SHIPROCK — An all-day event on Friday at Diné College's library in Shiprock brought together employees from technology companies like Facebook and Google with young entrepreneurs and business owners to tackle challenges on the Navajo Nation.
The event, called Change Labs, offered interactive workshops on a variety of topics, including how to build a website, opportunities in small-scale agriculture and crowdfunding. About 100 people attended the event.
"This event is an effort to bring together talented people, passion-doers and help support them and lift them up," said the event's primary organizer, Heather Fleming, CEO and founder of a Bay Area product design firm called Catapult Design. "Innovation is borrowing from existing technology and creatively tweaking it, turning it a just enough at an angle to fit a new purpose."
Fleming, who was born in Tuba City, Ariz., has led engineering design projects in developing countries and believes the Navajo Nation can benefit from the technological innovations those places have seen.
On Friday morning, Byron Shorty, founder of Navajo Word of the Day website, led a workshop called Reinventing the Navajo Nation with Mobile Technology. He and Facebook product designer Anisha Jain led a group through the steps of creating a smartphone application.
"We're about showing people the functionality of these things (smart phones), tapping into the Navajo culture's sense of utility — you iterate, you plan, you prototype and you consider your next steps," Shorty said. "It's really powerful to show people how to be able to sit down and put pen to paper and explore your potential to change. What I feel is to encourage as much autonomy as possible. Do it yourself — it's up to you."
Three students from Northern Arizona University — Jewel Honga, Crystal Littleben and Traci Huskon — arrived early Friday in professional dress, armed with cellphones and business cards. The young women all said they are committed to starting businesses on the Navajo Nation.
"A big problem with businesses on the reservation is a lack of infrastructure and a lot of laws and paperwork," Hongo said. "I want to start a bed and breakfast, work in hospitality. All things are possible."
Lavina Pete traveled from her home in Window Rock, Ariz., to attend Change Labs. Pete owns a technology consulting firm, NavaTech LLC, and has worked in technology for more than 20 years. As much as she wants to expand her company's reach, she also wants to share her knowledge and experience to benefit Navajo workers.
"I'm interested in doing work that considers the next generations on the Navajo Nation," Pete said. "I want to get to the scale where I employ long-term workers who can, in turn, pass along what they know to younger people. When there are 2-year-olds who can easily navigate on iPads, imagine what our future will look like. A woman today at this conference said it best, 'Be prepared to grow.'"
The idea for Change Labs grew from an entrepreneurship expo at the University of New Mexico at Gallup. Al Henderson, founder of the New Mexico Rural Entrepreneur Institute, lectures at the university on business and economics and has hosted the expo for the last two years.
Henderson said he wanted to craft a more hands-on event. So last year, he and Fleming — along with Natasha Johnson, Native American program manager for Grand Canyon Trust, and Jessica Stago, a business counselor for the Native American Incubator Network and Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology — met in Gallup. They discussed engaging attendees with an emphasis on learning by doing, and Change Labs was born.
Now, Henderson said he wants to continue Change Labs next year and host it in the Zuni Pueblo-Ramah area.
"The use of technology should be people-centered at a grass-roots level," he said. "I see opportunity in abundance on the Navajo Nation. We have resources and talent, but we need young people to bring their energy and ideas. We're trying to generate a hopeful, not helpless, generation. Young people must be engaged to increase our chance for true change."