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ASU alum returns home to aid Native entrepreneurs

Change Labs co-founder Jessica Stago won't take no for an answer

A woman in Native American dress addresses a crowd via microphone.

Change Labs co-founder and ASU alum Jessica Stago speaks at the grand opening of the entrepreneurial coworking group's first building on Friday, June 16, 2023, in Tuba City, Arizona. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

February 08, 2024

Editor's note: Arizona State University alumni are making a difference in every corner and community of the world, positively changing the lives of those they encounter. ASU News traveled around the U.S. in 2023 to profile five of those alums. Here is the second in our series.

TUBA CITY, Ariz. — As wispy white clouds tried and failed to obscure the brilliant, late-morning blue sky hovering over Tuba City in Arizona, Navajo reservation President Buu Nygren stepped in front of the microphone.

The hour-long ribbon-cutting ceremony for Change Labs, a 1,400 square-foot coworking space built to encourage Native entrepreneurs and small business owners on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, was nearly over.

But before Nygren would be handed scissors to cut the ribbon, he had a few words to say.

About Change Labs. About the need for small businesses in the Navajo community. And about the two women whose decade-long dream was finally being fulfilled on a beautiful mid-June day: Heather Fleming and Arizona State University alumna Jessica Stago.

“All of us are sick and tired of hearing the word 'no,' of being told it’s impossible,” Nygren said. “They believed the impossible can happen.”

Man speaking into microphone at grand opening event
Navajo Tribal President Buu Nygren speaks at the opening of Change Labs on Friday, June 16, 2023, in Tuba City, Arizona. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

This story — Jessica Stago’s story — begins with a struggle.

It was the early 2000s. Stago, who grew up in Winslow, Arizona, and received a Bachelor of Science in economics from ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business in 2001, had returned home to open a medical supply company with her mother, Lula M. Stago.

“We were trying to do business with the tribe,” said Jessica Stago, who is a member of the Navajo nation and is also White Mountain Apache. “That was going to be our market.”

Almost immediately, however, Stago encountered the hurdles common to many Native small business owners. According to indicators by the World Bank, it takes seven times longer to complete the necessary steps to start a business on the Navajo reservation than it does in the border town of Cortez, Colorado.

It’s also two to three times more expensive. Accessing land requires four times as many procedures, resulting in a process that is six times as long, and acquiring electricity is four times more expensive.

Stago and her mother couldn’t access the capital necessary to expand their inventory and compete with larger companies, so she decided to pivot to the work she was doing part-time with the Small Business Development Center at Northland Pioneer College.

“I was always talking to people who would come and talk to me about their dream of starting a business," Stago said. “I knew the challenges they would face. I knew we didn’t have an ecosystem set up for them for somebody to come into their government offices to get registered, to find out how to start a new business, to find a place to open a business. We didn’t have that.”

Devils Making a Difference

Read more in our series about ASU alumni helping others in their communities.

Stago recalled a conversation she had with an older man in a restaurant in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo nation. She was wearing business attire, and the man walked up to her and said, “Can I ask what you do?”

Stago told him she helped people with their business plans. He said he had tried to open a store near the Four Corners Monument 20 years earlier, but it had taken five years to get a lease for a business site, and then he couldn’t raise the money he needed.

“He said he just had to give it up,” Stago recalled. “I kept hearing that over and over from people. And then I also was hearing from our leadership at the state, federal and even tribal level that we don’t have entrepreneurs, we don’t have people who are interested in business. I kept hearing our people are risk averse.

“I just started thinking, ‘All of that is wrong. That’s not the case.’”

Stago decided to do something about it. In 2014, she co-founded the Native American Business Incubator Network, and over the next several years, the network provided business counseling for 22 existing and aspiring businesses — ranging from fashion designers to bed-and-breakfast operators.

Five years later, Stago and Heather Fleming, who had founded a nonprofit firm supporting Indigenous entrepreneurs outside the U.S, partnered to rebrand the network into Change Labs, which held annual entrepreneurship support events across the reservation.

Then, in 2019, Stago and Fleming decided they needed to put brick-and-mortar roots down.

“We knew at that time it was critical to be represented by physical space, which would be symbolic of permanence in the community,” said Fleming, Change Labs’ executive director. “That was important to us. Too many nonprofits come and go and make promises in the community, and things don’t turn out or there’s no change. We knew in order to boost confidence in us and say we’re part of the community, we needed a physical presence.”

It took five years, through the pandemic, through land deals that fell through, through delay after delay, but on June 16, Change Labs had a home.

Stago had helped make the impossible possible.

