Crista Valentino listened as everybody introduced themselves along with why they attended, what they hope to achieve and what their biggest fear is with starting a business. (Photo by Shawn O’Brate)

By Shawn O’Brate

FORT WASHAKIE – A new year can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, but for a select group on the reservation the new year means new hope for their small businesses and local communities. 

This hope comes from the Wind River Startup Challenge (WRSC) which held its first meeting of the year last Wednesday night at the Frank B. Wise Business Center. It was there where almost 30 bright-eyed and optimistic entrepreneurs from the Arapaho or Shoshone tribes gathered to hear about how they, too, can receive seed funding for their future or current businesses on or around the reservation. 

Kyle Trumble and Crista Valentina, two of the co-organizers of the WRSC, were not just ecstatic that they were able to finally meet their possible participants face-to-face but they were overjoyed at just how many came out for the first of many meetings. Both of them have been through the ringer with the WRSC being strictly through Zoom meetings and online the past couple years, which only made the nearly full meeting room that much better.

“This is unique. This is the first time we’ve ever had a first meeting in person. Everything else has just been on the internet — all internet signups, zoom workshops, all that, it’s super awesome,” Trumble said. “Zoom was great, 84% of oxytocin still transfers over Zoom and it worked in Covid, but it’s not ideal. When you’re trying to build a community it’s nice to have people come in and introduce themselves … and we want it to be a thing where people come in and talk just as much or more than Crista or I.”

Valentina, who just received her Master’s degree of Arts in Global Leadership from Royal Roads University, spent much of the last two years researching and surveying rural communities and local members of the reservation which has led to a brand new look for this year’s WRSC.

“We’re hosting more workshops [and] they’re not just for participants but they’re also open to the community,” Valentino said about this year’s changes. “We recognize that people may have the idea that they may want to be an entrepreneur or they want to get business skills, but don’t have the idea of what they want to do yet, so we want to have that open to everybody so they can learn some of the skills depending on what the theme or that focus of the workshop is.”

So, while many of last Wednesday night’s participants were there to begin their journey toward pitching their business idea for seed money in late May, there were also many just there to learn some of the skills they need to help themselves take their business ideas forward. Over the next five months they can learn at workshops based around themes like value proposition; raising capital; marketing and branding; and making a business plan. 

“In the past we offered one-on-one mentorship, but only for a short amount of time,” Valentino explained. “Then, after pitch day, even after these participants received seed funding we realized it’s really important to continue that business mentorship. We want them to make sure that they feel supported, that they have people that they can answer questions with, and people they can lean on, so we’re going to continue that one-on-one mentorship for the whole year.”

That feeling of support can be the make-or-break factor in many people’s entrepreneurial journeys, and Trumble reiterated that multiple times throughout the first meeting, when he said the entire WRSC is “community driven.” They “don’t host presentations, they host parties” where people can speak freely and learn from each other as well as from Trumble and Valentino, who just like watching people succeed around the reservation.

“My favorite part is I really love watching people come in at the beginning, even during these first couple of workshops and meetings, and they’re not really sure or not really confident and not even six months from now, they stand up on stage and they feel so sure of themselves and their business and what they’re going to do … and having the confidence in themselves to ask for money, which is always tough, and watching that pathway and their growth is just really fun,” Valentino said with a smile.

But, overall, the WRSC is all about one thing: helping local entrepreneurs on the reservation that typically would not receive the type of support that they can get through the program.

“Studies have shown that Native people and Indigenous populations receive the least amount of opportunities for things like loans, or seed funds or investment opportunities,” Valentino said. “So it’s amazing to be able to have something that is specifically for this demographic. Also, it all goes back into the community and is staying in the reservation … Economy breeds economy.”

One person that knows that better than anyone is Tarissa Spoonhunter, who helped bring the WRSC opportunities to the Wind River reservation after seeing how many of her friends and family weren’t able to succeed like others outside the reservation. 

“We need to quit blaming others,” Spoonhunter said at the beginning of the first meeting. “We need to get out of our own way and we need them to ask for help sometimes. We need to be supportive and bring about nation-building within our communities.”

Tuesday, January 24, is the next WRSC meeting and will once again be open to the public and anybody who might be interested in learning how to build their small business or even just their ideas for their futures. Food, drinks and snacks will be provided along with knowledge from those that have been through the program before and earned a portion of $50,000 that the WRSC hands out to growing businesses at the end of every May.