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From Indian Country Comes Word: 'Native Business' Wants to Empower Native Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship means much more there than casinos and tribal gift shops. Just ask Gary and Carmen Davis.
From Indian Country Comes Word: 'Native Business' Wants to Empower Native Entrepreneurship
Image credit: Whitney Patterson Photography
Entrepreneur Staff
Associate Editor
14 min read

Gary and Carmen Davis are a husband-wife entrepreneurial team with a string of business ventures to their credit (Red Vinyl Records, Litefoot Enterprises, Native StyleClothing and Davis Strategy Group being a partial list). The couple are also proud Native Americans -- he’s Cherokee; she, Makah -- who aim to strengthen the profile and success of entrepreneurs building businesses across Indian Country.

To do that, the Davises, from their base in Bellevue, Wash., have formed a multimedia/networking company, Native Business, which this November will launch a print magazine focusing on indigenous businesses; they’ll also host a “Native Business Summit” next May in Tulsa, Okla.

Further, the Davises are using their high profile in the Native community to get out their message of Native entrepreneurial empowerment and networking via social media, podcasts, videos and a branded content studio, where they’ll consult with advertisers to promote their products.

Related: Celebrate Native American Heritage Month by Meeting These 7 Fantastic Female Business Leaders

If Gary looks familiar, that's because he has a lengthy resume in TV, movies and music. He starred in the movie The Indian in the Cupboard and appeared in Mortal Kombat, among other films; he’s had a music career as the first Native American rap artist (stage name: Litefoot) and has acted in high-profile TV shows, including House of Cards and CSI Miami.

Carmen, meanwhile, has led the Davis Strategy Group and boasts two decades of marketing and media experience. She's also served as president of the nonprofit organization the Association for American Indian Development, and its initiative, the Reach the Rez (RTR) program.

The following is a recent interview with the couple, edited for clarity and length.

Let’s start with a geographic definition of “Indian Country”: For the purposes of Native Business, you're thinking about the 48 continental states as well as the indigenous people of Alaska and Hawaii, right?

Gary: I would like to think that when we think of "Indian country," we think of a sort of a borderless aggregation of all of our people, and of [the term Indian Country] congealing into a phrase that is inclusive of us as a people.

How do you describe your new business?

Gary: The multimedia company is "Native Business." And the components of that are Native Business magazine and Native Business podcasts. Our core company is really our creative content production, much in the way that other companies have a component that helps create content and works with advertisers to hone their message and deploy it. That's exactly what Native Business studios will be.

Some 78 percent of the 5.2 million Native American today live outside tribal lands. But for the other 22 percent, life can be isolating, impoverished and beset with not only strict federal regulations but overt racism. Any idea as to the number of tribes? And Native businesses?

Gary: There is an ongoing effort to really hone and understand how many businesses are exactly out there. I think the Small Business Administration has some data as far as tribal- and native-owned businesses. With the new tribes that were just recognized, I think that brought the number of tribes up to 573 [a number confirmed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs].

Related: 4 Leadership Lessons From Native America

OK, so what is it that the general U.S. population doesn't know about Native entrepreneurs and businesses? What misconceptions are out there?

Carmen: I feel like there is quite a bit that people know about the casinos, but a lot of misconceptions: like whether we pay taxes and [the misperception that] "Well, you guys get a lot of money from the casinos." Also, with our treaties and the United States government, and why we're given some of the programs and healthcare [benefits] and things like that.

Gary: I would go to the fact that entrepreneurship is one of the most traditional activities in our community -- trading and working together through commerce. Going all the way back into our tribal ancestry across this country, [entrepreneurship] is something we did to sustain and create engagement between not just our own individual tribal communities but also abroad.

If you look at places like Cahokia [an ancient trading center near modern-day St. Louis] and, down in Mexico, Tenochtitlán [Mexico City]: These are places where people went to work and engaged in trade on a daily basis. And they were thriving communities. … With the experience that [Native Americans have] had in this country over the past several hundred years, that's been replaced. We want to bring it back, to remind our people that self-sufficiency and self-determination can be exercised, through exploring the ways that you can provide great things to the world.

