UNM Rainforest Innovations was awarded an Economic Development Administration (EDA) American Rescue Plan Economic Adjustment Assistance grant in April to help break down barriers and generate opportunity through entrepreneurship in historically underserved communities in New Mexico with a primary focus on coal-impacted tribal communities. Through this grant, the program aims to create new jobs, higher incomes, and inclusive growth through entrepreneurship by linking resources and assisting entrepreneurs in filling voids.
Tribal Liaisons are an essential part of the program, and their main mission is to connect with established and aspiring entrepreneurs within tribal communities across the state. They serve as navigators, dedicated mentors, and connection points to identify barriers and seek solutions through resources within the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Zach is a member of the Navajo Nation and is a sixth-generation traditional farmer and sand painter in Shiprock, New Mexico. He is of the “Giant People,” born for the “Red Running into Water” clan. His maternal grandfather’s clan is the “Red House People,” and his paternal grandfather is of the “Salt People.” Zach has over 10 years of experience in traditional farming and is the owner and founder of Bidii Baby Foods, LLC, a Navajo-registered business that sells organic, indigenous baby foods. In addition to working as a Tribal Liaison, he is a member of the state-led Family Leadership Council where he works with other families to address early childhood issues through action and advocacy.
Can you tell me about your professional journey so far?
I started my entrepreneurial journey when I was 14 years old. My father taught me the art of sand painting through traditional Navajo ceremonies and lived experience. My father had the opportunity to travel the world teaching and selling sand paintings during his younger years and passed on that skill to me, which I used to support myself and my family. My father is also a fifth-generation traditional farmer. He taught me how to save our heritage seeds, plant anywhere from 10-40 acres a season, and process the corn into one of our traditional foods called Neeshjzhihii (Navajo Dried Steamed Corn). I appreciate the lessons and values that farming teaches you, and I knew that when I had my first child that I wanted to not only feed him food that I grew for him, but that I wanted to create a sustainable business to feed other children in the community. That was my motivation to create Bidii Baby Foods LLC.
In addition to my entrepreneurial experience, I also have many years of volunteer work. We often don’t even think of it as volunteering, but as serving our community or participating in ceremony. I served as an AmeriCorps volunteer in my community for one year, where we helped clean out our irrigation system to improve water flow for farmers. Ever since I can remember I have helped at ceremonies, volunteering my time, and donating our crops. Plus, during the pandemic our farm was the primary liaison to World Central Kitchen and Core, the two primary groups providing food boxes and emergency assistance to the Navajo Nation. In addition to growing food for those food boxes, I helped deliver food boxes to some of the most rural areas of the Navajo Nation.
What interested you in the tribal liaison position and what do you hope to accomplish through the position?
When I started my business during the pandemic, I learned many things about the process. When registering a business and getting all of the training that you need, it is simply harder for indigenous entrepreneurs starting businesses on tribal nations. There is more red tape and jurisdictional issues to navigate. It is critical that this tribal liaison position is available to other indigenous entrepreneurs. Many people get intimidated by all of the red tape and extra challenges and end up not formalizing their businesses. This prevents our local economy from growing. I am very passionate about helping other indigenous entrepreneurs successfully navigate these systems in order to get their businesses off the ground. This year I hope to support at least four indigenous entrepreneurs establish their LLCs. I also aim to use my LLC cooperative to bring on more youth farmers and greatly expand the supply of local and traditional foods in our community.
Do you have any personal achievements or contributions you are most proud of?
After (U.S. President) Biden was elected, they did a tour and visited the Navajo nation. The Navajo Nation president asked if I could make a sand painting for them. It was given as a gift to the first lady and was hung in the White House. Additionally, I am very proud of the work that Bidii Baby Foods has been able to accomplish in the last 2 years of formal operation. We are one of only two indigenous Farmers on the reservation who are farm to school certified. We have made a lot of local connections that have allowed our products to get into locations that are more accessible and affordable to parents of young children. We look forward to our continued growth and expansion in the coming years.
What would you say to an aspiring entrepreneur or small business owner just getting started?
Don’t be afraid of the systems or afraid to ask questions. Tribal liaisons are here to help small indigenous business owners navigate these complexities and help you successfully establish your business.
To connect with Zachariah Ben, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org