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There is a movement in the Native women’s community in the state. Native Women Lead began as a collaborative idea, a call to action looking for like-minded individuals to share experiences of Native women entrepreneurs and leaders. Now the organization is a finalist in a national competition and on the cusp of something big. Philanthropist Melinda Gates’ incubation company Pivotal Ventures, launched the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, designed to encourage women to lead and gain influence within their communities by 2030. This summer, the Challenge will grant three $10 million awards, with an additional $10 million to be allocated among finalists. Native Women Lead (NWL) in partnership with New Mexico Community Capital is among ten finalists in a pool of over 550 national applicants. They are the only finalists from New Mexico. The core value of Native Women Lead is that Native women are the backbone of Indigenous communities. Vanessa Roanhorse, the co-founder of Native Women Lead, spoke with The Paper. to talk about the organization and why the Albuquerque community is its home.

The Paper.: For those that have been living under a rock for the past year, or are just are not aware, what is Native Women Lead?

Vanessa Roanhorse: Native Women Lead is an organization co-founded by eight Native Indigenous Women that really began around the question of why are we still looking to sit at other people’s tables or have other communities and activities invite us in for resources when we know ourselves what we need and we can build those solutions to fit our needs. Our focus is on how we revolutionize systems so that we can invest and build stronger pathways for Indigenous women to have agency—not only for themselves but for the greater community of Indigenous women. It’s a rebalancing of systems, recognizing women have been pushed out of the systems, and a return to building a stronger relationship with Earth Mother; it’s not just business. We have chosen business because entrepreneurship is a pathway to agency—freedom, really.

The other projects all have great intentions like social justice, technology roles for women, career-building relationships with businesses and workplace equality. These are all very focused, but NWL’s project’s focus is broad enough it inherently solves these problems. Who better to hire women programmers and high-tech leads than a woman-owned tech company? So you help find and build that tech company, right?

Yes, we talk a lot about entrepreneurship; people tend to think we are just a technical-assistance-only provider or that we just help businesses. But what we are trying to do is create a network and a system that perpetually invests, in a circular way, into women’s power and influence. We do that, particularly using a business or applicable partnerships along the way. When you have economic agency, that agency allows you to have choices—and with the tool we use today, which is money or capital. From our perspective, it was a way for Indigenous women to be successful, so that they can still make a living.

We center women, we center women in their needs, and we know when women are centered, they reinvest in where they live and give back. We will continue to be caretakers, but now in positions of power and caretakers in those roles as well.

Who are the eight women?

AJ Gloshay, who works with us at Roanhorse Consulting, helped develop those early thoughts into action. She is a big part of everything that is NWL; her DNA is on every part from the beginning. Now she is helping us on the capital development side. Steph Poston, owner/CEO of Poston and Associates for 15 years. If you have worked in Indian Country, you have worked with Steph Poston. She has done everything from PR, marketing, conventions and events. Next is Jaclyn Roessel, who is a force of nature. She’s the president and owner of Grownup Navajo. She can take complex systems around intersectional thinking and justice. She helps remind us how to build culture and identity into this work. Kalika Davis, New Mexico Community Capital social media strategist, always keeps us grounded. She always lights the cedar for us and reminds us to be centered. Kim Gleason, director of Two Worlds Theatre Company, the only Indigenous woman-owned theater company in N.M., helps us think about our staging and our look. She has a great eye for detail. Alicia Ortega, the former executive director of New Mexico’s All Pueblo Governor’s Council, is a Pueblo-strong woman who understands how to work within that governmental level. She gives us that knowledge of working with tribal and State leaders, often navigating that patriarchy. Then myself, who has been focused on uplifting these women and their gifts in their best ways. My interest is creating pathways to capital and to make that notion of capital, which sometimes sounds foreign to us, to make it possible.

The side hustle has become bigger than the hustle itself for you all, it seems. I think it is great to think about how business is inherent to our communities. There is so much more to this story, but please give me your final thoughts.

I don’t know if NWL could be successful if it weren’t for this place we live in. Albuquerque, New Mexico, these tribes in the area, we want to give back constantly, this is our home. A place our people have walked for thousands of years. For us, N.M. and Albuquerque are magical. We are in a unique time—in this state, in the country—where Indigenous knowledge is thriving and growing. We are happy to be a part of that waterway of dreamers, creators, community members, organizers and activists. With Deb Haaland’s confirmation, for instance, and being a finalist in the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge, the time is right. A huge love letter to the state and the tribes here. They give us so much, as long as we don’t take too much either. This is home.

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