Empowering Native Female Entrepreneurs

In honor of International Women’s Day, Margo Gray discusses uplifting women: ‘The power of sisterhood is phenomenal’

By Kristin Butler (originally published by Indian Country Media Network)

Ambitious. Visionary. Leader. Risk-taker. Innovator. These are the five words Margo Gray, an Osage citizen, uses to describe herself as an entrepreneur. Women are often bombarded with negative or vague feedback that stifles their confidence and hinders their growth. Gray combats the bad labels assigned to women leaders, such as “aggressive,” “bossy,” or “pushy,” by asking women to define themselves.

She poses this request for five descriptors to fellow business women while moderating the Native Women Trailblazers panel at the National Reservation Economic Summit in Las Vegas each spring. (RES will take place March 13-16, 2017, at the Mirage Las Vegas.) Oftentimes, Gray can’t resist throwing in a sixth adjective: “unfiltered,” she says with a proud laugh.

Gray is a tireless advocate for all women, and a transformational force for women in Indian country. She celebrates women who live boldly — women who follow their dreams, start businesses, lead corporations, mentor other women, and empower one another. “The power of sisterhood is phenomenal,” Gray says.

Today, the world honors women. International Women’s Day, observed March 8, celebrates women of all backgrounds and races who stand in their power — for themselves, their sisters, their cousins, their daughters, and all women of future generations. This year’s theme #BeBoldForChange calls on every woman and individual to help forge a better working world — a more inclusive, gender equal world. Beyond uplifting the strength of women, the globally recognized day elevates awareness of women’s fight for fundamental rights and equality.

For women of color, gender-based bias is confounded. Indigenous women, in particular, are often confronted with multiple layers of challenge, like poverty, lack of access to education, and inadequate health care. They cope with historical trauma, robbed of their culture and ancestral lands during colonization. They face discrimination, domestic violence and sexual abuse, including trafficking.

Those injustices can translate into demanding workforce experiences. Take the pay gap, for instance. Over 40 years of work (an estimated professional lifetime), a woman earns approximately $430,480 less than a white man. The lifetime income shortfall for Native American women, compared to the earnings of white men, is double that: $883,040. Their lifetime wage loss is second only to Latinas, who on average earn more than one million dollars — $1,007,080 — less than a white man.

That’s why Gray is shifting the paradigm and raising women’s voices, particularly in the business world.  At 59 years old, Gray is one of the Native women on the leading edge of leveling the gender playing field in Indian country and on an international scale. As chairwoman of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, 2009 to 2013, she used her platform to bring women’s issues to light. She created the first panel discussion for Native women in business at RES, and introduced the Native Woman Business Owner of the Year award, as well as the Native American 40 Under 40 Awards. (Gray currently serves on the National Center Board of Directors.)

2016 Native Women Trailblazers Panel RES

Through her panel discussion, Gray hopes to re-frame conversations about gender in Indian country, and to promote female allies, not rivals. Female relationships are often stigmatized as competitive — a damaging myth. Female friends serve as positive mentors and sounding boards in life and in business, Gray says.

“We have to celebrate each other’s accomplishments rather than letting jealousy creep in,” Gray says. “I really want Native women — because we’ve got a long ways to catch up to our other minority sisters — to tell our story, so that others understand, and in a way that will help and show our compassion and humanity.”

Awareness of gender disparity and all human rights is heightened in 2017. On January 21, Gray joined Indigenous Women Rise and half a million women from across the world at the Women’s March on Washington. The Indigenous Women Rise collective aims to ensure that Indigenous Women’s voices are heard and to raise the visibility of Indigenous peoples’ rights and issues. They marched in solidarity for the protection of women’s rights and safety, immigrant rights, LGBTQIA rights, religious freedom rights, and all human rights. Indigenous women have also been imperative in leading the Mni Wiconi/Water is Life and NoDAPL movement. Among the questions Gray may ask panelists is: “In regards to the recent movement at Standing Rock, how did you respond when Indian country was under attack?”

Deborah Parker

“This year, we’ve had so much activism in Indian country. I had to have Deborah Parker on the panel,” Gray says. “She’s an attorney [legislative policy analyst] and former vice chair of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington State.” Parker, who served as the National Tribal Outreach Director for Bernie Sanders’ campaign, was appointed to the Democratic National Convention’s Platform Committee in May 2016. Parker was also a critical voice in the enactment of the Violence Against Women Act.

Last year’s winner of the Native Woman Business Owner of the Year award, Eunice Tso, Navajo, will also participate in this year’s Native Women Trailblazers panel. Her small business, ETD Inc., celebrated its 20th anniversary in December 2015. “I always like to include someone [on the panel] who’s been through the struggle and in the trenches like I have, because no one really knows how hard it is to run a business until you’ve done it — when you’ve got to make payroll,” Gray says.

April Tinhorn

Gray is also enthused that a member of the National Center’s 40 Under 40, April Tinhorn, Hualapai/Navajo/Chinese, will partake. Tinhorn founded  Tinhorn Consulting, LLC, in 2010. The full-service integrated marketing and consulting firm originated in Peach Springs, Arizona, on the Hualapai Indian reservation on the southwest rim of the Grand Canyon in response to the growing need for a professional services agency that truly understands Indian country.

Gray is president of Margo Gray & Associates and Horizon Engineering Services Co. “I’m a third-generation entrepreneur. It’s a little bit tougher for women,” says Gray, the sixth of seven siblings, who started her career in law enforcement, working in the industry for 18 years. “I’m in my 19th year as a business owner,” she says.

During the Native Women Trailblazers panel, Gray will ask participants about honing leadership skills, like confidence and resilience, and seeking advice from mentors.

Eventually, she’ll turn the discussion toward a somewhat taboo yet essential topic of focus for women in the workplace: sexual harassment. Through sharing, women heal and empower other women to stand up for themselves. She often asks: “Early on in each of our careers, most of us learned to deal with sexist situations. How did you respond, and what did you learn about how to deal with it?” Gray, with her “steely resolve” calls it out immediately, she says.

Gray also likes to ask panelists, “How has culture, and your matrilineal or patrilineal society, affected your career path?”

The roster of Native women who have participated in Gray’s panel discussions about female entrepreneurship over the years is nothing short of impressive. “Every one has a unique path and story,” Gray says.

The Native Women Trailblazers panel will take place on Wednesday, March 15, 9-10:30 a.m., at the Mirage Las Vegas.

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