Portrait of a woman sitting with medium length hair, glasses and a purple shirt
ASU alumna Jessica Stago, co-founder of Change Labs, earned a Bachelor of Science in economics from ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business in 2001. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

Timothy Clani Jr. takes a seat at a table on the patio of Change Labs. The ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin in a few minutes, and Clani is there to honor what Change Labs did for him.

In 2016, Clani, who was in the automotive industry, noticed there were few easily accessible repair shops on the Navajo reservation. People would have to drive a couple hundred miles to get their cars fixed, the cost was onerous and often the mechanics were not sufficiently skilled to do major diagnostic work.

Clani decided to start a mobile repair business, but he wasn’t sure how or where to get started. A friend told him about Change Labs, and when he went to their Facebook page, he saw Change Labs was having an innovation challenge in Shiprock, New Mexico.

The pitch for his business plan was accepted, and soon Change Labs was advising him on the steps he needed to start his business.

“They let me know how to handle the books, which people to contact, how to make connections, insurance, how to do daily plans, what I need for monthly costs and other things,” Clani said. “All the stuff that I didn’t really realize I needed to get done. They trained me how to process everything on a professional level, which I don’t think I had seen anyone do.”

Unfortunately, Clani's business went under during the COVID-19 pandemic, but he said he’ll forever be grateful for the advice and business counseling he received at Change Labs.

“One poet said, ‘There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,’” Clani said, referring to the line by French poet and novelist Victor Hugo. “Even now I’ve heard there are some other mechanics who are trying to do mobile services, which is awesome. So, it’s not about success or failure. It’s getting this help out there so other people can thrive, too.”

The ribbon-cutting ceremony served as a physical manifestation for everything Change Labs has become.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

More than 40 entrepreneurs or small-business owners are alums of Change Labs’ incubator program. Applicants accepted into the program get one-on-one guidance from one of Change Labs’ eight full-time employees.

“It’s essentially for our entrepreneurs who are trying to start a business as well as grow or expand,” said Holly Patterson, Change Labs’ business coach. “We’re here to provide resources such as teaching of the business model canvas, as well as anything from customer segments to identifying your customers and identifying marketing strategies.

"Also, just supplying the information of how much it costs to start up a business that they’re trying to get into and things like that.”

The opening of the Change Labs building is a game-changer for entrepreneurs. Stago said it’s an opportunity for them to converse with others who are facing the same challenges, develop ideas to overcome those challenges and work with the organization’s business coaches.

In addition, the building has wireless, which is not readily accessible on the Navajo reservation.

“When you go to the local government and you tell them you want to start a business and they have nothing to tell you, there’s a big challenge there,” Stago said. “What Change Labs does is we fill that gap.

"We do a lot of work in designing our programs to be really intuitive to entrepreneurs at different stages. So, if you’re just thinking of an idea, let’s give you these tools that you can go through and talk to somebody about. And then, as they get through the start-up phase, here's the incubator program. It’ll get you from where you’re at to getting your business registered.”

Change Labs, which is funded through philanthropy, also provides start-up money for entrepreneurs through its Kinship Lending program. The program doesn’t require credit or collateral from those seeking a loan. That difference is crucial because there is no land ownership on the Navajo nation, meaning most people don’t have the physical collateral a bank requires.

Instead, inspired by communal lending practices, Change Labs offers “relationship-based loans” of up to $5,000, and borrowers don’t have to begin repayment until four months after receiving the funds. Since 2020, the program has awarded $285,000 to 57 Native-run businesses.

“It works because it clears all the barriers that people have in terms of accessing capital,” Stago said.

In addition, Change Labs has an online database entitled Rez Rising, which includes more than 700 native-owned businesses across the Southwest. The database enables businesses to connect with new customers and helps customers find the services they need.

“Go on the website and you’ll find a lot of businesses where it’s very difficult to find them other than social media,” Stago said. “It’s about making these businesses more accessible to people.”

After the ribbon was cut and the mutton burgers were handed out by a local vendor, Stago warmly greeted those who had come out for the ceremony. She never could have imagined this day as she and her mom struggled to make their medical supply company sustainable.

But here it was, a testament to her commitment, her work ethic and her determination to smooth the path for Native entrepreneurs.

“This is what’s really needed all over the Navajo country,” Nygren said. “What I appreciate about them (Stago and Fleming) is their tenacity and resilience. They believed this could happen in Navajo. They believe we can build a strong small business community.”

Long after Clani had left the ceremony, his words resonated.

“It’s invaluable, the advice they give,” he said. “What they’re doing is gold.”

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