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TUBA CITY, Ariz. — As the organization continues to adapt to operating in the COVID-19 era, Native business incubator ChangeLabs has started accepting applications for its 2021 spring incubator program. 

The year-long program is open to Native entrepreneurs in four states: Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Applications are due by Feb. 19.

ChangeLabs Director of Business Incubation Jessica Stago said the organization hopes to attract entrepreneurs who have the time and resources to launch their business and needed the guidance to follow through. 

“We are looking for those businesses that are ready to launch, or are ready for the investment of resources,” Stago said. “We’re also at the point where the program can really help propel the business. We’re really just looking for the right entrepreneur.”

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, ChangeLabs hosted quarterly visits throughout the year, bringing all of the entrepreneurs in a cohort together to build a sense of community and collaboration. As the pandemic shut down in-person gatherings just as the spring cohort started in 2020, ChangeLabs had to readjust its practices to go entirely virtual, Stago said. 

The group is taking the same approach in 2021, although that presents some new challenges to the application process given the issues in accessing virtual conferencing technology in some cases. 

With many of the incubator’s participants located on reservations across the American Southwest, internet access can be spotty at the best of times. Throughout the sudden virtual shift last year, ChangeLabs worked to get the cohort’s members consistent internet access when possible, but there was only so much the organization could do, Stago said.

As the 2021 session goes virtual from the outset, ChangeLabs wrestled with whether to consider available internet access in the application process.

“We want to remain inclusive, but we’re weighing — in this time of COVID — is that something we need to take into consideration? It’s not a question we’ve answered yet with this new application and I don’t think we will consider that,” Stago said. “If somebody wants to go through our program and they’re the right fit, I think we’ll do everything we can to make sure we can deliver our program to them.”

Even with internet access potentially addressed, Stago said the virtual format still leaves something to be desired for the participants.

“That collaboration between the incubator members and that sort of relationship building with other entrepreneurs has definitely been impacted,” Stago said. 

ChangeLabs still hopes to grow this year. The group has made a goal this year to start two cohorts, one in spring and one in fall. With some practice at the virtualization process, the organization hopes to get down to business faster than last year, according to Stago.

‘Heart work’

The incubator program carries entrepreneurs through the process of registering their business, comprehending tax issues, setting up financials and what Stago called “heart work.”

“We just need to spend time to get legal parts of their business set up, and then they can launch and get into the more ‘heart work’ of the business: Who’s your ideal customer? What’s your branding strategy, What’s your growth strategy?” Stago said.

The program starts by getting into the technical aspects of entrepreneurship, such as whether to register as an sole proprietor, an LLC, or a corporation, for example. 

“That has to do with evaluating the risk of the business, the size of the business, having a physical location,” Stago said. “We help them with things like where do you pay taxes, what kind of sales taxes do you need to pay.”

From there, the teams discuss financials, nailing down projections and laying out what accounting and bookkeeping will look like going forward.

After that, the program delves into branding with a subprogram called “Create and Elevate,” which is often a moment of realization for entrepreneurs seeing their business with a logo on it for the first time, Stago said.

“We take the entrepreneur and we pair them with a graphic designer and they work together to discuss their branding and come up with a logo. ‘Create and Elevate’ is really this sort of clash between the business minds of the entrepreneurs and the artistic minds of the graphic designers,” Stago said. “The focus of that is for the entrepreneur to see a logo and their branding come to life. It’s sort of like, ‘Wow, I’m really doing this.’”

Finally, the incubator program takes one more look at defining how the business operates, tweaks the financial projections a bit more, and if the entrepreneur is interested, ChangeLabs offers a $10,000 starter loan. 

The incubator program has helped jumpstart numerous successful businesses since its inception. Big Sky Soap owner Jennifer Himel started with the incubator program in July 2020, when she learned how to scale up her previously local business to an e-commerce operation, complete with shipping, packaging, and a fully featured website. 

“All the coaches there, especially Trish Rensink and Tim Deal, taught me a lot,” Himel told Tribal Business News for a prior report. “They spent a lot of time showing me and encouraging me.”

Improving economies

According to Stago, programs like ChangeLabs help develop entrepreneurs that in turn help develop their local economies and communities.

“I think that there’s been generations of entrepreneurs that we’ve all grown up with in our reservation communities out of necessity and survival. But there’s never been that acknowledgment that entrepreneurs are important for our communities,” Stago said. “If you look at our history, we’ve been through rapid changes over and over again, and the one thing that continues to provide food on the table for many families is that we respond, and we put our resources together so that we can figure out how to put food on the table every night, send the kids to school, and keep the home warm.”

Ensuring that entrepreneurs have the tools and resources for success means they will in turn bring that success back home to their families and friends, Stago added.

“This is really one of the most valuable resources we have as our own people,” she said. “This is going to fuel successful policy in economic development. We’ve done a lot of work to develop the incubator so we can develop entrepreneurs. But the bigger story is that these entrepreneurs are the ones that are going to lift us out of poverty.”

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About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News focusing on Native entrepreneurship, small business development, and the gaming industry. Based in Tulsa, Okla., Oxendine was previously a contributing writer for Native News Online, and his journalism has been featured in the Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, Source Magazine and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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