This Nonprofit Has Raised Over $10 Million to Support Indigenous Women Entrepreneurs: ‘It's Up to Us to Close the Racial Wealth Gap'

Photo: Leah Rose; courtesy of Native Women Lead

Native American women stand to lose nearly $1.1 million over the course of their careers to a staggering wage gap that has widened since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to new research

In 2021, Native American women working full-time were paid approximately $0.57 for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men, the National Women's Law Center reports — in 2020, that difference was $0.60.

This equals about $28,797 in lost wages per year, which could pay for nearly a year of child care, 10 months of food and six months of rent for a working Native American woman. The ongoing wage gap means that Native American women would need to work an additional 11 months into the new year — until Nov. 30 — to earn as much as their white, male colleagues made in 2021.

The wage gap Native American women face has steadily worsened over the course of the pandemic as millions of jobs were cut in low-paying industries where Native American women often work, including hospitality, health care and administrative services, while others were forced into part-time work or out of the labor force entirely as the virus devastated tribal communities throughout the U.S.

Here's how one nonprofit, Native Women Lead, is enabling Indigenous women's economic mobility:

'It's up to use to close the racial wealth gap'

Native Women Lead was founded in 2017 by eight Native American women entrepreneurs: Jaime Gloshay, Kalika Davis, Lisa Foreman, Kim Gleason, Vanessa Roanhorse, Alicia Ortega, Stephine Poston and Jaclyn Roessel.

Some of the founders met five years ago at an event hosted by the Women's Economic Forum in Albuquerque, where they participated in a panel called "Developing the Space for Positive Native Women Mentorship." 

Not a single attendee showed up. 

What started as a conversation about the disappointing lack of interest from their peers quickly turned into an hours-long discussion about what it's really like to be a Native American woman in business: the triumphs and challenges, including family and child-care obligations, hiring discrimination and a lack of funding opportunities. 

"Indigenous people have always been incredibly entrepreneurial, solving complex problems based on their own ancestral wisdom and relationship with the world," Gloshay tells CNBC Make It. "Yet we have a lot of people in our communities, especially women, who, because of structural inequities and bias, aren't able to access advanced degrees or career resources outside of their communities … it's up to us to close the racial wealth gap." 

That conversation inspired the creation of Native Women Lead, an Albuquerque-based non-profit that aims to help Indigenous women entrepreneurs across the world access the capital, mentors, financial education and support needed to thrive in their careers and narrow the wealth gap. 

Creating funding opportunities and spaces for healing

Earlier this year Native Women Lead launched two funds, the Matriarch Creative Fund and the Matriarch Restorative Fund, which provide Indigenous women entrepreneurs with low-interest loans starting at $5,000 to grow their small businesses. The Matriarch Creative Fund provides capital to entrepreneurs working in artistic fields like photography and fashion whereas the Matriarch Restorative Fund targets more experienced entrepreneurs across all industries.

To date, Native Women Lead has provided about $500,000 to 65 Indigenous women entrepreneurs through the two funds, partnering with credit unions and financial intermediaries such as Nusenda Credit Union and Common Future to connect entrepreneurs with capital. 

Native Women Lead along with New Mexico Community Capital, which is also based in Albuquerque, were awarded $10 million last year by the Equality Can't Wait Challenge, a competition centered on gender equality in the U.S. that Melinda French Gates and MacKenzie Scott helped contribute to and lead.

The money will be put towards a collaborative initiative called "The Future Is Indigenous Womxn," which aims to build support systems for Native women in business through fellowships, training, loans and other resources.

While closing the wealth gap might start with funding opportunities, Native Women Lead views wealth as "more than just revenue or profits," Stephine Poston, one of the group's co-founders, says. "To build true wealth, we need to protect our culture, our families, our mental health and our communities," she adds. 

Native Americans report experiencing serious psychological distress about 2.5 times more than the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Keeping this in mind, Native Women Lead offers wellness-focused retreats for Indigenous women as well as fireside chats on self-care practices, healing from trauma and other mental health topics.

Achieving true pay equity doesn't start or end with a dollar amount

It's important to note that even before the pandemic, the economic reality for Native American women was grim. In 2019, nearly 18% of Native American women and 21% of Native American children lived in poverty, according to the latest data available from the NWLC. 

Native American women represent two-thirds of the breadwinners in their families, Vanessa Roanhorse, a co-founder, points out, and are often key "economic stabilizers" in their communities. 

Yet barriers to equitable wealth including access to quality education, jobs, credit and financing persist, and can do varying degrees of harm to women in different tribes. Blackfoot, Tohono O'odham, and Yaqui women, for example, make just 51 cents for every dollar paid to a white, non-Hispanic man, while Iñupiat women make 89 cents for every dollar.

But achieving true pay equity for Native American women doesn't start or end with a dollar amount, Roanhorse stresses — instead, on a more macro level, it's also about businesses and hiring managers re-thinking their values. 

"It shouldn't just be about the bottom line and return to investors," she says. "We can all be more intentional about creating equitable, inclusive environments with Native women in mind that have positive impacts on the communities around us." 

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