Empowering innovators: ChangeLabs opens entrepreneurship hub in Tuba City

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren joined Change Labs co-founders Heather Fleming and Jessica Stago at the ribbon cutting for the Change Labs entrepreneurship hub in Tuba City June 16. (Wendy Howell/NHO)

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren joined Change Labs co-founders Heather Fleming and Jessica Stago at the ribbon cutting for the Change Labs entrepreneurship hub in Tuba City June 16. (Wendy Howell/NHO)

TUBA CITY, Ariz. — There was a lot of excitement in Tuba City June 16 as Change Labs entrepreneurship hub opened its doors to the public following a ribbon cutting ceremony with guests that included Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and several Tuba City leaders.

The 1,400-square-foot event space, meeting area and community center is the first building of its kind for business owners, creatives and the entrepreneurial-curious on the Navajo Nation.

“This space is a place where we can meet each other. It's a space where ideas will be born. It's a space for partnerships,” said Heather Fleming, Change Labs’ co-founder and executive director. “We believe it's a space where businesses will be realized. And above all, is a space where we can start building community.”

The entrepreneurship hub is intended to serve as a permanent establishment for Change Labs, offering a range of business workshops, coaching sessions and incubation services. Additionally, it functions as a convenient drop-in office for both current and aspiring entrepreneurs, facilitating the exchange of knowledge and assistance in establishing and operating businesses within the reservation.

“The opening of our first entrepreneurship hub has been a long time in the making and fills a deep and urgent need on the reservation. Finally, entrepreneurs, creatives, and makers have a space to gather, work, learn, meet their peers and find support in making their ideas and visions a reality,” Fleming said.

The hub provides various amenities, including complimentary work desks, internet access, a copy and scanning center, an event space, as well as a meeting room that can be reserved for team collaborations, client interactions and vendor engagements.

Fleming told the crowd that getting the entrepreneurship hub built in Tuba City was a long process.

“The reason that we're all here today is we've achieved something that everyone told us was impossible,” she said. “We constructed a building the Navajo Nation's first hub for small businesses, and many of you who call Navajo or Hopi home, know that this was no small feat. When I lived in California, I started my first business in 2009. It was easy. I registered my business in a day in an office in downtown San Francisco. When I needed office space, I toured a few buildings that were available for rent, and I moved in within 30 days.”

But that’s not how it works on the reservation, Fleming said.

“That’s why this work is so important. Entrepreneurship and commerce are vital to our prosperity,” she said. “And this is something that our ancestors understood, as the speakers have said before me. Yet the fact that it took as many years as it did to get here is a testament to the difficult road that our entrepreneurs and artists face each day.”

Meeting a community need

Change Labs was created to promote and assist Native-owned small businesses on the Navajo and Hopi reservations to take steps toward economic self-sustainability.

Navajo small businesses grow at half the rate as the rest of the U.S., according to the organization.

They found the lack of infrastructure, limited small business financing, lack of support networks and mentors, and a history of exclusion from national and global economies impact Native startups.

Change Labs identified the need for a shared resource center based on common and recurring business challenges raised by the entrepreneurs attending its entrepreneurial workshops and events, which Change Labs has been hosting on the Navajo Nation since 2014.

The hub took five years to come to fruition as the organization faced a myriad of challenges.

“The issue of land and space is one of the most persistent obstacles for our communities’ prosperity. For those who want to establish and run a business or organization on the reservation, it’s often difficult and time-consuming to find physical space, then figure out what’s required and navigate bureaucracy,” said Change Labs co-founder Jessica Stago.

Government estimates have pegged unemployment on the reservation at around 50%, noted Fleming.

“We think a big portion of that number may be sole-proprietors—food vendors, artisans and jewelers who don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs. These are model Native entrepreneurs, because they do it for the love of the craft or to feed their families, not because they’re looking for an exit strategy or to amass a fortune.”

Nygren also spoke at the ribbon cutting and thanked the founders and contributors for their persistence in getting the entrepreneurship hub built.

“I've always talked about believing in our entrepreneurs, believing in our people that they are more than capable that they can be successful here on Navajo and that they should prefer to live on the Navajo Nation,” he said. “What can we do to make it change? We’ve got to work with counsel, we’ve got to work with other outside organizations, just like how we worked with the Tuba City Chapter president. We can continue to push the pace because all of us are sick and tired of hearing the answer ‘no’, and who's in the way and what's not possible. And I truly believe that change labs will continue to push the pace forward.”

The new entrepreneurship hub was made possible by the generous support of the Flora Family Foundation, the Kauffman Foundation, Common Future, the Reis Family Foundation and Grand Canyon Trust.

The hub is open to the public. Anyone living on, running a business, or interested in starting a business on the reservation will have access to the hub’s facilities and services and Change Labs’ trainings and workshops.

More information about Change Labs is available at nativestartup.org.

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