Unique Nonprofit: Native American business incubator is one of few in country

An incubator within an incubator. That’s how principals at Arrowhead Incubator describe their non-profit, which will seek out new enterprise opportunities for Native Americans – and has its office within the Traverse City tech incubator 20Fathoms.

“What’s better than to be in an incubator (with) knowledge and resources? That’s where 20Fathoms came into play,” said Kyle Anderson.

“I looked at 20Fathoms for what it can do as a model for us as a nonprofit and an incubator,” said Thomas Wilbur.

The two founded the Arrowhead with Shiloh Slomsky, who serves as its executive director. Anderson is chair of the Arrowhead Incubator board of directors and Wilbur is vice chair.

Arrowhead Incubator – AHIN for short – is unique in the area and one of the few such nonprofits in the country.

“The big picture is there are not a lot of Native American 501(c)3s,” said Anderson.

Kyle Anderson

A member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Anderson boasts a background in IT and technology. He served on the board of directors for Grand Traverse Economic Development while Wilbur, a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, was the chief executive officer.

“Kyle and I worked together when I was the CEO of the non-gaming side of the tribe,” said Wilbur.

They attended the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development Reservation Economic Summit 2019, where one of the seminars highlighted the need for Native American business education.

That was a light bulb moment for Anderson, who saw huge opportunity in the sector – and led to the founding of AHIN.

The founding group was completed with the addition of Slomsky. She is a former board member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians’ non-gaming economic development corporation and its redevelopment project, Victories Square. She has nonprofit, grant writing, and economic development experience, which Wilbur said was exactly what they were looking for.

“There was a need for a day-to-day person, and I saw a need to help the startup grow,” said Slomsky.

The organization received initial grant funding of $200,000 for starting a new Native Procurement Technical Assistance Center (Native PTAC) to assist Native entities in navigating the world of federal contracting in Michigan and Wisconsin. Arrowhead Incubator is one of the few Native PTACs in the country and the only one in Michigan.

Shiloh Slomsky

As an example of what AHIN can provide, Slomsky pointed to a presentation the organization did in collaboration with New Mexico Community Capital, a nonprofit whose goal is to change the status quo in Native-owned business through tailored mentorship, financial literacy and digital skills programs. The program brought together various Native American entrepreneurs for what amounted to a primer on running a business.

“We helped with … creating a budget, marketing, inventory,” Slomsky said, areas sole entrepreneurs or small mom-and-pop businesses might find challenging.

“It can be scary,” she said of trying to start a small business. “It’s significant to have someone who can speak the cultural language.”

Sarah Brant is a community outreach coordinator with NMCC and worked with Slomsky and AHIN on the program, which was held at 20Fathoms. She said the history of Native Americans and the way they were shunted aside and forced onto reservations meant individuals often lacked the experience and knowledge others gained simply from exposure.

“It was my role to address missing knowledge in a traditional capacity,” she said.

Robin Kissinger was one of the Native American entrepreneurs who attended the business program held at 20Fathoms.

Among the participants was Robin Kissinger, an artist, a writer, and a Native American entrepreneur in St. Ignace. His goal is to build a successful art gallery and studio to not only support his family, but also his larger community. He said the fact that the facilitators were all Native American women added value and validity to their presentations.

Wilbur said the program’s success is indicative of the way it intends to move forward. That future could include training programs in development, such as computer coding and cybersecurity certification training for Native Americans, in partnership with 20Fathoms.

As a nonprofit, AHIN will both seek grants and disburse funds to various Native American organizations and entities. Wilbur says one of the most exciting of the nonprofit’s efforts so far is its ability to provide services to five Native American start-ups through a Social and Economic Development Strategy-Growing Organization grant. It will also allow Arrowhead to provide and create partnerships with other organizations to expand Native American business acumen.

One of the most promising areas for Native American businesses and organizations to break into could be governmental contracting. The federal government has set aside programs for Native American small businesses, and Slomsky calls Wilbur the guru of such endeavors.

Tom Wilbur

“I have a passion to build wealth for tribal communities, and the federal arena (is) the largest buyer,” Wilbur said.

Slomsky said the organization initially focused on assisting Native American businesses and entrepreneurs in northern Michigan, from Manistee to the Upper Peninsula, but quickly expanded its reach.

“We’re willing to work with any tribal individuals in the country,” she noted.

Anderson agrees.

“With the set-aside advantage, I hope we are nationwide soon. We’re experienced business people. That’s one of the differences I see,” he said.

Of course, the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on Wilbur’s ability to meet with people face to face. He said the pandemic has proven particularly damaging to the tribes and tribal entities. Many rural areas and reservations lack broadband and cell coverage, and between that and the restrictions on personal contact, it’s been extremely difficult for Native Americans to start or expand their businesses.

He said exposure to entities like AHIN and Native persons with business and entrepreneurial success like the principals there is essential.

“We want to make sure people are connected and aware of what’s out there (as business resources), from business plans to tax numbers,” said Wilbur.

Lauren Bigelow, the executive director of 20Fathoms, said she believes both AHIN and 20Fathoms will benefit from their symbiotic relationship.

“It’s the two together, (with) their knowledge – Shiloh in business and finance, Kyle in technology, and their cultural knowledge – and we bring our background in tech, innovation, national and international networks, angels, all our resources,” she said. “From the moment they came to us and said what they were doing, we wanted to partner with them.”