Health-Food Business Taps Into its Native American Roots
As the only full-blooded Native American on the Professional Golfers Association of America Tour, Notah Begay III is keenly aware that thousands of young people on U.S. reservations suffer from obesity and Type 2 diabetes. "This could be one of the first generations to not outlive their parents," Begay says. "It's an epidemic that tribal leadership is not talking about enough."
So when Begay branched out as an entrepreneur, he did so with a philanthropic bent, promoting physical fitness and healthful food choices for Native American children. In 2010 he founded KivaSun Foods, which sells healthful bison steaks as well as bison, salmon and turkey burgers. In December KivaSun will begin donating 1 percent of its annual global sales to the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3), which supports Native American health through education and sports initiatives.
The foundation--which this year organized soccer, golf and wellness programs for 8,000 Native American children, mostly in New Mexico--has also raised more than $4 million over the past five years from annual golf outings on Oneida Nation property in upstate New York. In September the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation presented NB3 with its annual Steve Patterson Award for Excellence in Sports Philanthropy.
"This is a lifelong commitment for me," Begay says. "I'm going to be doing this for the next 40 to 50 years, because that's how deep this problem goes."
A Stanford grad with a degree in economics, Begay was a three-time All-American golfer and a teammate of Tiger Woods. On the PGA Tour he has won four tournaments and earned more than $5 million. But those heady credentials didn't do him much good when he ventured into the ruthlessly competitive food industry.
"Nobody cares that you graduated from Stanford, that you're a philanthropist, that you can drive a golf ball 300 yards," he says. "They care if it tastes good and it's a good price."
From the start, Begay--who is half Navajo, one-quarter San Felipe and one-quarter Isleta--was determined to create a company rooted in Native American traditions. Today KivaSun has an agreement to source as much bison as possible from the 57-tribe InterTribal Buffalo Council. "I basically wanted to look at establishing a national brand under Native American ownership that promoted authentic aspects of Native American culture," Begay says.
Within the U.S. food industry, KivaSun remains a minor player, with a full-time work force of just three people. (COO Mark Freeland, a teammate of Begay's at Stanford and his longtime business partner, declined to provide annual sales figures.) But this year the company achieved some extraordinary success with two of the biggest names in American retail. In June Costco began selling KivaSun bison burgers in 51 stores in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The following month, Wal-Mart began stocking KivaSun bison and turkey burgers in 180 stores in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.
For Begay, sustaining tribal culture is just as important as helping kids make healthy choices. "Most of these tribes have been integrated with buffalo for more than 500 years," he says. "Our mission has always been to be reflective of the communities that we work with, and this is a way for us to do that."