Natives Rising co-founder and CEO Danielle Forward is a Bay Area Native American who grew up surrounded by tech — and the struggles facing her community. An affiliate of the Cloverdale Rancheria of Pomo Indians, Forward remembers attending tribal council meetings, listening as people spoke about trying to get by on a $600 check every few months.
One in three Native Americans is living in poverty across the U.S., with a median income of $23,000 per year, according to the American Community Survey reported by Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research. A recent poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that inflation has caused 69% of Native Americans significant financial problems.
Forward recalls feeling “helpless” when she heard about the challenges those in her community were up against. But a passion for drawing led her to enroll in California College of the Arts’ interactive design program and land a full-time position in UX/UI product design at Facebook (now Meta) that “transformed [her] life” — and ultimately gave her the tools necessary to change the lives of Indigenous people in her community and beyond.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Natives Rising. Betsy Fore, left. Danielle Forward, right.
“I want to see really, truly empowered Indigenous people that feel like they can actually achieve their purpose in the world.”
“I’d always wanted to do something [for my community],” Forward tells Entrepreneur. “It was just a matter of time.” Forward’s senior thesis project would give her the push she needed; tasked with designing something “important to [her] and important to the world,” she realized it was the opportunity she’d been waiting for — and seized it to ask a critical question: How might we economically empower Indigenous communities?
“I want to see really, truly empowered Indigenous people that feel like they can actually achieve their purpose in the world, and the prerequisite to that is having economic stability,” Forward explains. “It’s not living in survival mode; it’s being able to pay your bills.”
Forward dove into her project’s research phase and discovered that most Indigenous people aren’t exposed to tech. Often, their parents encourage them to pursue traditional career paths, like becoming a doctor or lawyer. Forward also read up on Indigenous history, an “empowering” experience that helped her “see deeply into all of the lineage of how these conditions and communities came to be.”
She had a firm grasp on the problem and knew that tech could be a solution. Tech roles don’t necessarily require a college degree and are often remote, which can be a game-changer for Indigenous people who live on reservations. Careers in tech typically come with sizable paychecks, too. “Six-figure salaries just out of school,” Forward says, “which is completely life-changing for anybody, especially a lot of Indigenous folks who have never even imagined that they could make a salary like that.”
“It was the first time that I truly publicly embraced being Indigenous and started talking about it.”
Forward wanted to expose more Indigenous people to careers in tech and give them the support necessary to pursue them. But she was the only person working on her project and didn’t have any funding. So she used the “social equity” she’d built during her time at Facebook to make an impact, “gathering up” the Indigenous people she knew in the field and launching a website to tell their stories, arrange talks, provide mentorship and further access.
“It was the first time that I truly publicly embraced being Indigenous and started talking about it, which was important for me,” Forward recalls. “Before that, I didn’t talk about it because — and maybe folks from other marginalized communities can relate to me on this — people will sometimes say stereotypes or something ignorant, and I just didn’t want to deal with it.”
In 2022, Forward joined forces with co-founders Betsy Fore, the first Native woman to raise a series A round, and Hannah Cirelli, who helped lead the American Indigenous Business Leaders (AIBL). Fore and Cirelli were already eyeing a Native-focused nonprofit for entrepreneurship, and the idea was folded into Forward’s original vision, bringing forth the current iteration of Natives Rising, “a holistic career accelerator” for Indigenous founders and Indigenous people in tech.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Natives Rising. Danielle Forward, left. Betsy Fore, right.
“They’re seeing so many other inspiring people doing this that look like them, that come from the place they come from.”
Forward left her job at Meta about six months ago and has been working on Natives Rising since. Today, the accelerator boasts three major programs: a Native Women’s Tech Fellowship, Indigenous STEM Camp and Founders Circle. The Native Women’s Tech Fellowship is for Native women working on bachelor’s degrees in technology. Through speakers and in-person events, Natives Rising aims to increase the number of Native women in tech by 50% — which “sounds like a lot,” Forward says, but explains it’s only 156 women because the number is so low.
In just six months, Natives Rising has already increased that number from four women to 23 and counts at least 200 women from different tribes across the U.S. in its network — representing more than a quarter of the 567 enrolled tribes nationwide, Forward says.
Natives Rising’s STEM camp is open to Indigenous high school students nationwide. The program strives to increase students’ interest and confidence in tech and had a strong initial showing. Thirty-five Native high school students representing 21 tribes joined six Native women college fellows for a 4.5-day retreat in Washington D.C. — and the number of female high school students who answered “How likely are you to pursue a college degree related to technology?” with “strongly agree” went from 0% pre-camp to more than 28% post-camp.
Finally, the Founders Circle is where the entrepreneurial side of things comes in: It’s similar to the fellowship in many ways, Forward says, connecting Indigenous founders who’ve achieved $1 million in revenue in a year with an emerging cohort of Indigenous founders for mentorship and coaching. It’s a small program to allow for larger grants right now, Forward explains, but its mentors already include Jenn Harper of Cheekbone Beauty and Joey Montoya of Urban Native Era, among others.
Now, Forward and her co-founders are looking ahead to Natives Rising’s continued growth — and attracting more Native women and students to the powerful ecosystem they’ve built.
“They’re seeing so many other inspiring people doing this that look like them, that come from the place they come from,” Forward says, “and it starts to create even more of a positive feedback loop. We are incubating the leaders of Indian country. We are empowering them with financial independence and knowledge.”
“Sometimes people are intimidated by the amount of time something takes or its complexity, but we’re all learning machines.”
It’s a holistic empowerment, too: Natives Rising also provides emotional health coaching. “We have some of the highest rates of suicide in our communities, and trauma,” Forward says. “And we’ll discover sometimes the thing holding them back isn’t a material thing. It’s not a better laptop. It’s not financial; it’s emotional, it’s psychological, it’s with their family, it’s interpersonal, it’s relationships.” Forward is already a certified life coach, and her co-founders are in training.
Forward’s best advice for Indigenous people ready to leap into tech careers of their own? They should join the Natives Rising community, first and foremost — and then adopt a growth mindset. “Learning is uncomfortable,” Forward says, “and it’s supposed to be that way. Sometimes people are intimidated by the amount of time something takes or its complexity, but we’re all learning machines, and just because you might not know something immediately doesn’t mean you won’t be able to in five days or five weeks — it’s just how the brain works.”
“Everybody can grow,” Forward adds, “[so] keep focusing on what you do want and stay motivated on that path. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself.”