Indigenous Wellness Marketplace
One-line solution summary:
A digital hub which sells Indigenous-made, culturally significant products to encourage movement, cooking, and mindfulness in Native homes.
Pitch your solution.
Native American people are already working to reclaim ancestral health, as evidenced by the countless tribal organizations and individuals who state this as their mission. But despite a far reaching interest in fitness, healthy eating, and wellness, there is currently a lack of culturally significant Indigenous wellness products on the market. Anyone can buy a rubber yoga mat from a global corporation, for example, but no one can buy a Native American-made exercise mat from an Indigenous-owned enterprise that is crafted by ancestral technology with all-natural materials. That's why we are partnering with makers who are already skilled in ancestral trades like carving, hide tanning, and sewing to design and sell innovative Indigenous products that connect our culture with movement, meditation, and healthy eating. This will change lives by providing income for artisans, driving a new need for traditional technologies, and encouraging daily wellness practices in Native homes and beyond.
Film your elevator pitch.
What specific problem are you solving?
Primarily, we seek to promote health and reduce disease in Native communities. The CDC states that Native Americans experience health disparities at higher rates than any other ethnic group in the United States. They suggest that in order to solve the problem, we must “strengthen connections to culture that improve health and wellness that have been threatened over generations." We hope that by offering culturally relevant products that facilitate everyday wellness like meditation, movement, and cooking, a greater number of Native people will incorporate these practices into daily life, ultimately improving health overall.
We also seek to address discrimination in mainstream wellness. According to Dr. Adrienne Keene, "cultural appropriation is big business" and non-Natives are "packaging Native spirituality and ignoring the communities it comes from." Wellness is a four billion dollar industry which often exploits Native imagery. Our store is a place where Native people own our voice in wellness.
Finally, we will address unemployment. According to the First Peoples Fund, 40% of Native people are skilled in traditional art forms. Yet, American Indian poverty rates are at 26% and unemployment is at 7.6%. Our solution creates work where skills already exist, providing a sustainable source of income for artisans.
What is your solution?
Our solution is to partner with Native American artisans to create and sell wellness-oriented products that are authentically Indigenous, culturally significant, and crafted using traditional technologies and ancestral design elements. We will sell these products through an online store that will be added to our existing website, wellforculture.com. We will also offer tutorials on movement, meditation, and cooking that accompany each product.
We will employ Native people for every aspect of the business, from product design, to production, to operations. We will utilize traditional Indigenous technologies like hide tanning, sewing, and plant knowledge to create unique products that will appeal and can be sold to all people, but are especially catered to Indigenous people who are interested in culturally relevant wellness.
While we have dozens of product ideas to eventually approach, we have narrowed our focus to four primary products to begin with, made by artisans with whom we already maintain a relationship.
1. BUFFALO HIDE EXERCISE MAT by Jamie Gentry (Kwakwaka'wakw)
2. SMUDGING & MEDITATION FLOOR PILLOW - by RJ Morin (Anishinaabe)
4. NONTOXIC PLANT MEDICINE SOAPS - by Tipiziwin Tolman (Lakota)
5. WOODEN TABLEWARE & COOKING TOOLS - by Stephan Cheney (Lakota)
Strong preference will be given to Native-led solutions that directly benefit and are located within the Indigenous communities. Which community(s) does your solution benefit?
Our target population includes all Native American people who are would benefit from the improvement of the overall state of health in Indian Country and who would support the increased prevalence of culturally meaningful wellness practices for themselves, their families, and their communities. Optimistically, we tend to believe that this includes every single tribal member in the United States, which according to Bureau of Indian Affairs entails a total of 1.14 million citizens of federally recognized tribes.
More specifically, our product offering will be available for the benefit of the 50,000 individuals and over 300 tribal wellness programs who we have already developed relationships with through our services and online resources. These are the people who will most likely be the initial customers and will reap the benefits of a deepened connection to wellness by having the opportunity to purchase and utilize wellness products that are specifically designed to facilitate their holistic health in a culturally significant way.
The Urban Indian community of Phoenix, Arizona, which maintains a population of 120,000 Native American people, will benefit as this will be the location of our business and our hiring pool.
Finally, the communities where our artisans come from will also benefit, as employment rates will ultimately approve once they begin to consistently work for us. In the distant future, we see opportunities for horizontal growth across by building an increased number of artisan partnerships from different tribal nations. We also see an opportunity for vertical growth within the base model by a steadily growing demand for the products we will initially launch.
Another long-term goal is, if our product sales are successful, to fund each artisan we work with to teach their craft to an apprentice so that the tribal work force grows, so that we can keep supply in line with demand, and most importantly so that these traditional art forms will continue to be taught and learned in Native communities.
