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Danielle Forward: Empowering Indigenous People Through Tech, Entrepreneurship

Danielle Forward: Empowering Indigenous People Through Tech, Entrepreneurship

Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and an online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs. 

Spiffy here with the scoop on the entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. As the only interplanetary journalist stationed on this blue planet, I’m thrilled to present this galactic exclusive with Danielle Forward, the co-founder and CEO of Natives Rising. Let’s learn about what’s happening there and how Danielle is making a positive impact in the world.

Spiffy: Hi Danielle, thanks a million for talking to me today. Tell me, what challenge are you addressing through Natives Rising?

Danielle: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! Indigenous people have the highest rates of poverty in the US, the lowest college graduation rates, and the highest rates of “deaths of despair”—meaning deaths from suicide, drug use, and alcohol abuse. Without healing the underlying pain in our communities, these statistics will continue. But to heal the suffering, people need self-sufficiency. They need to be able to pay their bills, and they need good jobs to do that. So that’s where we started: jobs. Natives Rising is a 501c3 nonprofit where we help Indigenous people get good jobs in tech, graduate college with tech degrees, and become entrepreneurs. We offer a holistic approach where we provide emotional support and wellbeing coaching to help heal trauma and self-limiting beliefs.

Spiffy: What motivates you to do it?

Danielle: My mother’s life was a perfect case study for how intergenerational trauma limits human potential. She grew up in the 1950s, so she’s much closer to the pain of colonization here in California. It was only two generations ago when the Army Corps of Engineers arrived to divide up our Pomo land. I had experienced so much pain that was passed down in my family that I became endlessly motivated to figure out how to heal it. I didn’t want anyone else to ever experience what I had. I was insatiably curious. Where did it come from? Where did it begin? How does it keep getting passed on? What would it take to stop it? And it wasn’t just my family, it was almost every single Indigenous family in the country, over nine million of us. In Canada, too.

Spiffy: Can you elaborate on the impact of your work?

Danielle: Our work helps Indigenous high school students (especially girls), female college students, and entrepreneurs. We support them psychologically, financially, emotionally, academically, socially, and professionally. But the first is actually the most important. The most powerful thing we do is exist, because we represent possibilities where many people thought there were none. I've been told many times how my existence or story alone has inspired them enough to start a company, study tech in college, go back to college, finish college, to just hang on when things got tough, or to believe they could do more or be more than they ever thought was possible. Practically speaking, we directly enhance their economic mobility.

Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Danielle: I personally made this journey myself, starting out as a low-income, first-generation college student, raised by a single Indigenous mother. I've lived the experience of our students, and that's what makes us different. Due to all the structural hardships that I previously mentioned, it took me ten years to graduate with my BFA, working part-time to pay my way through college on my own. After those 10 years, I graduated college as valedictorian. After working at Meta for five years, I created Natives Rising to give others what I wished I had: mentors, role models, community, networking, scholarship funds, and emotional wellbeing coaching. I was able to transform my own life this way, and now I'm building those bridges for others.

Spiffy: So inspiring! Thanks for speaking with me today, Danielle—it’s been an honor!

Danielle Forward (ex-Meta) is the co-founder and CEO of Natives Rising, a social justice nonprofit that economically empowers Indigenous people through tech careers and entrepreneurship, featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and TechCrunch. She is Indigenous (Pomo) from Northern California. (Nominated by Maya Bingaman at MIT Solve. First published on the Ladderworks website on March 29, 2024.)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Ladderworks LLC.

© 2024 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.