs. The remaining 25% will be funded through membership fees and services.
10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?
The FT team includes Jessica Stago, Natasha Hale, and Heather Fleming. Jessica serves as the Program Manager of business incubation and has 15+ years experience working as a business consultant in native communities in Northern Arizona. Natasha serves as the Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust’s Native America Program and is also the Associate Director of the Colorado Plateau Foundation. Heather is presently a Principal at Catapult Design, building the capacity of social entrepreneurs.
Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)
Native American or Alaska Native (for example: Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe, Mayan, Aztec, Native Village of Barrow Inupial Traditional Government, Nome Eskimo Community)
Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)
Communities of color
How did you hear about this challenge?