Courtesy Sovereign Mind Productions
Ryan Begay was hesitant to start Sovereign Mind Productions, but he’s documented Kewa Pueblo’s after school and the Spirit of Hoops youth basketball programs, and stayed true to his vision.

Planting the Entrepreneurial Seed in Native Students

Kim Baca

When camera assistant and boom operator Ryan Begay decided to go into business for himself last year, he was a little wary. Begay had been working within the state’s thriving film industry the past few years but wanted to start his own production company to fulfill a desire to tell stories from the Native prospective and put authentic Native films out.

“That was kind of scary,” Begay, 35, said of his decision to create Sovereign Mind Productions, LLC. “I was working on a film set, but I thought, well, I can do that specific thing or move into the business portion and be in control of it. I was a little hesitant at first, especially here in New Mexico because it is getting saturated with this industry. I had my doubts, but I thought I know what I’m doing and there are resources that are available. It’s just me and I’m going to put myself out there and see what works.”

While Begay is still making ends meet with his start-up, he’s enjoying the work. So far, he’s documented Kewa Pueblo’s after school and the Spirit of Hoops youth basketball programs, staying positive and true to his vision.

“It’s a process to continually grow and learn as I go,” Begay said.

Becoming an entrepreneur can be a difficult decision for anyone, no matter their educational background, access to capital and experience. The stakes are higher when creating a successful business in Indian country where there are lack of role models, banks for loans and other resources to further develop, grow and sustain even the most solid ideas.

Looking to not only plant the seeds but help the entrepreneurial spirit grow, the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico (AICCNM) has enlisted several partners in its annual Youth Impact Initiative this year to support Native students with their start-ups. Students participating in the Shark Tank competition will be paired with University of New Mexico American Indian Business Association students, and SCORE (previously the Service Corps of Retired Executives), New Mexico Small Business Development Center (NMSBDC) and ACCION New Mexico representatives to move the young innovators beyond the business plan.

This is one of the many presentations given during the Shark Tank Challenge held at the Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town. (Facebook/American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico)

The chamber incorporated youth workshops and a Shark Tank competition with cash prizes modeled after the popular TV show during the annual Native American Economic Summit in 2014 to expose students to business careers. Participants in the Youth Impact Initiative, now in its third year, are given business plan guidelines, financial statement examples and opportunities to hear about tribal economic development from business, community and tribal leaders.

“We want to answer those hard questions and give them those real-world scenarios that aren’t always exciting,” said Russell Pedro, AICCNM Business Development Specialist of the decision to involve the small business community in the youth summit. “We’d like to tell our youth that there are a lot of challenges that you’ll face and a lot of risk that is involved. You’ll also have to get your skin thick at times; there is failure, and there is rejection. But there are many different avenues and resources available that you can receive to overcome those things. We want to let young people know there are great examples within our Native communities and our leadership is here to support them.”

Pedro said the support will also help students navigate and thrive between the indigenous and the non-Native, commercial business world.

“It’s so important to remember where we come from and how we were raised, our religion, our culture, our language, and our dances.” Pedro said. “We just don’t want students to get off the reservation to get an education but we want to make sure that they go back then hire, build or create jobs and opportunities that will make impact for their communities and their members, such as working with their tribal departments.”

Having resources in the early stages of business is important when you consider about a third of all start-up businesses fail within two to three years, said Dar Johnson, a certified SCORE mentor who has worked in federal contracting, business operations, strategy and planning. Businesses usually fail when entrepreneurs don’t control their costs or haven’t determined their target market. In addition to cost control, signs of success include sustainability and adapting to the marketplace, Johnson said.

Amber Carrillo, community engagement and loan officer with micro-lender ACCION NM, said it’s important that young Native people get exposure to these skills starting with the basics, such as understanding credit, financial literacy and gaining access to capital.

“So many of us know how difficult it is to find your way in the world so we have to offer these opportunities,” Carrillo said, adding that ACCION is developing a program to get more capital to Native people in New Mexico.

For Begay, opportunities are endless. He’s now working with the chamber’s Minority Business Development Agency to tap into federal contracts.

“We need to look at ourselves as business people as well and encourage one another. Using business to business resources is also building our community,” he said. “We can’t have enough Native entrepreneurs.”

For more information or to register for the Youth Impact Initiative held during the AICCNM’s Native American Economic Summit, visit

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I wish Mr. Begay all the success he's been working so hard for! I'm sure he already knows that he'll have to work twice as hard, twice as long as "mainstream" entrepreneurs to be successful. Keep your chin up, Ryan - a lot of us need a modern day hero!