We recently celebrated national Native American Heritage Month in November, and it offered us another opportunity to reflect upon the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s mission to Indigenous People and its strategy to execute it.
We have focused on business education since the mid-1990s, beginning with the Tribal College Entrepreneurship Scholarship, which is still our flagship program in Indian Country. The idea was that business education would lead to an increase in business activity, which would provide employment and a better standard of living on reservations.
Our emphasis on business education has continued and the 2014 JSF retreat affirmed the Foundation’s strategy:
To provide opportunities for American Indian people to get post-secondary education in business and business-related areas and training in business skills to help spur business development in American Indian communities.
The expected short-term outcomes were more American Indians with post-secondary business related degrees and more business infrastructure on reservations. In the intermediate term we expect to see more businesses and higher quality business education. In the long-term we expect stronger reservation economies, with increased home ownership and other indicators of prosperity and more business-friendly laws and policies.
These are our theories, strategies and expectations and we often ask ourselves: how are they playing out in the real world?
The answer is that we do not know.
Improving the standard of living on reservations has been a seemingly intractable problem and progress is bound to be slow. One of our disappointments has been the relatively few private businesses created by our graduates. However, we must bear in mind that it is impossible to measure the results and assess the value of business education in the short term. Further, results are bound to differ from expectations and these differences are not necessarily bad.
On the positive side, results from our tribal college partners and non-tribal educational institutions continue to improve and the Gonzaga MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship has taken root. There is a generation of JSF graduates contributing to the government, business and life of their reservations. We have also made some good tactical grants to groups such as First Peoples, the Lakota Fund, Dalhousie University, The Martin Family Initiative and the National Network of Native CDFIs. The Foundation’s reputation as a knowledgeable and committed partner continues to grow. JSF is one of America’s largest grant makers to programs serving Indigenous People.
Perhaps the most affirming evidence of the Foundation’s strategy is the increasing development of a business culture among Indigenous People. Enrollment in business study at our partner colleges is increasing and there is a growing consensus that business is the way forward for Reservation economies. I had the privilege of experiencing this new consensus in Sydney, Nova Scotia, home of the Membertou Reserve and Cape Breton University. The Membertou Reserve and the Purdy Crawford Chair in Aboriginal Business Studies are two of the most progressive organizations of their kind. Their theory of improving the life of Indigenous People through business education and their national strategy are almost identical to ours.
This is an affirmation of what the Foundation has been saying and doing for more than 25 years and it should inspire us to keep going.