Economic development on tribal lands has long meant mostly casinos and coal mines. Heather Fleming, founder of Change Labs, wants to change that to social entrepreneurship and the digital economy.
It’s a grand challenge for Fleming, a native of Tuba City, the largest city on the Navajo Nation with a population of 8,611. Fleming studied design at Stanford before founding Catapult Design, which helps design products for underserved communities worldwide. With Change Labs, she’s bringing global social innovation back to the reservation.
Entrepreneurship, she says, can turn a wealth of need into wealth-generating opportunities. “There’s no one working on recycling, clean water, electricity access,” she says. “Is there a great idea out there for how to bring electricity to the 20% of the population that’s completely disconnected from the grid?”
Unemployment rates on the reservation reach 60%. Basic infrastructure barely exists, let alone internet and mobile penetration. But dig a little deeper, says Fleming, and you’ll find a community of informal entrepreneurs, trading crafts and jewelry, making and selling food and hawking chopped firewood.
“They’re all entrepreneurs, they just don’t see themselves that way,” she says.
When Change Labs organized its first entrepreneurship lab five-years ago to explore challenges faced by small-business owners, Fleming expected maybe 30 people. More than 100 turned up. Today, Change Labs hosts quarterly pop-up entrepreneurial labs across the reservation to help Navajo founders spot challenges and turn ideas into registered businesses. In May, Change Labs gained access to land where it plans to open a co-working space for entrepreneurs.
Read the full interview with Heather Fleming of Change Labs about bringing social innovation to the Navajo Nation at ImpactAlpha.
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