Posted at 8:33 AM
Staring out at the Sandia Mountain range in the Albuquerque foothills, David Wiegand couldn’t help but appreciate the unlikely path that brought him to the precipice of the most important decision of his life.
Here was Wiegand, who was born on an Army base in Louisiana and grew up mostly in Saudi Arabia, deciding to embrace a city that wasn’t his hometown and a Native American culture that was an unmistakable yet largely unfamiliar part of his identity.
“I was sitting up there and I was thinking about the needless risks I had taken years ago in my youth,” said Wiegand, whose mother was Navajo and Hopi. “Was I willing now to take a risk for all the right reasons? Then it dawned on me: I have all the momentum and my experience behind it. It was a resounding yes. I’m absolutely going to start this business.”
The business in question was The Sparrow Group, which since that 2014 decision has grown into a thriving New Mexico construction firm that prioritizes the hiring of Native Americans. Wiegand’s life-changing choice more than four years ago was the first step in creating a model minority business enterprise.
Wiegand couldn’t have done it without some help from the federal government. The Santa Fe Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Business Center has played an integral role in helping The Sparrow Group – which earned $1 million in revenue last year – along the way.
Business experience, Native culture
The genesis of Wiegand’s business plan came over the course of a 25-year career. Wiegand immersed himself in every facet of the construction business, working in the field before earning a bachelor’s degree in technical project management from ITT Tech and transitioning to the front office of JB Henderson Construction in 2009.
While his professional life was taking off, Wiegand was becoming more acquainted with the personal side of his family’s past. Wiegand’s mother, a Medevac nurse during two tours in Vietnam, married a German man whose business took the family from Washington to Saudi Arabia. Living overseas didn’t afford Wiegand or his brother much of a chance to learn about their Native roots. But that started to change when a high school-aged Wiegand visited family in Albuquerque and enrolled in a boarding school nearby.
“Learning Hopi and Navajo [was part of my] coming back to the states and being surrounded by some of my own people, which I had never experienced before,” said Wiegand, who also speaks Arabic, French, Hindi and Mandarin. “I wasn’t around anyone like me overseas. People were very curious about Native Americans overseas. I guess I was, too. I’d come back to the states and spend summers with my grandpa on the reservation. Coming back was full circle; it brought me back in touch with something I had been separated from because of geography and circumstance.”
Wiegand’s cultural awakening combined with his business experience led to that fateful day at the Albuquerque foothills and the decision to launch The Sparrow Group. He quickly went to work leveraging the relationships he built with various subcontractors, engineering firms and property management companies to get the business up and running. Wiegand acknowledged that The Sparrow Group “crawled along the first couple years,” but was aided substantially when he reached out to the local MBDA office.
“I can give you a hammer, but you need to learn how to use that hammer. That’s how I see MBDA. Here’s where the hammers are, but you need to learn how to utilize them,” Wiegand said. “Just doing that little bit helped absolutely, tremendously. MBDA was getting my name out there. Once I signed up, I started getting calls from people wanting to team up. They were curious about what we did. That was a great contributor to the initial success of getting the company’s name out there.”
Helping the reservations
In the construction industry, Wiegand was used to working on projects in the $1-50 million range. With The Sparrow Group, he settled for $50,000-500,000. As a Native American man who was spending increasing amounts of time in tribal communities all over the greater Albuquerque area, Wiegand quickly established his business as one particularly attuned to Native issues.
“I probably have six or seven carpenters in the field right now. It’s company policy that we hire qualified Native American carpenters first. We’re not hiring them because they’re Native; we’re hiring them because they’re qualified Native Americans,” Wiegand said. “I want to bring those dollars back to the reservation. What I saw when I went out to Navajo Nation, all these natives leaving the reservation to get their groceries, their appliances, whatever it is they need. Then they go back on the res, but all those dollars just left the reservation.
“How can we get more dollars on the reservation and stay in the reservation? The families back in Navajo Nation, those dollars we’re paying to carpenters, it goes straight back into the reservation. It brings a tear to my eye. That impact is only going to grow exponentially in the ensuing years.”
Wiegand has thus far resisted the temptation to grow The Sparrow Group too fast. But little by little, it has expanded, from $125,000 in revenue in 2016 to $1 million in 2017, with a goal for 2018 of $5 million that Wiegand expects to surpass by October.
The highlight thus far for The Sparrow Group was a xeriscaping job – essentially a water conservation project – completed in February for Indian Health Services (IHS) in Crownpoint, N.M. The company’s task was substantial: upgrade the surroundings of 36 houses and revamp the common recreational area – which included a playground, basketball court, tennis court and picnic area – that all IHS employees shared. The Sparrow Group was asked to complete the work during winter, while doctors, nurses and other health-center employees continued living in those homes. The company completed the project on schedule and under budget.
“They had a huge ribbon cutting ceremony, with surrounding chapter houses from Navajo Nation, IHS and the contracting staff, embarrassing us with compliments and congratulations,” Wiegand recalled. “Out there on the Navajo Nation, sometimes it’s not that easy. That’s why, I gathered, we’re getting so much attention. That was the jewel for us so far, as far as government contracting.”
Wiegand has big plans for The Sparrow Group going forward. He hopes to keep growing his business judiciously in New Mexico while dabbling in projects in Nevada and California. As revenue rises, he intends to hire more Native American employees and keep the flow of money going back into local reservations.
As the CEO and founder of a thriving minority business enterprise, Wiegand said he appreciates how much MBDA has helped him and how much the Agency assists other minority-owned businesses.
“It’s like you have a backstage pass from behind the curtain, where nobody gets to look into government contracting. MBDA knows what’s behind that curtain,” Wiegand said. “It just blew my mind. I thought, ‘Why isn’t your door being kicked down?’ Really, there wasn’t an answer. The resources granted to me by the organization were pivotal in the success of the company.”