A former mechanical engineer creates a high-end fashion house for Native women.
By Katie Spielberger
Caption: Patricia Columbus-Powers at work on her designs. Photo by Nate Ryan
Patricia Columbus-Powers (B.M.E. '06, M.S. '11) has lived in the same St. Paul zip code for most of her life, but her mind has never stopped moving. Her new venture, a high-end Native fashion house called Siobhan Powers, will weave together her understanding of business theory, industrial engineering, design, cultural appropriation, and the legacy of colonialism to create a business that only she could create and that she hopes will help her Native community. "Human society progresses as a whole; you can't leave anybody behind," Columbus-Powers says.
The Dakota woman's shift to entrepreneurship comes after nearly a decade of working as a mechanical engineer at St. Paul-based 3M. There, she took full advantage of the company's policy of allowing employees to spend 15 percent of their time exploring projects outside their usual realms. When she realized her interests were moving from engineering systems to business systems, she decided to leave engineering to pursue an M.B.A. from the University's Carlson School of Management.
Meanwhile, she had been thinking about how to represent her Dakota identity at work. She started designing her own jewelry, drawing on beading skills she first learned from her mother when she was 3 years old. As friends asked her to design jewelry for them too, she realized there was a market for high-end fashion for professional Native women. She secured funding from multiple sources: $5,000 in seed money from the Sands Fellowship at the Carlson School; $1,000 from the Acara Challenge, a social startup competition held by the University's Institute on the Environment; and $2,500 from the Tiwahe Foundation for Native peoples.
"Beadwork is an intricate piece of so many people's lives in the Native community," Columbus-Powers says. She thinks fashion is one of the most personal and effective forms of artistic expression. "It's an art form that can communicate with the masses," she says. She often shows people a photo of intricately detailed beaded high heels created by Shoshone-Bannock and Luiseno artist Jamie Okuma she saw on display at the Smithsonian. "They're exactly what I would love to wear to work," she says.
There's a world of difference between fashions created by Native designers and "Native-inspired" fashions. Outside of museums, it's easier to find the latter. During the 2015 New York Fashion Week, a line by the KTZ brand was widely criticized for appropriating designs that bore strong similarities to those created by Northern Cheyenne and Crow designer Bethany Yellowtail, who Columbus-Powers cites as one of her biggest inspirations. "If people are constantly stealing your identity and selling it, they are degrading you because they are discounting your value within society," she says.
The first product launch, planned for this fall, will showcase Columbus-Powers's own jewelry, handbags, and dresses, but she intends to showcase other Native designers from Minnesota and eventually across the country.
Siobhan is Columbus-Powers's middle name, but she likes that the initials of her venture match those of St. Paul. Her family has lived in the area for generations. "My ancestors have always been there, even precolonization, so I think that kind of ties me to this area, as well as trying to stay with the land that my ancestors worked so hard to protect for so long," she says.
The effects of colonization still reverberate today in Native youth suicide epidemics, substance abuse, and disproportionately high incarceration rates. A critical part of Columbus-Powers's business model is offering employment to Native Americans whose felony records make it nearly impossible to find work. She also envisions her business mentoring Native youth as they develop their own artistic voices. The key to mentoring younger generations, she says, is "not to teach them to be as good as you, but to teach them to be better than you are, to be greater than you could ever be." She emphasizes that she's been successful because her parents worked "extremely hard, through really bad poverty, in order to give me a structure in which I could actually learn and pull myself up to a higher social class." She also gives effusive credit to the mentors who have helped her navigate and succeed in the dominant culture, including University professors, 3M managers, tribal leaders, and Native business owners.
Columbus-Powers has heard business leaders talk about finding your "personal board of directors," but this is an old idea for Native Americans, she says. "We depend on the wisdom of our elders, and we incorporate this in our lives to produce success for ourselves and generations to come."
"Your name is not Pocahontas. It is Siobhan Ma'iingan, and you should never let anyone make you feel anything less than proud of who you are."
- Minnesota state Representative and White Earth Nation of Ojibwe citizen Peggy Flanagan (B.A. '02) addressing the Democratic National Convention on July 29. She was speaking to her 3-year-old daughter watching at home, who wants to be president of the United States when she grows up. Flanagan, one of 147 Native delegates, made history as the first Native woman to address the DNC from the podium. Photo caption if used: Rep. Peggy Flanagan, photo by Paul Sancya/AP