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San Carlos Apache Small Business Plan Competition Produces Sweet Success

Earlier this summer, I accepted an invitation to serve as one of five judges for the 2nd Annual San Carlos Apache Tribe Small Business Plan Competition. JSF supported this exercise as part of a two-year grant to the Center for American Indian Economic Development (CAIED) at Northern Arizona University in January of 2020.

Due to the pandemic, the competition was conducted over Zoom. During the week of October 12th, the judges received written business plans for the competing proposals. Contestants would pitch their proposals to judges on October 15th. Presentations were rated on marketing, product or service, competence, management capability, financial understanding and investment potential. Judges were further asked to provide written comments to the applicants. The format of the contest was modeled after the TV series “Shark Tank.”

The business ventures were varied in their industries, stages and development. They included a document scan and shred business, a coin laundromat, a children’s book proposal, a Native sewing business, a bead supply company and a sweet bread baker. Contestants were given 15 minutes to present their proposals and answer questions from the judges. All of the participants were well prepared, and the exercise was conducted well. The competition effectively promoted the intended purpose of encouraging entrepreneurial activity and education.

I was particularly struck by the resourcefulness and creativity of the applicants. The current pandemic has required them to pivot their work, and all of them had some measure of a successful testimony of adaptation. I was also struck by the resonating theme of community in all of their proposals. Many of them spoke of the benefit to others more than they addressed the viability or financial opportunity of their business. The winner was the Beaded Edge Supply with a business expansion proposal. You can see their business at www.beadededgesupply.com.

I was asked to forward a grateful thank you from the San Carlos Apache Tribe to JSF and all who participated. All participants received some remuneration. First place received $6,000 and sixth place received $100. Beaded Edge Supply will use the winning proceeds to offset the cost of a new facility to accommodate their growing business. For me, I left inspired, encouraged and appreciative for the opportunity to represent the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

But what happened next to one of the presenters makes it doubly rewarding. Frankie Holmes, the participant who made strawberry sweet bread, landed a major contract with Freeport McMoRan to provide his desserts to their employees. One of the judges works for Freeport, and was instrumental in making it happen.

Here’s Frankie’s story:

“I had heard of the business plan competition from the year before. Baking wasn’t even my thing. But writing a business plan is nothing new for me. I’ve done it numerous times.

“I hear back from the competition. They say, ‘You’re going to be presenting.’ But I didn’t get picked. I got a phone call saying I got, like fourth place. But prior to that, one of the judges reached out to me and said, ‘Your presentation was flawless. We’d like to place an order.’ I’m thinking she’s going to order like four or five loaves. No! She put in a giant order for her whole department! Now I have a contract with them for six months for their team building activities,” he said.

“Then, she put it on Facebook, and things just took off! Prior to the competition, I was doing like a few hundred (in sales) a week. Then, for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I had sales galore! Thanksgiving alone was over $3,000!

“Word of mouth is very viable down here,” said Holmes, who works in Globe-Miami, an area of sister cities east of Phoenix and west of the San Carlos Reservation with a population of less than 10,000.

Holmes is a personal banker with Wells Fargo who got into baking when COVID-19 hit the town, he said.

“It hit our little town big-time,” he said. “Our whole town shut down. The banks shut down. I was out of work. I figured I could sit here, sulk and cry, or be the guy I’ve always been and find a muse. I never heard of anybody making a strawberry sweet bread, so in one weekend, I did it.”

Congratulations, Frankie Holmes!


Robert Krause is CEO of Johnson Scholarship Foundation

Struggles and Success: The Impact of COVID-19 on an Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program

A year ago, I posted an article on “Giving Matters” about the Martin Family Initiative’s (MFI) ground-breaking project: the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP). At that time, AYEP was offered in 51 schools across Canada and there were plans to expand to additional locations.

The 2019-20 school year started off very well. AYEP teachers were very impressed with their students’ progress; many reported evidence of students’ increasing knowledge of the economy and business, improved motivation to complete current studies and pursue further ones, increased self-confidence, and heightened awareness of the needs of their communities.

All this changed on March 11, 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. Almost immediately schools across Canada were closed – many are still unsure when they will re-open.  Students were encouraged to participate in at-home learning for the remainder of the school year even though they were deemed to have completed their courses as of mid-March.

MFI determined that the best way to support AYEP teachers and their students was to upload the AYEP lessons and supporting resources to the Google Classroom platform. We also instituted weekly calls with AYEP teachers to provide support and advice. Many of the schools that offered AYEP-implemented remote learning using a range of tools and approaches including synchronous activities.  

Photo of young woman with blue earring

MFI has experience with distance learning, but over the past months some Aboriginal student-focused issues have emerged: difficulty to complete on-line lessons, the lack of access to connectivity and devices, and concerns directly related to poverty that many face.

AYEP educators highlighted the IT-related obstacles that their students experienced including unstable or the lack of  internet connections and the need to share a single device – including one cell phone – with many other children in a family as they all attempted to complete on-line activities.

