Cherylin Atcitty opened the Blue Room Gallery in Taos, New Mexico just prior to COVID-19 spreading across the United States. While she initially planned to sell products that she and her family made, Atcitty quickly expanded the concept to include arts and craft work from other Native American creators.
To get through the economic shock of the pandemic, Blue Room’s strategy hinged on a combination of “strategic spending” on startup costs and growing the store’s inventory, said Atcitty, a Navajo tribal member.
“I was a new business. I didn’t have a status quo. I was adapting, I was reading books, I was taking classes and learning how I can be more diverse in my market. I really worked with my customers to find out what they really need,” Atcitty told Tribal Business News. “I really had to be very cautious and very strategic with the money I was making — being smart with my money and reinvesting it into my business.”
The Blue Room continues to expand as New Mexico’s art market scene slowly comes back to life. To take advantage of the reawakening industry, Atcitty wants to reach beyond the local market by adding an online component to the business and growing the advertising budget for Blue Room.
Atcitty is making those moves after securing an investment from the Matriarch Creative Fund, a microloan program managed by Albuquerque-based nonprofit Native Women Lead. Matriarch Creative Fund selected Blue Room as part of a new round of microloan recipients announced in December.
Atcitty plans to use the funding to secure new signage for the Blue Room, as well as take the first steps toward building an online presence.
“It is very beneficial,” Atcitty said of the microloan. “I needed the cash flow to expand my business. Because I was a startup, something with low interest was very helpful to me at this point.”
The program chose 20 entrepreneurs across a range of creative disciplines to receive low-interest microloans of $5,000 to $10,000 each. The funds aim to stimulate growth, covering everything from operational and supply expenses to marketing to customer retention.
Native Women Lead administers the fund in partnership with Nusenda Credit Union and New Mexico Community Capital, providing “wrap-around support” such as technical assistance, mentorship, and financial education for members of the program.
In addition to addressing Native Americans’ lack of access to credit, the wrap-around support leads to Native women paying their loans back faster and more consistently, said Jaime Gloshay, co-director of Native Women Lead.
“Part of that is just ensuring that they have the right tools and education for them to build credit but also how to handle repayment as well,” Gloshay said. “A lot of people who get the wrap-around support pay off their loans faster than anyone else. They’re also increasing their credit scores, and they’re just getting that experience with the financial institutions.”
Gloshay said the program targeted creatives such as chefs, artists and fashion designers who have dealt with pandemic-related disruptions to sales.
“For example, Indian Market didn’t happen in 2020, and there was a little interaction in 2021, but a lot of the in-person markets haven’t started back up. This is really just helping to support entrepreneurs still in business and still growing, but who need that injection to give them a little bit of push,” Gloshay said. “We tried to time it with the holiday season so they had funds to meet holiday demand.”
The microloans address the tenuous relationship between many Native Americans and standard lending institutions by foregoing “traditional underwriting criteria,” Gloshay said.
The Matriarch Fund doesn’t distribute capital based on credit scores or collateral, but rather on building new relationships with its recipients.
“Indigenous people have not had access to banking and have been excluded, and we want to underwrite in a different way,” Gloshay said. “Trying to obtain a business loan is really hard for a lot of the people we serve. The microloan is a first-step program for people learning what financing their business means.”
Those recipients can earn loan forgiveness through participating in programmatic classes and events, which is something Atcitty said she plans to do.
“That helps me not only repay the loan, but make new contacts. I enjoy the classes: There’s something new every time, and I make new connections,” Atcitty said.
Atcitty’s experience highlights the fund’s goal with the program to create a network of entrepreneurs who are growing and learning together, building credit and expanding from there.
“This program is really designed on relationship and commitment, so the folks are incentivized to get loan forgiveness so long as they participate in the programming, accessing the tools and resources,” Gloshay said. “That’s one way we were able to understand their business and their growth and their willingness to participate. We’re interested in developing relationships with the people in our network and our community.”
For now, the Matriarch Creative Fund focuses on microloans, but as support for Native Women Lead and its partner organizations grows, the coalition hopes to increase the dollar amount that it lends, Gloshay said.
In the meantime, the fund works in tandem with another Native Women Lead program called the Fair Trade Initiative to fund and support Indigenous creatives. That program buys products in bulk from participating New Mexico artists and sells them in seasonal subscription boxes.
“The intention is to put a big investment into their business by purchasing their product in bulk, and we do it in a way that they get to receive a lot of the money early on, so they’re not strapped for cash to make the product,” Gloshay said.
So far the program, which began in 2020, has supported 20 Native and women-owned businesses and provided direct investments totaling more than $50,000, according to Native Women Lead.
“We also promote their products through our network and social media, and it helps increase visibility with their business,” Gloshay said. “We see it as an investment and a support into the Indigenous economy. Right now, we’re very much in the pilot phase to see if this is something we can continue to sustain and support.”
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