One-On-One With Vanessa Roanhorse

By Ellen Marks Albuquerque Journal, N.M. WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Vanessa Roanhorse, calls herself a “reluctant entrepreneur.” She started her company Roanhorse Consulting in 2016, about the time she landed a contract with the city of Albuquerque for the Small Business Resource Collaborative. She and her company also co-founded Native Women Lead, which seeks to boost indigenous women in business ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. Vanessa Roanhorse has a multitude of skills due to her job history in film editing, real estate sales, the food industry and “you name it — whatever I could get.” Also, she knows how to properly set a table and how to behave at tea time, thanks to her high school years at the exclusive Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. “Throw me anywhere. I know what that fork’s for, and I know how to use a lobster tool,” says Roanhorse, founder of Roanhorse Consulting LLC, which helps develop projects, particularly for Native communities. Her education on the East Coast, at the school once attended by Jackie Onassis, was a series of culture shocks for a kid who grew up in Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation. “It really wasn’t until I went to high school in Connecticut where I … found out I was poor — like really understood that I was poor because everybody was just living,” she said. “I’d never felt poor. I had food and I had clothes and I had fun and I had love. That felt pretty rich. “And then I went to high school, and the young ladies had maids, chauffeurs, they could go shopping and buy a $900 belt. That’s when I was like oh, s–.” Roanhorse, who calls herself a “reluctant entrepreneur,” started her company in 2016, about the time she landed a contract with the city of Albuquerque for the Small Business Resource Collaborative. The goal was to help businesses along Central Avenue during construction of the ART transit project. Since then, Roanhorse has acquired clients like Nusenda Credit Union and the Innovate ABQ project. She and her company also co-founded Native Women Lead, which seeks to boost indigenous women in business. There is great interest in Roanhorse and her work — she attended 15 conferences in a recent 30-day period. She says the job of Roanhorse Consulting is to “co-build” a project or initiative with the client, and, in all things, she tries to “do it the way we’ve always done it as indigenous people.” “There is no hierarchy of power. We’re all at the table because we’re all here, because we want everyone to not starve, we want everyone to be healthy, we want everyone to have freedom and so how do you do that? You do that by reducing power dynamics and co-working together.” She is quick to give credit to others who work at the company, including her husband, and her twin sister, Olivia, whom she describes as her greatest “touchstone.” “We always laughed, if we were one person how unstoppable we’d be,” says Roanhorse, who had to check with Olivia before answering a question about her age (42). “Working together is actually our version of it, I think.” You described yourself as a “reluctant entrepreneur.” What do you mean by that? “The thing I like to tell people is this was never my dream. I didn’t know what it was. I thought I was going to be in art school. An experimental filmmaker, that’s what I thought I was going to do. I didn’t self-identify as an entrepreneur. I didn’t really identify as a business owner for the first two years. I was just doing stuff.” And now? “Somebody smarter than me said once you really start to do entrepreneurship, it’s a bit of a disease (and) you can’t stop doing it. So really, in the last couple of years, because I’ve seen so much work that the group is doing here as well as what’s happening out in the world, I’ve got, like, five other business ideas I want to launch. So, yes, I think I finally have embraced it. What was your childhood like? “Growing up on the reservation was amazing. It wasn’t easy, right? It’s hard because of the challenges we as indigenous people face, with a lack of resources that you can find everywhere else. But we made up for it. There’s nothing more rich than having access to your own family, having access to ceremony without even knowing it’s ceremony.” What do you mean? “We would be running between my aunt’s house and my parents’ house and my grandmother’s house. You go in, and you’d just get a good hug from your grandmother, and she’d say something, some nice words over you. You just didn’t know it was ceremony, but it was happening all around you.” How did you get to Miss Porter’s? “I was waiting tables back home … and it was Sunday brunch, and this young lady who looked totally out of place came in with a Navajo family. She was spending a month on the Navajo Nation doing an internship. I had so many questions for her, and she said, ‘this is the school I go to,’ and she wrote it down. So there was no internet, right? I called the operator and asked for the phone number. I asked if I could make a long-distance call, and my mom said, ‘OK.’ I made the call and asked if they’d send me an application, so they did. I went there sophomore year and graduated from there.” That’s pretty gutsy. “You know what? It’s a theme in my life that I didn’t realize. I’m learning that about myself now. It didn’t appear that way at the time. All I knew was I wanted more, and I also was kind of spiraling out a little bit as a person. I wasn’t making the best choices in life, and I just … needed something different.” How did that experience affect you, long-term? “It’s given me the ability to know how to talk to people of all types, also people with money, something I think is one of the reasons I feel this work is so important is talking about money is not easy for many of us. How money has harmed a lot of our Native people — there’s a reason you don’t see enough of us working in the financial sectors. And so for me, I learned how to navigate some of those conversations. It also made me really pull away from my Nativeness because I got so tired of being tokenized that I just got to where I wanted to be treated like everyone else. So for a long time that was my mantra. No, no, I’m Vanessa first, then Native. I just kind of started to separate that, and it was probably in my early 30s that I really had to come back around and de-colonize that process for myself and then moving back here enforced, no one should bisect themselves in that way.” Pet peeves? “Lateness. Bad communication or lack of communication. Crumbs on the counter.” What’s your favorite food? “Oh, my God, Korean food. I could eat stinky, delicious — stinky only because we’re Westernized — really intense (food) all day long.” What advice have you gotten that really inspired you? “Most of us don’t know what we’re doing, and it’s OK. It’s OK to be unsure, and it’s OK to just sometimes be uncomfortable in those spaces. I feel like we spend more time trying to act like we know the answer to the end of the story when we shouldn’t. The point is to do the thing now, to be part of the glue. The story will tell itself.”

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