Which dimension of the Fellowship does your solution most closely address?Increase access to jobs, financial capital, and skill development opportunities
Explain how the problem, your solution, and your solution’s target population relate to the Fellowship and your selected dimension.
Our solution uses both traditional knowledge and modern technology to drive positive impact in Native communities. We will achieve this by employing Indigenous artisans who use traditional skills, by catering to Native customers, by selling wares on a digital platform, and by sharing online wellness tutorials to accompany each product.
In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?Phoenix, AZ, USA
What is your solution’s stage of development?Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model rolled out in one or, ideally, several communities, which is poised for further growth
Who is the primary delegate for your solution?
Please indicate the tribal affiliation of your primary delegate.
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
Is your primary delegate a member of the community in which your project is based?
Which of the following categories best describes your solution?A new application of an existing technology
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
In general, Native American wellness products are currently being sold by an assortment of online stores, companies, and grassroots vendors, by both Native and non-Native owned and operated enterprises. For example, it is not terribly difficult to find a sage-scented lotion or an athletic t-shirt with an Indigenous design on it. However, as far as we have been able to find, there are no existing Native American wellness businesses which not only aggregate but also design innovative wellness products (like our buffalo hide exercise mat). Our concept is so unique that we do not currently have a direct competitor that does exactly what we do.
We are innovators because we seek to fill a space that is currently not being occupied. There is a need for wellness products that are specifically catered to Indigenous culture, that do not exploit Native communities but rather financially support Indigenous artisans, and that make Native people feel welcome to practice wellness, which at times can seem elitist and unwelcoming.
While we have not found a direct competitor in the Indigenous world, we have found a good example of a successful wellness-oriented enterprise in the Black community. This is a worthy comparison because like Native people, Black people face discrimination in the wellness space and are working to reclaim their voices and power through enterprise and leadership. "BLK + GREEN" is a successful "all-natural wellness marketplace by all Black artisans" which exhibits a similar mission and presence to how we ultimately view our store.
Describe the core technology that powers your solution.
Our solution combines existing technologies with new applications of existing technologies.
The existing technologies we will use include our online store, our digital marketing strategies, our social media presence/networking.
The existing technologies with new application includes all of the traditional art forms and Indigenous ancestral knowledge that will be utilized to create never-before-seen products. These include hide tanning and sinew sewing for the buffalo hide exercise mat; plant medicine harvesting and processing for the soaps; Indigenous artistic design for the smudging/meditation pillow; and culturally appropriate, sustainable lumber harvesting and traditional carving for the wooden cooking accessories.
Provide evidence that this technology works.
Online stores and digital marketing are commonly used worldwide, including within Indigenous communities and for tribally-owned enterprises. We have found two good examples of Indigenous-owned online stores who, like us, partner with artisans from a variety of tribal communities to sell specifically-themed wares in one central online location. The success of these two stores indicates that the business infrastructure that we propose is a viable idea. They are: Beyond Buckskin and B Yellowtail, which are both fashion-oriented companies based on the Turtle Mountain Reservation and in Los Angeles, respectively, which maintain partnerships with Indigenous partisans all over North America along with global customer bases of both Native and non-Native people.
As far as the ancestral technologies that will be utilized to create the products, we know that these technologies work because they have been used by Indigenous peoples for generations.
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
What is your theory of change?
By partnering with Indigenous artisans to offer culturally relevant wellness products, we intend to increase the number of Indigenous people who engage in wellness activities like cooking, meditation, movement, and nontoxic personal care at home. A study by the Alliance for Inclusive and and Multicultural Marketing (part of the Association of National Advertisers) showed that consumers are 2.7 times more likely to purchase a product for the first time if the advertising seems culturally relevant to them, and they are 50% more likely to purchase from the brand again if they have purchased from them in the past. We can infer that if a consumer purchases a product, they are likely to use it, which is how our products will support wellness activity in Indigenous homes.
We are committed to reducing disease and improving overall health in Indian Country. According to the CDC, American Indian populations are 50% more likely than non-white hispanics to experience diabetes, and have the highest prevalence of diabetes in the U.S. We believe that by engaging a greater number of Native people in culturally relevant wellness activities,
our initiative will work to ultimately decrease these rates.
For over five years, Well For Culture has been providing culturally relevant health programming to Indian Country. In an informal survey of our former collaborators, we asked one question: why did you hire us instead of another wellness program? Nearly everyone expressed that they hired us because we take a specifically "Indigenized" approach to healthy eating, mindfulness, and fitness. We asked a similar question to a survey of our 20,000 Instagram followers: Does our culturally relevant approach keep you interested in our health information? The answer was a resounding "yes" at 94% of respondents. In conclusion, our founding theory of change has proven correct: that our Indigenous focused wellness programming, which connects ancestral teachings to modern health problems and solutions, motivates a greater number of Indigenous people to engage in health and wellness practices. We are confident that this same level of interest and engagement will translate from service to product.
