Native American-led firms like Relevance Ventures and NAVF are striving to diversify venture capital

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Relevance Ventures cofounder Dean NewtonRelevance Ventures cofounder Dean Newton.

Tim Jones-Portraiture, LLC

Firms like Relevance Ventures and NAVF are part of a growing Native American presence in venture capital. These firms are heavily influenced by their cultural roots when considering their investments. Though the Native American presence in VC has grown, some say it's not where it should be. 

Native Americans have a growing presence in the venture capital world. 

Relevance Ventures founders Cameron and Dean Newton, who are members of Virginia's Patawomeck tribe, and Native American Venture Fund managing partner John Cataldi are just a few of the Native Americans navigating the industry. 

As investors, the Newtons and Cataldi keep their cultural roots top of mind when considering their investments. 

The Newton brothers typically back companies that only promote ingidenous cultural values such as the notion of "harmony," which the brothers define as anything that increases one's connection to nature, family, community, in addition to promoting a balance between mind, body, and spirit. 

The brothers seek companies which reduce the economic and social "friction of life," Dean Newton said. 

Dean (left) and Cameron (right) NewtonRelevance Ventures cofounders Dean and Cameron Newton.

Relevance Ventures

"We also look for companies that reduce the dependency on traditional medicine and healthcare by enabling preventative care food as medicine and companies that improve mental health," he said. 

The Newtons don't exclusively invest in underrepresented founders, but a third of their portfolio companies are led by them. 

NAVF is a venture fund solely dedicated to investing in tribal communities. They work with tribes to figure out their specific needs and then offer funding for things like economic development and medicine.

Aside from NAVF, Cataldi also focuses on investing in Native American environmental tribal projects. Some of the investments he oversees fund forestry management or reducing carbon emissions. This ultimately works to value mother earth and father sky in some indigenous cultures by preserving land, Cataldi said.

Those that identify as solely Native Americans and Alaska Natives, and in combination with another race, made up about 2.9% of the US population in 2020, according to the Census Bureau. Yet, there isn't data on how many venture capitalists identify as Native American or how many receive venture backing. 

Mahrinah ShijeMahrinah Shije, CEO of the nonprofit, Pueblo Development Commission, and a partner at Zia Impact.

Andy DelGiudice

For Mahrinah Shije, a descendant of the Tewa tribe in New Mexico, it's impressive to see the emergence of Native American-led venture capital firms. Native Americans typically aren't aware of the opportunities in VC, and there usually are few opportunities to get involved without leaving one's tribe, said Shije, who is CEO of the nonprofit, Pueblo Development Commission, and a partner at Zia Impact, an impact consultancy specializing in infrastructure and economic development with a focus on tribal communities. 

"10 years ago there was not any real presence for Natives in tech or venture capital. It's changed so much in the past decade. It's an incredible change, but it's not where it should be," Shije said.

She said that most tribal nations that do have access to venture capital tend to invest back into their tribal communities.

"We don't necessarily want to or need to be invited in the same space. Because the way that our cultures operate are very different from the way that the US operates," she said. 

But Shije hopes that Native Americans can ultimately continue to grow their presence in the tech world. 

"We can bridge that gap in our lifetime as we start to understand each other better as neighbors and relatives and potentially build great things together, but we're not there, yet,"  Shije said.

Dominic-Madori Davis contributed reporting. 

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