We've been very blessed to be able to work really hard, and with a "where-there's-a will-there's-a-way" sort of mentality, to push forward and reinvest in our companies and just keep growing.

It's just been a never-ending state of growing and then investing and having to struggle again. But that has created diversity for us. And so we've been able to thrive; and it's been through sheer determination and an incredible work ethic [that we've survived]; and, again, I think we have to credit our ancestors for that sort of resilience.

Carmen, you mentioned the highest-profile Native businesses: casinos. There's been a lot of controversy whether they've had a positive or negative effect on tribal culture. What do you think?

Carmen: I feel like it's been, overall, positive. Just the whole gaming space has been positive, and it's brought opportunity to a lot of communities where they're isolated. Generally, there's only a handful that are truly successful.

Gary: Rather than "successful," I would say "more successful" than others. Less than half of the tribes in the country [238] are in gaming.  

When you think about Native American businesses, what tribes stand out in terms of entrepreneurial activity?

Gary: I would say, of course, the Navajo Nation and the Cherokee Nation, being the two largest tribes, are of course doing great things. Then you can look at the Seminole tribe in Florida doing amazing things -- the hotel they're building down in Ft. Lauderdale-Miami -- and they raised the bar with the purchase of the Hard Rock international brand.

There are tribes that have invested in real estate and have an amazing portfolio of real estate holdings: If you look at Alaska, it's amazing to go to Anchorage and to see the skyscrapers there that all have Alaska Native corporation names at the top of those structures.

I know of organizations like American Indian Business leaders and the Native American Business Alliance. How did you you start your concept, and will it be different?

Carmen: It came about very authentically; and just as you’re asking about what tribes are successful, what we want to do is shine a light on all of those successes and connect those dots and bring them all together. Gary, in his previous positions, has organized events. And he and I over the years have traveled Indian Country and had the privilege of being in the communities and seeing the different successes; of having conversations over dinner with some of these people. And [our question is] Why doesn’t the world know about these successes?

How are you going to monetize? Are you going to have staff?

Gary: We do have staff. And we knew that to do this, and do it to the degree we knew it needs to be done for Indian country -- and for creating conversations outside of Indian Country and advancing different partnerships and opportunities for tribes and Native American entrepreneurs and Alaska Native communities -- that we really had to be able to sustain it.

So the Native Business revenue model will initially be based on advertising revenues generated from both the print and digital versions of the magazine. The print version will be free of charge. However, a subscription fee will be charged for the digital version.

Native Business will also be sustained by registration and sponsorship revenues from our Native Business summits. And, as the listener base for our Native Business podcast and viewership of our This Week in Native Business news program grows, we will monetize those components via advertising opportunities.

It is as important for us to look internally at opportunity as it is to look outside of Indian Country for opportunities, to look for partnerships, to break down the ambiguity, the anomaly that many people may not even [know about Native businesses].

What are some of the challenges you face?

Gary: It's the situation in the cards we've been dealt. Given our history in this country, our real, true story hasn't been told, so people just don't know. They know the stereotypes, they know what they've been able to gather in bits and pieces. But they don't know truly the amazing story of our people and the resilience our people have demonstrated over centuries of pushing forward, finding ways to survive under the harshest of economic conditions.

And that resilience is probably one of the greatest testaments to entrepreneurship that may have never been known. It's literally been folks pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and finding ways to push forward.

Doing business in Indian Country can be a complex endeavor, as there is no clear-cut path as to how to unilaterally engage and present business opportunities to tribal and Alaska Native decision-makers. However, creating partnerships and expanding investor relations is imperative in growing the economy of Indian Country.

The largest corporations have, for the most part, not been able to navigate on their own the complexities of engaging tribal decision-makers across many industry fronts. Companies like our Davis Strategy Group regularly consult with companies, to connect them to decision-makers. … In addition to Alaska Native and Village corporations, there are now 573 federally recognized tribes.

