A few weeks ago, I traveled to Tuba City, Arizona, to facilitate a session for the 2018 Change Labs workshop. Change Labs is an initiative co-organized by Catapult Design and the Native American Business Incubator Network (NABIN). Over the past few years, multiple Change Labs workshops have been organized with the goal of supporting existing Navajo-run businesses and helping more Native people see a clear path to entrepreneurship.

Site of the 2018 Change Labs

Small business owners in the Navajo Nation face a lot of challenges, starting with infrastructure. The Nation is roughly the same size as the state of West Virginia, but a significant portion of that area is disconnected from cell phone service, internet, landlines, and even water. Local regulations make it complicated to get a new business off the ground within the boundaries of the reservation. But the biggest barrier of all seems to be the pervasive sense of cultural apathy stemming from a long history of mistreatment, limited resources, and lack of opportunities.

At Change Labs, I co-hosted a session titled Indigenizing Apps: how to create digital tools for cultural preservation, your community, and beyond with Corey Ashley, founder of the Diné Adóone’é app. Our goal was to walk participants through a user-centered approach to identifying and designing a mobile app, then send them off with the foundation needed to continue testing and iterating on their ideas.

Screenshots from Corey Ashley’s Diné Adóoné’e app

While some attendees came out of pure interest in the subject matter, others came for practical tools and advice. One high school sophomore who stopped by the Change Labs tent seemed already well versed in the local political system and was looking forward to studying governance in college. A middle-schooler who wants to be an engineer sketched out a very promising app for sharing Navajo stories with users about geographical areas and landmarks close to where the user is when they open it.

Co-organizer Natasha Hale brainstorms with Change Labs volunteers

One of the most urgent goals is to build a thriving business environment on the reservation that makes it possible for young people who have left for school or jobs to consider returning without the fear of not being able to make a living or support their families. For example, apps like Rez Rising allow users to find local products and services in real time using GPS data, making it easier to promote and find potential customers for many types of small businesses.

The weekend ended with an encouraging brainstorm session between Change Labs organizers and volunteers on other ways to encourage and support Native entrepreneurship. We heard about exciting upcoming work being done by the organizers and their networks and helped them come up with more ideas on how to equip, serve, and grow the community of small business owners around and from the reservation.

Jessica C., Change Labs volunteer and student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff

Judging by the enthusiasm and innovation I saw at Change Labs, Native-led entrepreneurship has a bright future. If you want to learn more about Native-owned businesses and ways you can help support and promote them, here are a few places you can start:

And don’t forget to check out some awesome Native-owned businesses and initiatives run by and connected to other Change Labs volunteers:

Looking to use technology to empower a passionate community? You’re speaking our language. Let’s talk.