University of Arizona gets funding to support and develop Native entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs from Arizona’s tribal nations can develop their small businesses with help from the University of Arizona through a new program aimed at providing support for developing tribal economies.

The program, dubbed Native FORGE, will provide and facilitate high-quality entrepreneurship development and support services to underserved communities in Tucson and the 22 federally recognized Tribes in Arizona, according to the University of Arizona.



“Native FORGE is a community program,” Arizona FORGE Founding Director Brian Ellerman told the Arizona Mirror

Ellerman said the program will put a call out for interest to all 22 tribal nations in Arizona, and whichever tribe can successfully recommend five entrepreneurs from their community will be able to join the program.

“We want to put the call out to everybody,” he said.

The program is limited to just five participants, Ellerman said, because that is the number they can successfully fund by bringing them to Tucson to participate in the program.

Native FORGE is a new program launched as part of the University of Arizona’s successful unit Arizona FORGE, which stands for Finding Opportunities and Resources to Grow Entrepreneurs. 

Arizona FORGE provides education and startup acceleration for student and community ventures, according to the University.

“The University of Arizona is committed to making more resources available to the tribes, and Native FORGE is an important program to encourage tribal entrepreneurship and build local tribal economies,” Levi Esquerra, the University of Arizona’s senior vice president of the Native American advancement and tribal engagement, said in a press release.

Ellerman said the tribal-focused program will be using the curriculum from the Arizona FORGE program, which will teach the participants the vocabulary and concepts of new business formation. The curriculum will also be culturally specific. 

The program will also provide a WiFi hotspot and laptop if the entrepreneurs need them to make sure there are as few technical limitations as possible.

“We want to try to empower these five entrepreneurs to be the experts (and) be the consultants to their own tribe,” Ellerman said.“They’re gonna become the experts.”

In turn, Ellerman said, that will help the tribal nation assess their economy to then leverage out their strengths as well as point out areas that could use support.

As part of the program, participants will also be assigned a dedicated mentor-in-residence who will provide coaching and advising to participating Native American entrepreneurs. The Native FORGE program’s mentor-in-residence is Rafael F. Tapia, Jr., who is a citizen of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Tapia will work with the Native entrepreneurs throughout the program. 

Tapia said the program is matching a powerhouse like the University of Arizona, which has the resources, with tribal communities because some of the biggest challenges Indigenous communities face is access to resources and capital.

Participants of the program are going to have access to a variety of skill sets, Tapia said, and there are entrepreneurs from Indigenous communities looking for support and resources. And they’re looking for ways to connect to others that can maybe help them pave the way for them to be successful. 

Tapia said his job is helping them make those connections.

“We have promising entrepreneurs that I think could greatly benefit,” he said. 

The goal of Native FORGE is to leverage the program’s resources into Indigenous communities, Tapia said, not just waiting for people to come to the University of Arizona. He said he hopes once the entrepreneurs are in a position where they have reached a level to give back, they’ll return the support to their tribal community.

The University of Arizona received a five-year, $500,000 matching grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to establish Native FORGE.

In 2018, the U.S. Small Business Administration reported that less than 0.8% of Arizona businesses were Native American-owned, according to the University of Arizona.

Native FORGE aims to help close those gaps by supporting Arizona tribes’ efforts to create and implement viable strategies to build capacity for job growth.

They hope to get their first cohort selected as soon as possible because they’ll be participating in the inaugural Native FORGE Annual Conference on Nov. 2. 

While the federal grant is good for only five years, Ellerman said he hopes that it will be successful enough to attract additional funding to continue the program beyond the grant.

Ellerman said this is a chance for Native entrepreneurs to come and meet people who could potentially invest in their businesses. 

“I can’t wait for that first investment,” he said.

By the second year, the University of Arizona said it hopes to develop additional locations to host Native FORGE, including on tribal nations. That way they can provide resources and technical equipment to train and support entrepreneurs, small businesses, and new and existing ventures within their communities.

Another part of the Native FORGE program is to help tribes improve their ability to visualize and leverage their data, the university said in a press release, and they’re working in coordination with the university’s Native Peoples Technical Assistance Office.

Through this collaboration, Native FORGE will provide technical assistance and training in survey construction, survey administration, data security, and data analysis for tribes. They will also work on developing a web portal of resources that will include public data for tribal use.

“The Native FORGE model recognizes tribal sovereignty as fundamental in our approach to technical assistance,” Claudia Nelson, director of the Native Peoples Technical Assistance Office, said in a written statement. 

Data collection and reporting among tribal nations have historically been inaccurate, yielding small sample sizes and high margins of error, according to the university. 

Being able to provide accurate data collection and reporting is critical for tribal governments, community organizations, and locally owned businesses, the university said, because it helps tribes set strategic economic and financial goals.

“Our model provides the tools and training for tribal nations to develop their systems of data collection, data sharing, and management, based on the unique needs of each tribal nation with whom we collaborate,” Nelson added.

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