Monica Simeon and Marina Turning-Robe have accomplished what many have said is impossible – working together as sisters in constant contact and still remaining best friends.
“There is great comfort in working with a business partner that you can be brutally honest with and not jeopardize the relationship. In reality that type of relationship is very advantageous to the business,” Monica said. “We balance each other out with our individual strengths and we collaborate very well and those two elements are extremely critical to our company’s success.”
The siblings are members of the Spokane tribe, located in rural Eastern Washington, where unemployment is hovering around 50 percent. While there is very little private sector development in the area, Sister Sky is one of the few small businesses on the reservation and it is committed to creating jobs and economic diversification beyond casinos.
Staying true to their mission of giving back, the small company uses tribal youth as employees in the summer.
“Wealth building in our tribal communities through entrepreneurship is critical if we are going to improve our conditions and solve our own problems,” Marina said.
The sisters are descendants of a long line of entrepreneurs. However, it was Monica’s search to find a cure for her son’s eczema that was the impetus for the business.
After not being able to find a commercial cure, she went back to her roots to identify herbal cures that her family had used to resolve her son’s problem. “Some of the best businesses started because of a specific need, especially for women entrepreneurs,” Monica said. “I started tinkering back to the roots of my heritage in terms of herbal remedies. I tried to research what we used before there was a Rite Aide.”
Using Social Media
After starting the business off as a hobby, they assessed that there may be room in the marketplace for their products. Using social media, they began to develop a following for their products.
Their product line includes single size products used as hotel amenities nationally and internationally, along with wholesale and retail products.
MBE certified, they are going mainstream with their product and have managed to get into the supply chain of the Wyndham hotel. “When you utilize programs like the minority supplier diversity, you have the opportunity to break out of niche markets. We are working on getting into national accounts. We are getting favorable market exposure.”
“This year, 2011, is a big breakout year for us,” Monica said. “We are creating alliances, and utilizing our programs. Up until now, we’ve been in our own little pond.”
Like most businesses, there have been challenges – especially in the area of financing. “We secured a loan through the Bureau of Indian Affairs Loan Guarantee Program, which helped us build an automated manufacturing facility on our tribal land. We are at another critical growth stage in our company and require additional financing and that is a challenge in these times.”
Their journey from mall kiosk, to spa hotels, to their new ventures has included a lot of help including support from the MBDA’s Don Chapman, senior adviser on Native American Affairs and the Office of Native American Business Development.
Sister Sky’s revenue last year was over $500,000 in gross sales. Primed for growth, they’ve come a long way from the $35,000 a year in their early years.
Their perseverance and drive is rooted in their passion for their products and work. “If you love what you do and strive to create meaning to what you sell, or create and do it on a professional level, then I think you have found your purpose,” Marina said.
The company also practices eco-stewardship, which the sisters say makes the product stand out from the rest.
“We are working on improving packaging, formulas and manufacturing processes so that we can make a big impact on improving our company to be more sustainable,” Monica said. “When we share our philosophy on sustainability from our Native American perspective, we hope it inspires both consumers and other businesses to care for the planet.”
Sister Sky has received numerous accolades including the 2010 “Honoring Native Women” award at an event hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau to recognize their commitment and leadership in Native American communities.
So what keeps these sisters going through the ups and downs of the economy and business challenges? Marina summed it up for the both of them:
“In business, you must have the courage and honesty to admit when you fall short. This helps you refine, reformulate, redesign and come back stronger and better. If you can’t admit your shortcomings you will become stagnant, irrelevant or just plain arrogant. In a competitive business environment, being any of these will be your demise.”