We spoke to Steve Mills, CEO and president of AQIWO, a distinguished Native American small business owner in honor of Native American Heritage Month, this November. In addition to his business acumen, Mills is also a noted philanthropist.
Q. Tell me about your Native American heritage.
I am Chumash; they are from central California. And they are part of a larger group called Mission Indians. Our heritage is coastal Indians, who are known for fishing [and boatbuilding]. The word ‘aqiwo’ means ‘shooting star’ or ‘light.’
Q. Why was it important to incorporate your Native American heritage in your business?
I’ve got brown skin, and I came from a mixed family where my mom is white and my dad is not. A lot of my upbringing was from my white side of the family. I always knew I was different, and I thought, later on, there may be an opportunity to show that difference, and be proud of that, proud of my heritage and who I am as a person. Family is important and so is being proud of who you are.
Q. What was your business startup journey and what gave you the idea for an information services firm?
I’d gone through college, received my MBA, and I think I have the kind of personality that likes to achieve a lot, but I’m also diplomatic. I’ve been a leader on sports teams and different groups, and that doesn’t mean I’m always the best, but I like to pull all of it together. From a business perspective, I had an IT background, product management background, and consulting background, and I knew my strengths and weaknesses. I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I got into the government services arena, and I learned the ropes. I started my company in 2002 and we’ve been going strong since then.
Q. What has being a proud member of the Native American community given you and how do you give back?
Any group is looking for examples. I hope to think that I’m one example. When I talk to young Native Americans, or anyone with a challenge, I always give them suggestions on how to be an entrepreneur. I say this is how I did it, and how I was successful. You don’t have to do this, but this is how I did it.
Q. What do you think the greatest challenge facing Native Americans is today?
It’s hard to stay optimistic. It’s hard to stay a good person. There’s that saying, “Nice guys finish last.” It’s not the case, but it seems like it is. So to stay true to your principles and beliefs, and live that out throughout your life is a hard thing to do. You have to be a strong person in the face of adversity, you cannot crumble up. You can’t do that because you have responsibility. I think staying true to who you are is a hard thing.
Q. Mentoring is a large part of your philanthropy efforts. Why do you think it’s important to educate students and small businesses about government contracting?
Mentoring and taking the extra time to talk to folks, that’s very important. Being proud of who you are and sharing it [is important]. It’s not work [to me] when I get a moment to share how [others] can be successful too. I’m going to start doing more of [speaking and mentoring] with tribes.