Five entrepreneurs with San Carlos Apache Tribe make up the inaugural Native FORGE cohort

Native American flags around the fountain at Old Main

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe flag (left) and the Tohono O'odham Nation flag stand in a display with other flags from Arizona's Indigenous tribes at the Berger Memorial Fountain outside Old Main.

Native FORGE, a University of Arizona program focused on supporting entrepreneurs in Arizona's tribal communities, has selected five entrepreneurs from the San Carlos Apache Tribe for the program's inaugural cohort.

Being named to the cohort means the five entrepreneurs – whose businesses include convenience stores, an events equipment rental service and a quilting company – will receive mentorship and technical assistance over the next year to help grow their businesses.

The entrepreneurs will meet with potential mentors and investors at the first Native FORGE Conference on Wednesday at Roy Place in downtown Tucson. As part of the conference, the Entrepreneuring 101 Panel will cover topics including business structure, operating on tribal and non-tribal lands, understanding products and target markets, and more.

"Our long-term goal is to build up our local economy by way of small businesses," said Kodee Goseyun, economic development specialist for the San Carlos Apache Tribe. "I feel that Native FORGE is right in line with our goals in San Carlos, and for them to assist and foster our small businesses is amazing."

Native FORGE is a program within Arizona FORGE, which provides education and startup acceleration for student and community ventures. A part of the university's Office for Research, Innovation and Impact, the program's name stands for Finding Opportunities and Resources to Grow Entrepreneurs.

Announced in August, Native FORGE is funded through a five-year, $500,000 matching grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The program aims to reach all 22 of Arizona's federally recognized tribes with five years.

Rafael Tapia Jr.

Rafael Tapia Jr.

Native FORGE will partner tribal entrepreneurs with mentor-in-residence Rafael Tapia Jr., who will advise them throughout the year. The program also will provide entrepreneurs with laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots – much needed technology in rural areas.

Tapia, a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and graduate of the Eller College of Management's Master of Business Administration program, is vice president of programs at Partnership With Native Americans, an organization that serves hundreds of tribal communities across nine states.

"Working with these entrepreneurs is an exciting opportunity for both FORGE and the tribal community," Tapia said. "The University of Arizona learns more about how to best support the needs of tribal businesses, and the entrepreneurs gain resources and education they can share and use to scale their businesses."

Native FORGE cohort represents wide range of businesses

The San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, just east of Globe and northeast of Tucson, spans Gila, Graham and Pinal counties. It comprises four districts that each manage their own economic enterprises, tribal organizations that oversee collections of businesses the tribe owns. Economic enterprise managers from two districts – the Bylas District Economic Enterprise and the Seven Mile Wash Economic Enterprise – are part of the new Native FORGE cohort.

Alice Juan with the Bylas District Economic Enterprise runs the Mt. Turnbull Apache Market, a convenience store and gas station, as well as the Wickiup Grill restaurant. Both are in the small town of Bylas. Juan also runs the Bylas Incubator, which offers business services and office space to other local businesses.

Goseyun said Native FORGE's guidance is likely to be "instrumental" in helping grow the businesses, particularly the restaurant and incubator.

Rachelyn Kenton manages the Seven Mile Wash Economic Enterprise, overseeing another convenience store and gas station called the Seven Mile Wash Marketplace, as well as an auto-repair shop. Kenton, Goseyun said, has extra building space that will allow her to expand, and he hopes Native FORGE can provide resources to guide the growth.

Brian Ellerman

Brian Ellerman

Davida Olivar owns Hometown Events, which rents canopies, tables, chairs and other equipment for local events. As part of the Native FORGE cohort, Olivar hopes to learn how to acquire more rental contracts from governmental agencies, Goseyun said.

As the owner of Apache Fuel and Public Management, Tristan Sneezy provides trash and waste removal services, as well as general clean-up and maintenance services for roads and local parks. Sneezy hopes to expand his contracts beyond the reservation to other neighboring communities, Goseyun said.

Davison "Beejay" Ward Jr. owns and runs Sewn by Beejay, where he creates handmade quilts and pillows. The technical equipment provided by Native FORGE ­– particularly the laptop and Wi-Fi hotspot – will help Ward with his quilt designs, Goseyun said.

"This program is intended to be a two-way communication, where tribal entrepreneurs gain business resources they can implement and share within their own communities and the University of Arizona learns how to leverage assets to best support the specific needs of tribal entrepreneurs," said Brian Ellerman, executive director of Arizona FORGE.