Two Rapid City women have earned a national award from the country's largest nonprofit dedicated to Native American entrepreneurship.
Lafawn Janis and Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart were named Aug. 5 as 40 Under 40 by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (the National Center).
The award "recognizes 40 emerging Native American and Alaska Native leaders who have demonstrated leadership, initiative, and dedication and made significant contributions in business, their professions, or in their communities," according to the award announcement. It's given by the National Center, a nonprofit that assists tribal nations and members with economic development and entrepreneurship.
Tilsen-Brave Heart, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, was honored for her work as the owner of Painted Skye Management and co-owner of Et-i-quette Catering, while Janis, Oglala Lakota, was recognized as the owner of Bluebird Consulting.
Winners, who can be nominated by themselves or others, don't receive any prize money but are honored with knowing that the Native American community recognizes the impact of their work, said Tilsen-Brave Heart, a 38-year-old Lakota and Jewish woman.
Native Americans aren't often depicted as successful business people in the media and "when you don't see the opportunities, it's really hard to believe in yourself that you can do it," she said. "We have to create that. We have to fight for those opportunities to show who we are, to depict our modern self."
Tilsen-Brave Heart, who was born in Pine Ridge and grew up in Minnesota, said she first became interested in business through her entrepreneur father Mark Tilsen. By age 12, she became certified in using Quickbooks and learned about marketing and budgeting. She became passionate about small business development as a means to reduce poverty, and later enrolled at Cornell University to study economics with an emphasis in entrepreneurship.
"I really believe it is a way for poverty reduction in rural, Native communities," Tilsen-Brave Heart said. Even if a business only employs parents and their children, it means they have money to hire a house cleaner or cash to spend at other businesses, she said.
After college, Tilsen-Brave Heart managed the Indigo Girls, a folk duo active in social and environmental causes, and organized a concert tour on Native American Reservations in the early 2000s. When they stopped at the Pine Ridge Reservation — which Tilsen-Brave Heart associates with family visits full of culture, spirituality, cookouts and riding horses — the musicians were struck by the poverty and asked Tilsen-Brave Heart why she wasn't using her skills to help the reservation.
"I had no idea what I was going to do" but I moved back in 2004, Tilsen-Brave Heart said. She ended up working for a local business nonprofit before launching Painted Skye Management.
"We help with everything," she said of her company, which helps tribes and Native people create businesses, and runs workforce development training for Native and non-Native communities. In the past 15 years, Tilsen-Brave Heart said, she's helped launch 187 business, including the movie theater and Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort in Kyle.
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Then, about two years ago after having her third child, her husband had a near-death experience and developed medical problems. The couple had to find work they could do from home and decided to launch the catering company since cooking is "something that really connects us."
The couple cooks local and organic food from scratch, and named their company after the Lakota concept of etiquette, which isn't just about etiquette while serving and eating food, but while growing, killing and preparing it. "You're literary tasting love from the beginning to end," she said.
Janis, a 38-year-old who studied education at Black Hills State University, has dedicated her life to business, education, Native American youth and culture, and fighting domestic violence.
"I am passionate about helping our community come together and making Rapid City a better place to live for our youth," she said in an email.
Janis said she cares about education due to "the potential power it has in helping our youth find success" and has a personal connection that inspires her work involving domestic violence.
"As a former victim of domestic violence and emotional abuse, I spread messaging about the importance of being mentally healthy, in hopes of healing our families," she said.
Her current job is with Bluebird Consulting, an education and business consulting company she created that serves both businesses and nonprofits. Current projects include providing customer service and leadership development training with the Prairie Winds Casino, and overseeing the third annual Indigenous People's Celebration and Expo at the Central States Fair.
Janis said she created the event to "honor our area tribes and provide the community an educational experience."
She also serves on the Regional Health Advisory Council and the Cultural Advisory Committee at the Sanford Lab in Lead.
Past experiences include grant writing for Native American youth projects, opening a maternity and baby store, serving on the WAVI board, working with youth to prevent sexual violence and serving as a business mentor to upcoming tribal leaders.