Tony Skrelunas- Chief Executive Officer at Tribe Awaken Q&A
Diversity in Entrepreneurship
In celebration of Native American History Month, we want to take the time to appreciate the contributions of past and present American Indians and the local businesses that are helping to preserve and build their legacy. One is our very own member, Tony Skrelunas, an Arizona native, social entrepreneur, community college advisory board member, and team leader of TribalAwaken, a platform that helps individuals achieve their destiny through education, management, and knowledge.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
My name is Tony Skrelunas. I’m a member of the Navajo Nation, which is a Native American nation based in the Southwest. We’re a pretty sizable tribe. I was raised traditionally by my great grandparents and grew up in a place called Black Mesa. I’m now an entrepreneur, former head of commerce for the Navajo Nation, also a former head of government development for the Navajo Nation. I’ve done a lot of work in building our economy and improving the governance systems of the Navajo Nation. Now I’m an entrepreneur. I co-own the Native American country’s first utility scale solar development company.
Also, we just started a small systems company that uses a different type of financing model that was a breakthrough for Indian country. I also own a consulting company that consults at a really high level, like tribal casinos, shopping centers, grocery stores and really up and coming businesses.
How did growing up on a reservation affect your career choices?
Where I grew up is probably about 25 miles from the nearest town. We didn’t have electricity. We don’t have running water or paved roads. So a very different lifestyle. But it’s really cool. Lifestyle and homes are traditional, we have sheep, we have family. That whole system of community existed. So I grew up in that and it was a very fulfilling childhood, and a lot of it was sustainable, too.
And so a lot of those ethics and those values really guide my career. I’ve always been a social entrepreneur. I’ve got my MBA in business, but I’ve always liked giving back and helping our nation’s community move forward. As a nation, we’re kind of in a real struggle between retaining our own way of life and incorporating the modern, and that even affects the economy. We have communities that say, well, let’s keep it, we’re simple. And then some of our people want shopping centers, malls, manufacturing.
So I’m one of the ones that tried to bridge that gap just because of how I grew up. So I’ve been really effective in our nation just because I really respect our old system. But I’m also highly business educated. I kind of know both sides, and I think it is possible, so that really guides my work. I run a website, too, called Tribeawaken.com, which is really about awakening your potential as a community or an individual, but also doing it in a way where it’s respectful of the old knowledge, the old systems, because we have to have those things. Otherwise, why be a nation?
Was there ever a time where your identity was challenged?
Yes, when I started College, I kind of had an identity crisis. It’s more like trying to not be who I really was, which was a Navajo kid that grew up in a really traditional culture and trying to be more generic, because the business world kind of feels like you have to do that. I feel like I was kind of lost when I first started College.
It affected my grades and my performance. But that was kind of a blessing, too, because it allowed me then to really find a lot of success with being who I am and embracing that and making that part of my identity and everything I do. I went from flunking out of College to finishing first in my class in our College graduation, so it made that big of a difference. I went and got an MBA and then Thunderbird later on and it’s always been a big part of who I am.
How have you worked to progress the Navajo nation while still keeping the traditions and systems alive?
A lot of my time is spent on how we can maximize opportunities for the tribal community. I feel like I really haven’t been one of the ones that’s saying, hey, let’s go full on resorts. Luckily, many of our people want a balance between development and respecting our traditional ways of life and community values. They know that there’s got to be a level of respect.
However, we do need a Navajo Nation based Instacart. Systems like curbside pick up or Uber would really make a difference in tribal communities too. And I’m sure there is apprehension for a lot of people because they don’t necessarily want to assimilate. I’m trying to keep the traditional way of doing things, but marketing is so much different now with the Internet, you can’t always rely on word of mouth.
The other part, too, is that we still have a lot of really strong languages. It goes also to the relationships and how you do things with honor, integrity, how you talk to people with respect. There’s a life pattern that’s in there and I talk a lot about: getting up early, doing your prayers, being friendly, having what’s called a plan shift, knowing your plan, having humor, helping each other. Those things make up our most basic value of our tribes which is that we always want our neighbor, nephew or relative to succeed. So that’s the set of values I try to follow.
What is the most fulfilling thing about what you do?
It’s doing business as a social entrepreneur, meaning that I make sure that it’s not all about higher revenue. It’s about helping the community, helping an entrepreneur; for example, this couple that started a grocery store, or a lady that started a 50 acre bed and breakfast project. Giving them confidence, coaching them, helping them with key steps along the way, seeing them succeed and give back, because there is definitely a cycle that starts, I think that’s really the very fulfilling part for me. Obviously, I try to engage my family on this stuff, too. My assistant is my niece. My daughter also does a lot of work.The people that I work with are very fulfilling.
What’s one word of advice that you would give to your younger self?
The real success for me in college was getting involved and putting myself in management positions as a volunteer. It teaches you how to manage people, projects, and how to be bold. It’s really no different than the private world. I think those are what I would advise somebody coming in, is that you have to step out of how you were in high school. The other thing, too, is that anybody can succeed. There’s a lot of schools and school counselors that don’t try to give kids confidence, but anybody that wants to go to college can go to college. There are resources out there, take the time to apply to school, scholarships, and financial aid. There are schools that give tuition waivers to Native Americans. Fort Lewis College in Durango doesn’t charge tuition for Native students. There’s always an opportunity to go somewhere.
I always tell people to try to stick with a job, because two or three years is where you start building your excellence, your relationships, your achievement. Four years is where you really get something done. Seven years, man, you’re established in that. But try to stick with jobs for the long term. However, for people who are younger you have to jump around, try new things that’s really important, too. Don’t get so caught up in the work race right away. See the world and try different experiences.
What are ways people can support the Native and Indigenous communities?
Well, I think that’s a great question. There are grassroots organizations that people can help out with. In Phoenix, I know there are groups that do storytelling. I feel like folks are really into traditional cooking, and people could share their food and those who want to support can. There are folks that do language classes and people can come together and speak in the language.
But home, there’s definitely support that’s needed. Next week we’re hiring a wood hauler as a company to haul wood to elders and communities. There’s constant food deliveries ,especially with Covid PEP, and activities that are going on.
Link to Tony’s work: https://www.tribeawaken.com/