By Marit Gookin
The Wind River Startup Challenge (WRSC), a program that works with organizations including the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, the University of Wyoming and the Wind River Development Fund to help local people start their own businesses, recently hosted its Pitch Day event. After months of attending workshops, receiving one-on-one business coaching, and fine-tuning their business plans and pitches, the eight finalist applicants had the opportunity to speak to a panel of judges about why their business deserved to receive seed funding from WRSC. This year’s judges were Ivan Posey, Lisa McCart, and Erika Yarber.
“The only problem we have is funding, and that’s everybody’s problem,” remarked Cheryl White Bull, owner of Fire and Ice, during her business’ presentation to the judges. Indeed, all of the finalists seem to have come prepared, some with established businesses that needed funding to take the next steps, and some with detailed plans for starting a new business should they receive funding. They certainly impressed the judges; all eight were awarded some amount of funding from WRSC.
White Bull and her daughter Robin Manderson’s business, Fire and Ice, was the first to present and is one of the businesses that is already established. White Bull and Manderson have been operating two mobile snow cone and piccadilly concession stands for six or seven years.
“We decided we wanted to take it a little bit further,” Manderson explained. People have been asking them about selling food, but Manderson and White Bull need a permanent, indoor space to cook in before they can start serving food – especially during the winter months. WRSC awarded $3,000 to put toward this goal.
Nelson Pat White Jr., an experienced mechanic and WyoTech graduate, proposed a new tire business located in Ethete, to be named White Eagle Tire Service. His presentation showed that over 6,000 vehicles drive through Ethete daily and approximately $1.8 million is spent on auto repair services in Fremont County annually. “I wouldn’t mind that much, but I just need a piece of it,” he said.
“I think it’s a need we lack on the reservation,” commented Posey. White was also awarded $3,000 based on his pitch.
Concrete Kingz, a new business helmed by RV Hereford Jr., was pitched to the judges as a concrete company bringing years of experience to the work of pouring and finishing concrete.
“It’s a way of art to me,” explained Hereford, whose presentation started with the history of concrete. He emphasized that as members of the community, his business and employees would have a vested interest in doing quality work, which isn’t always the case for outside contractors brought in to work on projects on the reservation. “They don’t live here, so they don’t care,” he observed. Hereford also plans to work for 10 hours for four days a week, so his employees will always have three-day weekends, and to offer performance bonuses – both of which received spontaneous applause from the audience during his presentation. Concrete Kingz was awarded $12,000 to purchase the necessary equipment to get started.
Lisa Redman of Red Wolf Designs offers a custom quilting service based out of Ethete, specializing in star quilts.
“The star quilts represent the epitome of giving on the Plains,” she said. “There’s a demand for star quilts made by and for the Native community.” Redman estimated that she’s made over 500 quilts in her lifetime; one of her quilts is hanging in Liz Cheney’s office. A new quilting machine with a computer would help Redman streamline her process and speed up production, she explained. Her presentation certainly convinced the judges on the topic of giving; she was awarded $12,000.
Courtney Smith’s 2 Indigenous Hands is planned to be a retail craft supply store, which is expected to have a storefront in Riverton as well as two vending machines with beading supplies and other art and craft supplies placed at strategic locations on the reservation. The average Native American artist spends $2,000 a year on supplies, Smith explained, but currently people have to drive to either Fort Washakie or Lander for the products. Having a location in Riverton as well as convenient vending machines for after-hours purchases will ultimately save people time and money, as they won’t have to drive as far. Smith also plans to sell works made by Indigenous artists in her retail storefront. 2 Indigenous Hands was awarded $7,000.
Kacy Makeshine presented about the business she runs with Denyse Ute, Indigi-Meals Pro.
“Nutrition is the overall foundation of health,” she observed. Indigi-Meals Pro, which is already up and running via social media and text, offers a meal delivery service focused on healthy, delicious food. Makeshine and Ute plan to eventually expand into offering cooking and nutrition classes as well as delivering already-prepared meals to people; Makeshine began her presentation by handing out samples of their food to the judges. Whether it was the food or the detailed presentation, Makeshine’s pitch was a success; Indigi-Meals Pro was awarded $5,000.
The Warm Valley Smoke Wagon, owned and operated by Jacoby Hereford Sr., has been around for several years now, holding very successful pop-up sales that are usually sold out via pre-order before the stand even opens.
“We’ve all been stuck in this line,” Hereford said, showing an image of a long line of cars waiting in a McDonald’s drive thru. Hereford had detailed statistics about how often fast food is eaten in Fremont County, and how he can fit into that market by offering a relatively unique product and rotating through different communities. In order to expand in this way, Hereford will need to invest in a few items, including a new trailer. WRSC awarded him $5,000 to put toward these purchases.
The last finalist to present was Ted Thayer of RezLaw. Thayer, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs agent and a current public defender in the tribal courts, sees an unfilled niche for a Native-owned legal aid service on the reservation. He plans to charge two different fees, depending on the services needed: a $250 per hour advisement fee, for people who simply need some legal advice without going to court, and a $1,000 per five hours fee for a basic case with one charge, anticipating that most cases with one charge will take five hours or less of work on his part.
“I know a little bit of the ins and outs, so yes, I am worth it,” he said. Thayer was awarded $3,000 to help him establish RezLaw.
All eight will join the ranks of businesses helmed by Eastern Shoshone and/or Northern Arapaho tribal members that have been supported by WRSC, bringing the WRSC’s total count up to 28 after only a few years of existence.