Ashley Stiles, CEO and Founder of TRIBE Development, reflects on the hustle needed to find your path and build your business. TRIBE Development is a comprehensive real estate consulting and development firm born out of the desire to develop better spaces and experiences for everyone.
During Native American Heritage Month in November and as part of our WBENC Women of Color Program, WBENC is celebrating the immense contributions these women entrepreneurs have made to our nation and the WBENC network.
As a kid, I knew I was meant to do big things. That may sound crazy, but it’s true. If I wanted something, I found a way to make it happen. But it wasn’t until the last few years that I understood myself to be an entrepreneur. The journey to this place has been difficult, not in the least bit linear, and well worth it. Throughout my career, I have found that few people talk about how hard it is to be an entrepreneur, a business owner or to start something from scratch. I am not interested in the highlight reel; I want the real story. And that is what I try to share whenever I get the opportunity.
Growing up, we moved a lot. I come from a single-parent household and had to grow up quickly. Always evaluating whether I was safe or not, my life was more about survival than anything else. By the time I turned 19, I was a single mother, living in subsidized housing and on government assistance. Many wrote me off, and it took a few years to reset my life and devise a plan. (Remember, I always knew I was destined for more.) I enrolled in Colorado State University and attended full-time, while also working full-time and caring for my daughter. I bought our first home at 22. Bottom line, I hustled.
While I learned a lot in the corporate commercial real estate world, it was not a great place for me. I felt like I was stuck. Unable to express myself in an authentic way, I felt the need to conform to what others expected of me and make myself smaller to fit in. Navigating this industry’s infamous misogynistic culture while being one of the only women was (and still can be) lonely. I often felt like the odd (wo)man out but learned to push through that sense of not belonging. I learned the importance of building a thick skin and creating the space I was searching for. Always “being the new kid” now holds deep value for me. It’s OK to not be in the cool crowd.
That thick skin is now my armor; I use it to tap into the strength of my ancestors – Chickasaw women who are unconquered and unconquerable – to create opportunity for myself in this good ol’ boys club of real estate development.
All of that is not to imply that the environment was the only problem and that I was unflawed. But I learned you can’t heal in the environment that made you sick.
FINDING MY CAREER PATHS AND STRENGTHS
In the early years, my ability to quickly assess a situation – that fight or flight analysis I had to hone as a kid – was an incredible asset in my career. I could easily and swiftly judge character and situations to find ways to make deals and projects successful and profitable. This was a skill every employer valued, but there was a price for this heightened awareness. It stunted the growth of my emotional intelligence. There was little space left for self-awareness, empathy and to allow for people to be part of my team. Because of those limitations, it became a real struggle to develop into a true leader as my career advanced. Eventually, I learned that acknowledging that I have an area to improve on is not a weakness, but not acknowledging it is. Therefore, I committed to improving both my emotional intelligence and leadership skills, while still maintaining my edge.
During that process, I took stock of the corporate environment around me to determine my next move. I did not see myself reflected there anymore. I needed a space where I could leverage all my skills and experience and push projects forward in a different, more meaningful way. Simply put, I wanted to enjoy the hustle again. So, I decided to create the company I was searching for. Leaving corporate real estate behind me, I ventured out to create something of my own: Tribe Development.
DEVELOPING TRIBE DEVELOPMENT
From the start, I wanted Tribe to be a different kind of development company. One that embraces different perspectives, curates projects with the community at the forefront and is driven to find the path to yes. Our approach is holistic. It’s about being part of a place and building a community. Within every project, I know we will be successful if we are three things: reflective, inspirational, and aspirational. Above all, we must always remember who we are serving. We are driven by five core values – Community, Honesty, Thoughtful Design, Drive, and Backbone – that are all inspired by my culture.
As a proud Native American woman, I wanted to create a company that also allows others to lean into their identities. “Community first” is a foundational element of my identity as a Chickasaw woman. Our culture is rarely individualistic. Our success is just that, ours.
While I speak about my heritage and experience of being Chickasaw with pride, I know I am sharing just one perspective. I do not represent the full spectrum of the indigenous experience; there is a beautiful diversity among our people. As a light-skinned urban native, I have benefited from inherent privileges that I have tried to use to bring awareness to my culture. I don’t feel any less connected to my heritage or have any less pride.
That said, I want to be known as a great leader, with no qualifiers – not as a great female leader or a great Native American leader, but simply as a great leader. I want to share my experiences honestly with other women who will hopefully be inspired to forge their own path and learn from my past.
The feelings of isolation as a woman in this industry were magnified as I started out on my own. I still have hard days where I question why I am doing this and if I will ever reach the level of success I want, or if I will ever make it to the inner circle. And it’s easy to say this past year and a half have been the most challenging.
PANDEMIC BUSINESS RESET
Regardless of size or years in business, the pandemic reset all of us. At the onset, I had to quickly file for disaster assistance funding and learn how to navigate the process of securing a loan from the government. Luckily, many of my friends were going through it as well. Leaning into that community-first mindset, we became a source of information for each other and provided a sense of security during a very uncertain time.
The process also made me reevaluate how much of my business was dependent on others, motivating me to fast track a few of my own projects to stabilize our cash positions. I was thankful to be small because I could pivot my business model instantly. It has allowed for growth and opportunities to happen now that I did not think would be possible for several more years. The biggest lesson I learned was to ask for help early and often because that was the key to survival.
While it has been hard to get to this point in my career, I would not change the path that brought me here. Without all the challenges and growing pains, I would not have been ready to start my own company or be on the path of growth. Everything serves a greater purpose and maintaining that perspective is what fuels me day in and day out. So, I keep hustling.
WBENC WOMEN OF COLOR
The Women of Color Program is an outreach and development program designed to build and strengthen a dynamic ecosystem for women of color entrepreneurs. WBENC launched the Women of Color Program in 2017 to create an effective and successful business ecosystem designed to engage, advise and drive the growth of women of color women-owned businesses. Since then, hundreds of women entrepreneurs have attended in-person and virtual sessions at WBENC events, designed to address the challenges faced by many women of color business owners and provide resources and programming to address those challenges.