While many college students are still figuring out what to major in, New Mexico State University freshman Lena Sanchez already has her career planned. Sanchez (Jicarilla Apache) is enrolled in NMSU’s animal science program and continues to work on her nonprofit, Generation Ag or Gen Ag, to help grow the next generation of Native Americans in the agriculture field after not seeing many Native youth at ag gatherings and conferences.
“If tribal nations want to be truly sovereign, we need to consider food sovereignty as well and support local agriculture,” Sanchez, 18, said during her presentation to judges during a youth entrepreneurial contest in May. Sanchez also talked about how it broke her heart when her grandfather died and her family had to sell the ranch that had been in the Sanchez family for generations because there was no one able to pick up the business.
Sanchez is one of several Native American students getting some help with her dream from the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico (AICCNM). Since 2014, the chamber has awarded more than $7,000 to Native youth entrepreneurs through its Shark Tank competition modeled after the popular TV show where groups create a business plan and pitch their idea in front of a panel of millionaires to obtain investment dollars.
The chamber incorporated a Shark Tank competition and youth workshops in its annual economic summit to provide mentorship and networking opportunities, and encourage Native youth to enter business careers. Youth ‘Impact’ Summit participants also listen to business, community and tribal leaders discuss tribal economic development.
So far, student entrepreneurs have sustained a T-shirt business for skateboarders learning the Keres language, supported a bike-riding and meditation venture and other types of ideas with their Shark Tank winnings. Some students have also used their prize money to buy books or computers to support their education.
Henry Jake Foreman, Sanchez’ former teacher at the Native American Community Academy (NACA) who teaches digital arts and entrepreneurial skills based on indigenous values and tradition, said while many students who win prize money may not have a thriving business yet, it’s an opportunity that these students may not receive otherwise.
“THIS IS THEIR FIRST INSIGHT INTO WHAT IT TAKES TO START A BUSINESS,” SAID FOREMAN (ABSENTEE SHAWNEE/FILIPINO). “THE LONG TERM GOAL IS TO INVEST IN EDUCATION. REALLY NOW, IT’S MAKING SURE THESE STUDENTS WITHIN HIGH SCHOOL HAVE MENTORSHIP AND OPPORTUNITIES TO CONTINUE THEIR SCHOOLING.”
Foreman, the first Shark Tank winner in 2014 who participated while he was a graduate student, used his $500 cash prize to obtain a teaching license after graduating from the University of New Mexico with a master’s degree in community and regional planning. He’s currently participating in the New Mexico Community Capital Native American Entrepreneur Residence Program, an opportunity he discovered while attending the 2014 Youth Impact Summit. He received a mentor and $15,000 as part of the residency, and has plans to create a business incubator at
Russell Pedro, AICCNM Business Development Specialist, said providing support to cultivate the next generation of
entrepreneurs is crucial. He’s been excited to see how far along many of these future business owners have come, and “how professional they are and motivated they are.”
“When I was at that age there wasn’t enough of us going out to develop a business plan and present in front of an
audience at that time,” Pedro said. “I’m so happy to see that this generation is really motivated not only to start their own business but really motivated to help their communities. It gets me re-energized to see the up and comers and I am excited for the future. We constantly need to encourage and learn from one another.”