Select the key characteristics of your target population.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?
In which state(s) do you currently operate?
In which state(s) will you be operating within the next year?
How many people does your solution currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?
While we ideally envision ourselves working with a large percentage of the 1.14 million people who are enrolled in federally recognized tribes, we recognize the need to focus on a refined population. Currently, with our existing consulting and wellness services business, we are working with approximately 26,000 individuals. We arrived at this number by averaging 30 individuals per community or institution we have worked with and multiplying that by 200, which is the number of entities we have worked with so far. Then, we added 20,000 which is approximately the number of social media followers, podcast listeners, and unique website visitors we maintain. These 26,000 individuals will serve as the initial customer base for our business, and will most likely be the first people to take interest in our products and use them effectively. Nearly all of these individuals are either enrolled tribal members, non-Native employees who work with tribal nations, or allies to the Indigenous community in the wellness space.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Within the next year, our goals are:
1. Work with Indigenous artisans to design unique, high quality, sustainable wellness products that are beautiful, useful, and created with traditional technologies.
2. To launch our store and sell products which establish and encourage Native peoples' connections to wellness practices through not only our product offerings but also with the accompanying video tutorials which will demonstrate how to use each product.
3. To provide income and publicity for the Indigenous artisans who will co-design and create our products.
4. To use our initial rounds of profit to design and fund more product stock.
5. To establish a viable business plan.
In the next five years, we hope to:
1. To reclaim Indigenous imagery in the mainstream wellness space and show the world that ancestral technologies can facilitate modern wellness.
2. To get closer to improving health disparities in Indigenous communities
3. To use product profits to fund free fitness and health workshops for those who cannot afford registration fees.
4. To scale vertically by increasing supply and demand of existing product ideas and to scale horizontally by partnering with a great number of artisans from a variety of tribal nations to invent new wellness products that are based in Indigenous culture.
5. To hire more Indigenous people for operations and marketing aspects of the business.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?
1. Financial - While we have already invested as much personal income as we can into purchasing a small amount of product, packaging materials, and setting up our website infrastructure, we recognize that in order to fully launch this business while appropriately funding our artisan partners, we need more funding.
2. Technical - As the parents of a two-year-old with another baby on the way, due in December, we recognize time constraints and the challenges of work-life balance as a technical barrier. We are currently very busy (borderline overwhelmed) with the demands of working full-time from home to maintain our consulting business, and developing the store is a very large additional task.
3. Market - The COVID-19 crisis is presenting an unprecedented economic challenge to everyone, and Indian Country is suffering from this as well. We are sensitive to the fiscal challenges that tribal programs and individuals are currently going through, and we are aware that launching a business during the pandemic is somewhat of a risk.
How do you plan to overcome these barriers?
1. Financial - We hope to overcome this financial challenge with support from MIT Solve, which we believe will be enough funding to pay for a full first round of product and services required to launch the business. We would also like to learn more about seeking investor funding, which is an aspect of the business world that we are admittedly intimidated by as it feels like a distant world that we do not have close access to through our networks in the Native community.
2. Technical - Our challenge of work-life balance would be greatly alleviated by the ability to hire another operations employee, which we would do as soon as we built enough capital to fairly pay them, which we hope will happen following our first round of product sales. Additionally, we view this challenge as an aspect of life that all parents and business owners face, and we know that we maintain the work ethic and drive to deal with it.
3. Market - While the pandemic is posing an economic challenge to our potential customer base, it is also motivating the public to view health and wellness practices in a new way, with an increased interest in personal health sovereignty and turning the home into a wellness enclave as opposed to relying on the gym. The current social justice movement is also influencing both Native and non-Native consumers to consider putting their dollars toward minority-owned businesses that positively impact communities of color.
What type of organization is your solution team?Other, including part of a larger organization (please explain below)
If you selected Other, please explain here.
Our organization, Well For Culture, is a grassroots, non-registered entity. However, the cofounders and operators of Well For Culture are affiliated closely with the Native Wellness Institute, which is a nonprofit organization. One of our cofounders is a board member/trainer for Native Wellness, while another is a trainer/consultant.
Once our store is launched, we intend to register Well For Culture as an LLC.
How many people work on your solution team?
Currently, we maintain two full-time staff, Chelsey Luger and Thosh Collins as well as five part-time contractors / artisan partners.
How many years have you worked on your solution?
Why are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?
