Native FORGE welcomes newest cohort of entrepreneurs from Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe

people gathered around a conference table watching a presentation

Entrepreneurs from the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe attend a Native FORGE kickoff presentation in August. As members of this year's Native FORGE cohort, each will receive mentorship and technical support to grow their businesses.

Courtesy of Alan Pruitt

Five entrepreneurs from the Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe make up the new cohort of Native FORGE, a University of Arizona program that supports entrepreneurs from federally recognized Native American tribes in Arizona.

The entrepreneurs' businesses include a coffee roasting company, a barbershop, a construction company, a moving company and a mobile food business, all of which are located on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation. The 45,000-acre reservation near Yuma borders Arizona, California and Baja California, Mexico.

Native FORGE will provide the entrepreneurs with technology supplies, mentorship and access to an online curriculum to learn how they can build their businesses. The entrepreneurs will also come to Tucson in November for the annual Native FORGE Conference to connect with potential mentors and investors.

The program is part of University of 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 FORGE name stands for Finding Opportunities and Resources to Grow Entrepreneurs.

Levi Esquerra

Levi Esquerra

"One of the biggest challenges tribal communities have is building their economies," said Levi Esquerra, UArizona senior vice president for Native American advancement and tribal engagement. "That's what this program will do – provide mentorship and opportunities to increase the success rate of those small businesses in tribal communities."

Native FORGE was announced in August 2022. Its inaugural cohort included five entrepreneurs from the San Carlos Apache Tribe. The program 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 within those five years.

Brian Ellerman, founding executive director of University of Arizona FORGE, said the program will provide resources to the tribe to build an entrepreneurial mindset among its members.

"The addition of Fort Yuma Quechan to the San Carlos Apache Tribe is one more wonderful opportunity for us to use the resources that we have to help develop that entrepreneurial spirit within a community – but be very place-centric about it," Ellerman said. "This isn't a satellite where all of the work happens in Tucson and gets sent out to them. The work gets done on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation with their entrepreneurs."

Brian Ellerman

Brian Ellerman

The members of the latest Native FORGE cohort and their businesses are:

  • Tudor Montague, Spirit Mountain Roasting Co. and The Coffee Shop
  • Jon Koteen, Koteen's Barbershop
  • Greg Gilbert, Constructive Building Solutions
  • James Emerson, Luca Jean Moving Services
  • Marissa Miller, Luca Jean LLC

Creating opportunity

Tudor Montague, a new Native FORGE participant, runs Spirit Mountain Roasting Co., making his own blends of coffee that he sells from his café on the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, as well as several partner locations in Arizona and other states.

Montague opened the company in Mesa in December 2015 alongside his day job doing environmental policy work for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Montague "always had a little bit of a business bug," he said, and ran Spirit Mountain Roasting from Mesa until 2017, when he moved back to the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, where he grew up.

"That was intentional, with the idea to provide some jobs and perhaps mentorship to members of my community," Montague said. "I wanted to help create some of those opportunities right here on the rez."

Montague now employs eight people – six at his café and two at his roastery. He hopes Native FORGE can teach him how to market his coffee to more people and help him plan for a potential expansion of his business.

Montague has the demand from customers to make more coffee, he said, but his current machine roasts 24 pounds of coffee at a time. He hopes to add at least one more machine to his operation.

"Hopefully through FORGE, I can look at some realistic pathways to make that possible," he said.

Jon Koteen, another member of the new cohort, owns Koteen's Barbershop with his wife, Sage, a cosmetologist. Koteen's has been in business for about six years.

The barbershop occupies the same building that once housed the Village Barber Shop, the reservation's sole barbershop that served the community for decades beginning in the 1970s, Jon Koteen said. When the owner of Village Barbershop passed away about six years ago, the Koteens applied to rent the building, which is owned by the tribe, to continue serving the tribe with haircuts.

"There's a big spirit of entrepreneurship here on the reservation," said Koteen, who also sits on the tribe's council.

Like Montague, he hopes Native FORGE will help him expand his business, which is the first he has owned. Ideally, he said, he would like to double his shop's capacity by adding two more chairs.

"I'm just taking this as a learning experience," Koteen added. "I just want to take in as many resources as I can and learn as much as I can."