What started as a class assignment for senior business major Nicole Johnny has turned into a revolutionary way to bring a community together and implement a lifelong dream. Johnny was assigned to write a business plan for her International Business class, but she did not stop there.
Johnny started her own fair trade store in her hometown Crystal, N.M., which is part of the Navajo Nation. Johnny is currently developing the start-up of her own trading post, which will serve as a gathering place, an educational arena, and an outlet for arts and crafts as well as a job source for the Navajo people.
Merging her business skills with her love for her culture, Johnny has cast an innovative vision. She grew up in the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico and spent her childhood exploring the outdoors all the while learning to appreciate her heritage. Both of her parents obtained college degrees and started their own businesses on the reservation.
Johnny watched her grandmother weave when she was growing up, and now she weaves herself. However, when she watched her grandmother sell rugs to non-Navajo store owners, she would see the rugs being resold for two or three times the price the next day. Johnny saw this as unfair, which is why she decided to do something about it.
After completing her class assignment, Johnny reworked it from an international scale to a real-life working business plan.
The trading post will have a coffee shop to serve local students from the tribal college and a small library to serve students attending boarding school. The shop will also function as a store for local artists to sell their crafts. Among these functions, the shop will also be a cultural museum for others to learn about the Navajo culture.
“It’s a place where the community can share its history and beauty for everyone who wants to experience and learn about the Navajo culture,” Johnny said.
After Johnny developed her business venture and established her vision for the trading post, she had to deal with the practicalities of starting her own business.
“I submitted this version to the Navajo Nation Economic Development Committee,” Johnny said. “I’m sure I was the youngest person who walked into their building with a business plan and I’m sure that someone thought I was too young. But they gave my business plan a look, suggested areas where I could revise it, and they liked it.”
The hard-working business student obtained the support of her community for the project — the very people she desires to serve.
Johnny is currently researching ways to fund the project and writing grant proposals to get her trading post up and running. She also is looking into the legal aspect of the business and working towards obtaining all the required clearances needed. These include permits to utilize the building safely and to legally serve and sell food. Johnny is working with Dr. Daniel Kipley of the APU School of Business and Management to help with the logistics of the venture.
Although Johnny is excited about starting her own business, this year has not been one without pain. Her father passed away unexpectedly this past summer, and she misses the comfort and understanding of her tribe while she attends college in California. Instead of taking a leave of absence, Johnny decided to stay and graduate on time.
“He was looking forward to my graduation, and I know he would want me to continue and finish,” Johnny said.
Johnny is not going to let struggles stand in the way of achieving her dream even though this committed student has faced adversity. Johnny draws inspiration from her Navajo culture.
“After 500 years of cultural genocide and massacres, we remain,” Johnny said.
The Navajo Nation still faces many issues from job shortages to alcoholism. But Johnny acknowledges that her generation is a part of a positive change for her people.
“We’re survivors. And even though my trading post is a small contribution, it’s a part of this change,” Johnny said. “I refuse to let my culture, traditions, language and people be forgotten.”