Chelsey Luger, the team lead, maintains over ten years of experience as a professional writer, health journalist, and wellness advocate. She is also the primary operations strategist for Well For Culture. Her skills in public speaking, copywriting, finance, business, and media production will lend themselves to operations and marketing. Thosh Collins, co-lead, has been a professional photographer and wellness advocate for over 15 years. His skills in visual media will be the backbone of our marketing and advertising.
We are well equipped to succeed in this enterprise because of our demonstrated record of success with our existing network and audience. To date, we are seven years into operating an Indigenous wellness platform and consulting service called Well For Culture. We have worked with dozens of Native American and First Nations communities who have sought our services based on their shared interest in Indigenizing wellness. Our digital footprint is significant as well. We produce a podcast and run a website, blog, and several social media platforms which together maintain a robust and dedicated following of over 50,000 unique users from both Native and non-Native communities. Amongst our base of followers and partners, we have an existing customer base. We know that our relationships of mutual trust with many tribal communities and individual wellness practitioners will set the stage for lasting partnerships to sustain our business, as we continue to take honor in offering a quality service and product that is dedicated to improved health outcomes.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
NIKE N7 - Well For Culture recently partnered with Nike N7 as featured athletes in their summer 2020 ad campaign. The collection was based on the theme of healing and wellness in Native communities. As athletes in this campaign, not only did we model for photos to market their products, we also wrote copy, contributed photos and videos, and assisted with production of a video series about our wellness work which has garnered millions of views from around the world. We are pleased to see this increased interest in wellness from an Indigenous perspective, and we hope that support for these efforts continues to grow worldwide.
TEN THOUSAND - Ten Thousand is a small sportswear company based in New York, NY which partnered with our cofounder Thosh Collins to create a limited apparel line that ran in conjunction with a fitness challenge. The purpose of the partnership was to promote an image of strong Indigenous communities while encouraging the public to get active and moving during the covid-19 crisis.
I20SP - The Indigenous 20Something Project is a branch of the Native Wellness Institute whose mission is "to heal a generation." We maintain an ongoing relationship as ambassadors for I20SP and we use one another's social media platforms to promote healing for Native youth.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
Our primary path to financial stability is through selling products and services. Currently, we sustain our existing wellness consulting service from income derived from selling our services, such as speaking engagements, workshops, and educational materials. With our entry into the business space, we hope to gain enough product revenue to continue investing into more product so that the business can sustain itself from sales. We hope that our consulting business and product business will lend their success and notoriety to one another -- as we continue to work as consultants, we will continue to garner more interest in our products, and as our products continue to sell, we will garner more interest in our consulting services. Ultimately, we would love to hire more people to financially impact Indian Country in a positive way.
What are your estimated expenses for 2020?
$4,000 fixed costs / overhead + $6,000 variable costs = $10,o00
Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, or to other organizations?Individual consumers or stakeholders (B2C)
Why are you applying to Solve?
The main reason we are applying for Solve is for mentorship and networking opportunities. While we have been very successful with finding mentors and a community of allies in the Indigenous wellness world, we feel intimidated by the business world as we are much less experienced in this area. We know that mentorship and guidance will make all the difference in the potential success of this idea, and we are looking forward to any critique, advice, or assistance that we can get. We are very receptive to constructive criticism and would love to learn from those more experienced than us. We are also applying to Solve because we truly believe in the innovative nature of our idea, we know that we can make a difference, and we will put every effort into seeing this dream come to fruition. Wellness for Indigenous peoples is our passion. We are proud of the work that we have achieved so far in this world, and we are committed to continuing to improve our offerings for Indian Country. Finally, funding is a key factor for us. Our consulting business is successful, but not enough to fully fund our business idea. The idea of taking out a big loan sounds scary, and we're also not even sure that that is the right path because we need business advice. We hope that joining the Solve program can assist us, and we hope to contribute back to the Solve program in any way that we can.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
Please explain in more detail here.
By taking the Business and Impact Planning for Social Enterprises course offered by MIT, I learned more than I have ever learned before about business basics, which made me realize just how much more I have to learn. I would like to emphasize our need and desire to connect with an appropriate advisor or mentor in the business world who could lend an ear or offer advice on our idea.
What organizations would you like to partner with, and how would you like to partner with them?
Recently, we did some research on MIT faculty members who might be interested in helping us with our idea. I read the biography of Catherine D'Ignazio, who is an assistant professor of Urban Science. She has a stated interest in Indigenous issues, and we believe that her expertise and research in the intersection of social justice, technology, and design is relevant to what we are trying to achieve with our Indigenous wellness store. We would appreciate being introduced to her or any other faculty who could advise, assist, or partner with our work.
- Chelsey Luger Editor, Well For Culture