Zebras in the Wild: Vanessa Roanhorse at Roanhorse Consulting| Founding Member
With our series “Zebras in the Wild”, we are excited to take you on a journey around the world to meet founding members, chapter leads, co-op members and allies! We talk to Zebras in the wild and report back how they’re challenging the status quo, how they envision the future and how we can support them in their mission!
I sat down with Vanessa Roanhorse to hear more about
- The meaning of freedom
- Current power structures, and
- A more regenerative startup culture.
Read the highlights from the conversation with Vanessa:
A Zebra is…
… a living being on this planet. In its essence, it’s about working with community to move your goals and interests forward.
Being a Zebra incorporates a mutual community that moves together, protects one another, and raises their children together. Thanks to this sense of collectivity, all Zebras have a place in the community, the dazzle. We all are contributing to something greater than ourselves: the greater good of society.
No freedom for too many
As a Diné woman from the Navajo nation, I don’t know what freedom means. I’ve never had it.
As First Nations and Indigenous people, we have a relationship with the US federal government that is built on broken treaties. As a society, we define success, wealth and opportunity through the domination and genocide of Black and Indigenous people. The ways in which we operate are grounded in colonization, capitalism and building yourself on the backs of other people.
I know an alternative is possible through an Indigenous worldview: We used capital structures pre-colonization that were not at the expense of harm to the Earth or entire cultures and communities. There was room for everyone and we were successful in our exchange. We’ve been intentionally denied the ability to participate in the current system of opportunity — we’ve been invisibilized and historicalized, and yet we are still here.
As Indigenous, we have yet to experience freedom in our own country. As First People, that is very painful and traumatic.
An alternative worldview
In my ideal future, we would allow for the plurality of worldviews and beliefs, not just the current western worldview which centers capitalism over all things first. Rather, we would embrace the idea that success can mean many things, in particular that our health is our wealth. While everyone’s definition of success is informed by their unique cultural and individual worldviews, we would still be in agreement that our relationship with theEarth matters, that human lives matter, that ALL living beings matter. We would acknowledge that our resources are finite and scale is not the goal, but harmony and sustainability are.
In that future, we would rebalance the power structure that has denied the feminine energy: Women and the femine side of ourselves that have been pushed so far outside of the circle of decision making and leadership that we are in an crisis of imbalance, creating irreversible results of climate change, gender based violence and extreme poverty in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. In a future state, we would listen to our cultural storytellers, learn our history of how this country was built as well as the history of the people who built it, and we would encourage our communities and cultures to evoke and enact our worldview that puts all living beings at the center, not just human beings. But in order to achieve that harmony, we have to invite the feminine power back into the circle.
Putting an end to an inherently racist capital system
The systems we utilize to evaluate risk and determine who is worthy of capital are designed to exclude us — Indigenous people, people of color, and women.
Native nations have a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government. If you are officially enrolled as a tribal member, you are a dual citizen. Most of your wealth should come from your tribal lands or your reservation but it’s non-taxable and it’s owned by the federal government. That means we have very limited pathways to achieve financial wealth on our tribal lands to meet the current requirements of the traditional financial institutions. A practical example: How do you build up credit when there’s no bank within hundreds of miles or when your only access to credit building opportunities are high interest credit cards and predatory lending institutions? If the credit score is how we get access and collateral of our assets is our buy in within the 5 Cs (capacity, capital, collateral, conditions and character), then we have to admit that the 5Cs are inherently racist and designed to ensure we can’t meet the criteria. It is not just Native Americans that face this diligence gap, this is a national problem affecting people and communities in all places across the United States. .
To build an alternative future, we have to acknowledge that the entire infrastructure of who makes investment decisions and who gets the resources is entirely broken. We have to dream beyond what exists today while still working with the tools we have in front of us, which is very complicated as it is in unchartered territory, something we as Native people are very familiar with. I believe Native people are building products and models today that can lead to more equitable pathways to capital, whether it is relationship-based lending and revenue based financing tools, it is happening right in all of our backyards.
→ Watch Vanessa speak about designing more equitable systems in this recent Crowdcast event with Armillaria.
A regenerative culture
I hope we start norming the intersectional complexities of why it’s difficult to be an entrepreneur, and why investing in Zebra companies is so critical. We need to continue to address racial and gender inequity as we know and the data shows that women are the family, community and fast emerging financial backbones of our families. If we’re only dealing with these issues in siloed discussions — if we deal with them at all — then we can’t move past hurdles in the system. Currently, too many people think that by focusing on one issue, we’re getting somewhere. They fail to recognize that the roots of one issue — say the gender wage gap — are connected to the roots of other issues within the system: a system of oppression and inequity. What’s worse, our siloed approach exacerbates and compounds the effects of these issues, again and again.
At the end of the day, humans are the least important piece of a successful and healthy world. We have to flip the paradigm from assuming that we are the ones solving the problem to realizing that we are the problem. Our job is to re-matriate: to rebuild our relationship to our ancestral, historical ways and to mother Earth so that we can then honor and build in right relationship solutions for all not just one.
Capital is bigger and more expansive than just money. Think of political capital, social capital, intellectual capital. Wouldn’t it be great if we could evaluate spiritual capital or health capital? When you have access to your culture, your ceremonies, your practice — that kind of capital is equally important as the other kinds! If you don’t have access to networks and communities who can help you get where you want to go, you’re alone. No money in the world can change that.
How do we start to evaluate various types of capital when we envision the future?
Relationships, culture and ceremony matter. That’s the health-wealth connection. If you’re healthy and you feel connected to the places that you want to make a difference in, the financial capital will come because in that case, you’re not doing it alone but in community. If you’re healthy, and your community is thriving on healthy, mutualistic relationships, the financial capital will find its way to you. But it won’t work in reverse.
I feel like we’re just at the very tip of the iceberg. At Roanhorse Consulting, we’re trying to address systemic inequities by putting ourselves into rooms where people are making decisions on how resources should be distributed. We put our body and minds in the middle of this to say: “We and our Indigenous ways are applicable across the board. Systemic discrimination affects so many of us and so many of us have ways to tackle, we just never get invited.”
Myself and seven other Indigenous women started Native Women Lead. It’s the first of its kind organizations in the US that is focused explicitly on Indigenous women founders and their role as economic drivers and stabilizers. Native women make up two-thirds of breadwinners in their communities. Four out of five of us will experience extreme violence and we make 60 cents on the dollar. Yet, somehow — despite these challenges — Native women have started business at two times the rate of their white women counterparts in terms of population size over the last twenty years. Imagine what is possible if there were actual support resources for Indigneous business women that were designed for them? We would be unstoppable!
If we’re going to see a future in which we are represented, then it has to be led for us by us. We need to create the types of products and opportunities that make this future possible for overlooked communities like ours, and that connect to who we are as a a resilient and future thinking people.
What does support look like?
We need more allies to stand up for underrepresented communities and to have these difficult conversations about how to dismantle systemic discrimination, because this work is exhausting. We need allies who join our efforts so that we can distribute the burden more equally and be more effective in driving this change. We need aligned investors to give us the capital to build our own runways
Vanessa asks the community…
Do you know where your Indigenous leaders and networks are?
Red Planet Book and Comic Store here in Albuquerque, NM. It is a native-owned and publishing company that is working really hard to create access and opportunities through storytelling, graphic novels and books. They’re the only native-owned comic book store in the US and they have the best educational resources for children and adults.