Grant funds green business incubator on Navajo Nation

Oct 9, 2012

The sun bears down on Brett Isaac and his team of workers. They’re bolting solar panels onto a large array at the Tolani Lake Enterprises office building.

“This is 39 panels. And these PV panels will produce 9.9 kw every hour,” Isaac says.  

That’s more kilowatts than this non-profit organization on the Navajo Nation will use.  

So they’ll sell the rest to the utility company.

“Tolani Lake Enterprise, what we’re about is economic development. But we’re about sustainable economic development.”   

That’s Bill Edwards. He is the program director for Tolani Lake Enterprises.

He and Isaac are working with a Navajo business incubator project at the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology.

They are part of a team of business experts who will mentor Navajo entrepreneurs looking to start green enterprises.

A $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding the project.

It will also pay for business training sessions throughout the reservation’s western region.

Edwards says many types of businesses could fall under the definition of sustainable by just reducing the amount of gasoline burned just to buy groceries.  

“In our community, right here at Tolani Lake, we have close to an 80-mile round trip to buy fresh produce,” Edwards says.  

NACET’s president Russ Yelton says that unmet need alone presents a great business opportunity. 

“Think of someone who would come to Flagstaff, purchase large quantities of vegetables and then go into the various Native American communities and set up a truck and sell those. Well, that’s green because they’re keeping those people in those communities from having to exit those communities to buy food and then bring it back,” he says.   

Isaac says there are also opportunities for solar-energy entrepreneurs.

He’s the project manager of a community-owned business that installs solar panels throughout the reservation.

“As we start to get more experienced in the industry, you start to see where areas could be localized,” he says. “Just knowing the engineering and design, we can actually fabricate or do something at a much lower cost and we don’t have to have it shipped halfway across the world to get it.” 

Isaac is hoping to design custom solar panels that feature Navajo-inspired artwork, making something practical also something beautiful.

And the incubator team wants to encourage entrepreneurs to incorporate Navajo culture into their business plans.

Roberto Nutlouis is a mentor on the green incubator team.

He says Navajo communities want business enterprises that complement traditional Navajo activities. 

“An example would be an individual that works on value added in agricultural production,” he says. “A lot of our people still farm or ranch but there’s no infrastructure in place at the moment to help our people to get a fair value for the products they produce like wool.”

Yelton says NACET will advise business up-starts on issues like marketing, cash flow and patents. 

And they can help with seed money.

“NACET launched our own revolving loan fund,” Yelton says. “So we now have money that we can loan out directly in partnership with a local bank to those businesses and entrepreneurs.”

Isaac says he and other Native American business experts will be able to offer an insider’s perspective on doing business on the reservation.

He says bureaucratic roadblocks from the tribal, federal and local governments scare off aspiring business owners.

So he’s hoping to share this advice with would-be business owners:

“Do what you want to do, build it how you want to see it and make it work in a way that’s fully efficient, and then work through the problems,” he says. “Then work through the barriers and the regulatory. If you give them a chance to say no, in order to cover themselves, they’re going to say no. So give them all the options to say yes.” 

The business incubator project will take applications from aspiring Navajo business owners through the end of October.

Entrepreneurs can learn more at a sustainable development summit Tuesday at the High Country Conference Center in Flagstaff.