Restaurants, child care and sock connectors: Native youth have business on their minds

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Cooking has always been a passion for the 14-year-old Native American Evan Denny. He is only a freshman at South High School, but he already has a business plan to open his own restaurant, “The Teepee House,” serving authentic Native American food such as fry bread and Indian tacos. Denny received much of his inspiration for expressing culture through food from his grandmother.

“She makes a lot of cultural Native food, and that’s something I want to do,” he said. His favorite dishes include her tostadas and chili.

Denny isn’t the only student to have a small business plan. Seventy students from three partner schools in Minneapolis, South High School, Nawayee Center School, and Career Immersion High School at the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center, are all participating in a youth entrepreneur program organized and hosted this year by MIGIZI Communications. MIGIZI is a Minneapolis non-profit that provides technology training and education to the American Indian community.

Students’ ideas ranged from design firms to a construction company to sock connectors that keep socks together in the wash.

Presenting to judges

Each class met weekly with entrepreneur specialists Brandon Bagaason or Comanche Fairbanks to refine their business plans and prepare for presentation. On May 18th, the students presented their plans to a panel of judges. The judges included representatives from MicroGrants, Woodland Banks, and ASHOKA, as well as a business attorney.

Three winners were chosen and were given $1,000 grants to help them implement their business plans. The grants were provided by MicroGrants, a Minneapolis non-profit that gives small grants to low income people who have ideas that could help make them self-sufficient.

Nawayee Center student Maggie Robinson told judges about her plan to open a child care development center that would be open on weekends and would be affordable for low-income families.

“I love working with kids and in a lot of other places you have to be 18 to work with kids, so I want to open my own business,” she said.

Robinson was one of the three winners and plans to use the $1,000 grant to buy supplies. Other winners include Rianna Acevedo’s Tamales y Mas, and Chris Vargas’ Power Trust. Acevedo is working to open a restaurant centered on her family’s secret recipe for tamales. She plans to travel to Texas this summer to receive the recipe from her grandmother. Vargas hopes to open an independent construction company.

All three winners will continue working with a coach and will receive advice and instruction from experts. They will get help opening banks accounts and taking steps to implement their plans.

At the fair last month, students were judged in five categories. First was the executive summary, which included a clear overview of the plan. Next was the description of the business, featuring pricing, development, etc. Other categories included market analysis, management, financials, and the overall assessment of the business plan. Scores were then compiled and assessed and the winners chosen.

Building businesses to fight poverty

The Native Youth Entrepreneurship Fair is in the first year of a three-year federal grant from the Association for Native Americans in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It aims to foster a strong entrepreneurship presence among young Native Americans in hopes of building employment and incomes.

Poverty is high in many Native American communities. According to the U.S. Census, more then 28 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives lived in poverty in 2010 compared to 15.3 percent for the nation as a whole.

“It is important for everyone to get a chance,” said Glen McCluskey, a business lawyer who helped judge the entrepreneur competition. “Everyone has something to contribute, and the cultural aspects possible from Native Americans would be great to have represented.”

A business plan isn’t the only thing the students take away from this program. Participants also learn many life skills through team building activities, financial games, and critical thinking exercises.

“A lot of these fundamental entrepreneur skills can apply past the business plan,” said Fairbanks, the entrepreneurial teacher at South High and Nawayee Center School. “I teach the kids basic financial literacy and critical thinking skills for any situation. Overall I want to make it a fun learning experience.”

Trinidad Flores, a freshman from South High, hopes to open a distinctly Native design company titled N8ive and found the entrepreneur class inspiring.

“I think this program is very valuable to Natives,” he said. “Nowadays you see Natives on the street with drugs and stuff, but this program is important because it helps Natives be successful and proves that we can do what we want.”

This is exactly the impact that program director John Gwinn hopes to have. “We want to empower and teach students to have self confidence and to believe in themselves, even if they don’t open a business,” he said.