Sisters Monica Simeon and Marina TurningRobe have committed themselves to making products that are both authentic and purposeful and in doing so have created a company that shares those same attributes. Of course, like just about every other small business, Sister Sky has required intense dedication and many, many long days. After Simeon and TurningRobe decided to turn their first homemade lotions into a real business, they started in a leased manufacturing space in Spokane, Washington. Both of their families would pitch in for 12-hour days, seven days a week— mixing, bottling, and boxing. When sales began to take off, they built their own manufacturing facility on the Spokane Indian Reservation, as part of their commitment to help reservation economies diversify beyond gaming. Putting their houses up for collateral, they installed a $100,000 automated manufacturing system to replace much of the manual labor and expand their production volume. Beyond employing and mentoring fellow tribal members, including offering job-readiness training for tribal youth, the sisters also made a point of buying goods and services from other Native American–owned companies and serving as entrepreneurial role models in Native American communities. In addition to scaling up manufacturing, Simeon and TurningRobe had to adjust their original marketing strategy. They initially focused on the general gift market but found that they were a tiny player in a vast market. Realizing that the cultural heritage of their product line gave them a unique advantage, they refocused on Native American hotels and resorts, particularly those with luxury spa services. They also now offer spa consulting services, helping property owners create culturally authentic environments and experiences for their guests. As is often the case, the challenges don’t stop as a business grows, and Simeon and TurningRobe faced several classic small-business dilemmas, including time management. Simeon’s husband joined the company as production manager, which freed up the sisters’ time for selling, but as Simeon said recently, “We’re so busy selling, we have no time to step back and strategize.” A consultant who worked with them during a “business makeover” sponsored by Fortune Small Business magazine stressed that they really have no choice on this: They simply have to make time for strategizing, forcing themselves to step away from marketing and sales activities every quarter to review and adjust their business plan. One of the key strategic decisions Simeon and TurningRobe must make is where to expand next. They’ve already moved beyond spa sales to high-end boutiques and gift shops, where their unique product concept appeals to consumers looking for something out of the ordinary. Being active in social media is helping them make connections with customers and potential business partners, too. Also, having received Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certification from the National Minority Supplier Development Council, the company has made its first inroads into having its products used by Wyndham and other major hotel and resort chains. Sister Sky’s MBE status helps these large customers meet supplier diversity goals. More than 10 years into their entrepreneurial adventure, the sisters and their company are going strong with expanding sales but also with rewards that go beyond their own business objectives. By employing fellow tribe members and offering both inspiration and practical training, TurningRobe and Simeon are fulfilling their larger purpose, too. “Wealth building in our tribal communities through entrepreneurship is critical if we are going to improve our conditions and solve our own problems,” Simeon explains. TurningRobe also speaks for many passionate entrepreneurs when she says, “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.”44
1. Which of the qualities of successful entrepreneurs have Simeon and TurningRobe demonstrated?
2. Should Simeon and TurningRobe consider lowering their ingredient costs by switching to petroleum-based ingredients or stopping their use of pure distilled water? Why or why not?
3. Would opening their own retail stores be a risky decision for Sister Sky? How would this change the company’s business model?