Each of these sovereign nations, as well as each Alaska Native corporation, has their own protocols and ways of conducting business. Given that tribes and Alaska Native corporations generate millions of dollars worth of economic impact and provide thousands of jobs in their surrounding communities, there are many companies nationwide that seek to do business with them. Advertisers in Native Business magazine will be able to create awareness about their products and services to readers, many of whom happen to be tribal and Alaska Native leaders and decision-makers.

Why are you two the right people to do this?

Gary: Carmen mentioned the relationships that we've had throughout the years. We’ve created businesses to support that work. And this dates back to when gaming was just getting started and mostly was represented by bingo operations. And there weren't any ulterior motives. It [sprang] from, "This is what I feel compelled to do: to try to make a difference in [Native life] and lift folks up and try to motivate and inspire my people."  

What is important to get through for readers is that those relationships that have been built over the past 25 years have provided us a unique Rolodex, to be able to reach out to folks. They know that if Gary Davis and Carmen Davis are going to do something, they have always been successful.

So, it was a real hard thing to sit down and look through every bit of native business and decide, "What are we going to do and how are we going to do it?" to make sure that it doesn't fail, and that it will succeed, so that it can be a testament to everybody out there in Indian Country as to what is possible.

We're going to reach out to the folks that have been supportive. But the most important thing is that we build those bridges between areas where there may not have been that much opportunity. I've been blessed, and Carmen has been blessed, with opportunities to create relationships outside of Indian Country: multimedia platforms that we have access to that we've used and utilized for our own private businesses and [can now] bring back and share with the rest of Indian Country.

Are you going to promote various Indian entrepreneurs to the outside world? I'm still trying to get a handle on your core business.

Gary: Absolutely. It’s to create the avenues and build the bridges between opportunity and outside investment: to look at what's possible, for products to be sold. I mean, if you look at supplier diversity across corporate America, Indian Country is really nonexistent, and we need to fix that. We have incredible tribal and Native-owned businesses that should be engaged in those diversity operations. And when you look at workforce development, there should be more native people employed at these corporations.

Building those bridges is a huge value-add. Bringing people together from across Indian Country at our events is a huge value-add … to look at ways that tribes can invest with tribes, and where we can share some suppliers say, as well as the event [the Native American Summit].

Carmen: The event is a big component. And there will be various different revenue streams there as well.

Gary: People will support the magazines through advertising dollars, support the website through advertising digitally. We will engage folks through our Native Business studios who might use our expertise and our abilities as a service.

For the event, there’ll be registrations; there’ll be business opportunities; we’re not looking at participating in business opportunities that people organically learn about, but if we write a story that shines a light on some great business and those products get picked up by Whole Foods, God bless 'em!

Your site describes letting readers know about business trends. Are there any trends and challenges that have been particularly impactful on Indian Country, considering how remote many tribes are?

Gary: If you just look at the way that ecommerce could benefit most businesses in Indian Country, there's a struggle in regard to broadband capabilities; and, so, if we can help them find ways to circumnavigate those obstacles and move forward, it creates opportunity. And, if they can become self-sufficient and provide for themselves, it's a great day for us.

There's always a struggle with infrastructure, a struggle with resources, to be able to do the things you need to do for your community. And oftentimes, dependency on the federal government and funding from the federal government just doesn't cut it.

What we're really pushing forward is creating sustainability. So, what opportunities are out there that we might be seeing in other communities or other underserved communities that just have not made their way to Indian Country sheerly because people may not know how to engage?

Where are these people you're targeting? Tribal lands? The cities?

Gary: Our people are all over this country. We've been getting emails from entrepreneurs who are kind of almost finding [in our project] a safe haven to find answers or ask questions or look for resources.

We're going to do our very best to make sure that we help these folks move forward. You've got great businesses in Seattle, Wash., located in Pike Place Market. You've got amazing restaurants that are native owned in Dallas, Texas. You've got federal contracting folks that have locations across this country that are doing business in Dubai and in other places where people wouldn’t even know Native Americans are owning and operating.

Related: What Happened When I Broke the Rules of Entrepreneurship

So your question basically is testament to what we need to do to help break down the barriers of who's doing it and how can we support it. We have to be better at communicating that message to the world; that's what Native Business is there for.

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