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ASU Thunderbird’s Project DreamCatcher empowers Native American entrepreneurs to thrive

A group of people gathered in a room, sitting in chairs, with a digital sign above that says "Congratulations DreamCatcher Graduates Class of 2023"

The Class of 2023 DreamCatcher graduates celebrated their accomplishments during the graduation ceremony held June 9 on ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus.

June 13, 2023

Charmayne Dawahoya grew up on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, where she and her husband co-own Bear Beans Coffee. Seeking to expand her entrepreneurial knowledge and advance her business with a sustainable mindset, Dawahoya enrolled in Project DreamCatcher — a weeklong business training program specifically designed for female Native American entrepreneurs. 

Project DreamCatcher was created through support and funding by the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation in partnership with the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. 

For Dawahoya, this opportunity provided her with a one-of-a-kind experience to learn how to create and manage a business while making connections with fellow Native American women who have similar aspirations. Since completing the program, Dawahoya has secured a partnership to establish an additional business location in a Walmart store, achieving a significant career milestone. Now, she is devoting her attention to developing this new venture, actively pursuing her entrepreneurial dreams and turning them into reality.

"DreamCatcher was an incredible journey that allowed me to meet and connect with other aspiring Native American women entrepreneurs trying to make their way in the business world," Dawahoya said.

The program's curriculum is designed by Thunderbird faculty, who also provide instruction. Throughout the program, cohort participants have access to graduate-level classes, coaching and advising sessions with business professionals, and networking activities designed to impart new skills and foster the confidence to start or expand a business. Participants acquire skills in marketing, leadership, bookkeeping, creating a business plan and obtaining access to capital.

"Project DreamCatcher provides a supportive community where Native American women can gain not only strategic business skills but also nurture professional relationships that can assist them as they embark on or expand their entrepreneurial journeys," said Dinora Gonzalez, senior project manager for global development at Thunderbird.

Dawahoya's journey in the DreamCatcher program mirrors the experiences of fellow participant Denella Belin, who shares a similar drive to pursue owning her own business. Belin, a sous chef, aims to establish a culinary program that would highlight Native American cuisine and its authentic origins. She is Navajo and originally from Tuba City.

Belin's vision for the program extends beyond culinary delights. She envisions it as a platform to educate Native American students about their ancestral foods while introducing a previously untold historical narrative. Recognizing the shortcomings of the current food system and its adverse effects on Native American communities, Belin emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the culinary traditions of past, present and future generations. Through this, she hopes to cultivate a new culinary landscape that caters to the palates of food enthusiasts from all walks of life.

"The DreamCatcher program has enabled me to nurture my passion for my idea. I have had the opportunity to connect with the right individuals and organizations who provided me with a platform to showcase my unique approach to indigenous cuisine,” Belin said. “DreamCatcher has simplified the process of building a business by sharing fundamental business concepts, offering professors who share our common vision and facilitating direct contact with accomplished DreamCatcher alumni. Hearing their stories of starting from where we are now and achieving success as business owners has been truly inspiring."

Following her graduation from the DreamCatcher program, Belin's visionary concept quickly materialized into reality. She launched her business, Nella’s Innovative Kreations, in March.

As a culinary entrepreneur, Belin combines her expertise in French classical cuisine with her profound understanding of Native American cuisine, resulting in a diverse and innovative range. Her entrepreneurial prowess and dedication have propelled her passions forward, enabling her to not only run a successful business but also fulfill her role as a culinary educator with a specific emphasis on empowering the Native American youth community.

On June 9, 38 women from the Hualapai, San Carlos Apache, White Mountain Apache, Tohono O'odham, Hopi, Pascua Yaqui and Navajo tribes graduated from Project DreamCatcher during a ceremony on the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus.

The next Project DreamCatcher cohort will run September 11–15. Priority is given to enrolled members of the Hualapai, San Carlos Apache, White Mountain Apache, Tohono O'odham and Navajo Nation. Enrolled members of nine additional tribal nations are also eligible, including Ak-Chin Indian Community, Gila River Indian Community, Hopi Tribe, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Tonto Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nation, Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe and ZuniPueblo.

Notable DreamCatcher graduates

Natasha Gonzales, owner of Kokopelli House at Bitahnii Acres.

"I've owned a bed and breakfast, (Kokopelli House at Bitahnii Acres), for the past seven years. DreamCatcher has given me the tools to grow and get better at business. I am so appreciative of that week of meeting all of these intelligent, beautiful women with all these ideas. It was uplifting," she said. 

Sheryl Benally is the owner of Lynn Designs.

“My business is called Lynn Designs; I am a third-generation silversmith. Carrying on my family’s tradition is very sacred to me, and I am very honored and proud that I can keep this tradition going,” she said. 

Shi-Fawn Chee is the owner of Blended Girl Cosmetics.

“We learned condensed versions of bookkeeping, marketing and social networking. I hope to apply the knowledge that I learned to grow my brand, and hopefully one day I'll be a brand that you’ll see and know,” she said.

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