Creating a sustainable business from scratch is never easy—especially for those with fewer mentorship opportunities and a lack of seed money behind their project. And yet many of the most successful Native American entrepreneurs have built thriving organizations with relatively little outside support.
These enterprising leaders continually prove that ingenuity and hard work are often the most important factors in growing a young startup into a thriving venture. The following are just a few of the success stories in the Native business community.
• Despite often lacking startup capital and business mentors, innumerable Native American entrepreneurs have succeeded with a combination of ambition and hard work.
• One of the wealthiest Native Americans today is Tom Love, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, who co-founded a vast chain of convenience stores.
• The founder of the Famous Dave’s barbecue chain, Dave Anderson, has both Choctaw and Chippewa heritage.
Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores
Tom Love, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, and his wife Judy (who isn’t Native American) are some of the most successful retailers in the country, with their chain of convenience stores generating roughly $20 billion a year in revenue, according to Forbes. Today, Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores are a ubiquitous sight on American highways, with 550 locations in 41 states.
As with many prosperous businesses, the couple had to work their way up. The Loves leased their first gas station in Watonga, Okla., in the 1960s with an investment of just $5,000. Today, the couple is worth an estimated $8.9 billion as of this writing.
“The same qualities that define Love’s Travel Stops define the Chickasaw Nation,” Tom Love said when inducted into the tribe’s hall of fame in 2019. “Since removal to the West, we have stood together during the hard times, helped one another in times of need, and shared victories, both large and small.”
Grand River Enterprises
A Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River, Ken Hill paid tribute to his native territory in 2003 when he named his new tobacco company Grand River Enterprises. Hill died suddenly in January 2021, but not before building an extensive manufacturing enterprise with a distribution network covering 50 countries.
According to the company’s website, southern Ontario-based Grand River Enterprises has donated more than $40 million to Indigenous charities, which includes $25 million of support for the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation.
One of America’s most beloved barbecue restaurant chains didn’t start in a barbecue mecca like Kansas City or Memphis, but in tiny Hayward, Wis. That’s where Dave Anderson—an entrepreneur with Choctaw heritage on his father’s side and Chippewa on his mother’s side—started the first eatery that would bear his name: Famous Dave’s.
Since he was a young adult, Anderson relentlessly competed in—and often won—a string of barbecue contests to master his craft. Within a couple of years of starting his Midwestern restaurant in 1994, he had turned his growing chain into a publicly traded company. His enterprise now includes 145 restaurants, including the Granite City Food & Brewery chain and Real Urban Barbecue location.
“Aqiwo,” which means “shooting star,” is a fitting name for Stephen Mills’s information technology and program management firm. The firm that Mills launched in 2002 has definitely had a meteoric rise, garnering key clients in the public sector, including defense and intelligence agencies.
Mills, whose ancestry includes the Chumash tribe of Central California, spends much of his time mentoring young Native Americans, including those looking to start businesses. His message to the Indigenous community: Remain optimistic.
“[T]o stay true to your principles and beliefs, and live that out throughout your life is a hard thing to do,” he once told Profiles in Diversity Journal. “You have to be a strong person in the face of adversity; you cannot crumble up.”
Indian Eyes LLC
Indian Eyes may have seemed like a long shot to succeed in 2005 when Roxie Schescke decided to start the professional services firm out of her two-car garage. But the Lakota entrepreneur was determined to make her vision a reality. She did, growing the venture into a multimillion-dollar organization with more than 60 employees.
Today, the company provides everything from security and project management to plant operations and waste management services for businesses around the country.
“It took many years to get to that point because I never had anyone to lean on or help me out,” Schescke told Native Business magazine in 2019. “But I was determined.”
Kaben and Shelby Smallwood
Brothers Kaben and Shelby Smallwood of Kiowa, Okla., have always had a big dream: to develop self-contained aquaponic systems that could grow plants and supply fish for entire communities. But they had to start small, using $4,000 of startup capital from the Choctaw Nation and salvaging tractor parts to build their first prototype.
Eventually, the Choctaw siblings were able to win a $40,000 entrepreneurship award, which helped them refine their concept and expand their operations. Today, Symbiotic Aquaponics is a flourishing business that sells everything from small, backyard systems to ones that can support a commercial operation. And they’re paying their success forward, partnering with Eastern Oklahoma State College to help local residents master the art of managing vibrant, sustainable ecosystems with recycled water.
Tribal Tech LLC
Victoria Vasques spent much of her career in the public sector, including stints as the executive director of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities and a member of the President’s Commission on Indian Reservation Economics. But she has proved equally effective as a leader in private industry, founding the management and technical services company Tribal Tech in 2000.
Based in Alexandria, Va., the firm partners with federal agencies and tribes “to improve health, education, energy and environmental services.” Vasques—whose ancestors include the Diegueño Mission Indians in California—has helped turn the organization into a juggernaut, with Tribal Tech landing on the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Company list for seven consecutive years.
There’s no sign that Vasques is slowing down, either. In 2019, she acquired the management consulting firm Cowan & Associates, which serves the public and higher education sectors.
The Bottom Line
Native Americans are responsible for a long list of success stories, from well-known restaurant and retail chains to innovative startups. While entrepreneurs with tribal backgrounds face a unique set of challenges, the individuals on this list have demonstrated that creativity and perseverance can lead to thriving businesses.