In one school, AYEP students rode their bikes to the school parking lot to connect to the internet in order to do their assignments.

Some of these students were forced to abandon their studies to find a job to help support their families. One student went to work on a fishing boat; others started jobs in grocery stores, in drugstores, delivering food, and as cooks in fast food restaurants.

Over the past months MFI has been very impressed with the deep dedication, flexibility, creativity, and compassion of AYEP teachers across the country. Besides using Google Classroom, they connected with their students using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Brightspace, Edsby, Google Docs, email, and phone. Some also delivered AYEP materials to their students’ homes.

Three students writing in books

Despite their difficulties, many AYEP students have persevered and completed their lessons thoroughly and on time. Many created video business plans for their proposed ventures instead of traditional hardcopy versions. One student was recently awarded a prize for academic merit and community involvement. Another is applying for a start-up grant to be able to launch his business.

MFI is very proud of the accomplishments of AYEP students and their teachers. They were faced with unexpected and momentous upheaval – and they are succeeding. 

Dr. Carlana Lindeman began her career in education as a teacher and principal before joining the Ontario Ministry of Education (EDU). For 18 years she worked with school boards, and First Nation schools and organizations, to improve student achievement. In July 2008, she became the Education Program Director for the Martin Family Initiative, where she supports various strategies and activities related to Indigenous students across Canada. In 2009, she was awarded the Sandra D. Lang Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ontario Government for the depth and quality of service she provided to students, families and communities across Ontario.

Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP): A Canada-wide Program to Improve Student Achievement

There is a deep understanding across Canada of the need to enhance strategies to improve Aboriginal student success. There are approximately 1.7 million Aboriginal People in Canada, and one third are under the age of 15 — making them the youngest and fastest growing demographic in the country.

Group of people in front of Nish Dish market
AYEP students visit Nish Dish catering.

A real concern for Canada is the low Aboriginal high school graduation rate; the non-Aboriginal high school graduation rate is about 92 percent while the Aboriginal rate remains at about 50 percent. The Martin Family Initiative (MFI), a charitable foundation, was established in 2008 to help address these issues.  

A decade ago, MFI (www.themfi.ca) launched the Grade 11 and 12 Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP) to encourage Aboriginal students to stay in school, to learn about the Canadian economy and to acquire entrepreneurial knowledge and experience.

AYEP is currently offered in 51 schools across Canada; approximately 4,600 students have participated in AYEP since its inception. The 220-hour curriculum:

AYEP students visit the Healing Centre
AYEP students visit the Healing Centre.
  • Contains Aboriginal content, including case studies and examples of successful Canadian Aboriginal business leaders.
  • Uses innovative hands-on activities, guest speakers and business mentors to help students learn how to create a product-based and/or service-driven business and about the services provided by banks and credit unions.
  • Improves students’ proficiency in financial literacy, business, mathematics, English, accounting, marketing and information and communications technology, while supporting the acquisition of self-confidence, as well as communication and leadership skills.  
  • Employs a variety of teaching strategies including simulations, competitions, guest speakers, field trips to businesses and mentoring.

MFI determined that there was a need for Aboriginal-focused textbooks and led the development of AYEP’s instructor and student resource materials. These teaching materials are the first of their kind in Canada.

A 60-hour non-credit course for Aboriginal adults has recently been developed; it includes key elements of the Grade 11 and the Grade 12 AYEP courses. This course is flexible and can be offered over multiple weekends, or daily over two weeks, or in other combinations.

MFI, like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, firmly believes that education is the best means to empower people to become more independent and to participate more fully in the benefits of our society. Our range of targeted programs exemplifies this belief.

Dr. Carlana Lindeman began her career in education as a teacher and principal before joining the Ontario Ministry of Education (EDU). For 18 years she worked with school boards, and First Nation schools and organizations, to improve student achievement. In July 2008, she became the Education Program Director for the Martin Family Initiative, where she supports various strategies and activities related to Indigenous students across Canada. In 2009, she was awarded the Sandra D. Lang Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ontario Government for the depth and quality of service she provided to students, families and communities across Ontario.

November is Native American Heritage Month

The photo above was taken at the Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s annual Entrepreneurship Scholarship meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, last month. As you can see, we had a good turnout of JSF board members, staff and consultants and representation from almost all our nonprofit, tribal college and university partners in this program.

The Entrepreneurship Scholarship program is in its 28th year and this annual convening has been an integral part. The Foundation’s persistence in this program – and in our Indigenous funding generally – is paying a dividend of improvement and these meetings seem to get better every year.

The meeting heard a presentation by Jamie Schwartz and Tiffany Gusbeth of the American Indian College Fund. The College Fund administers 200 scholarship programs for Indigenous students, two of which – the Business Entrepreneurship and the Entrepreneurship Pipeline – are matching scholarship endowments established by the Foundation.

The Business Entrepreneurship Scholarship supports students who have already obtained an associate’s degree, typically at a tribal college, and are in their junior or senior year of a bachelor’s degree. This scholarship program has a 93 percent persistence and graduation rate.

The Entrepreneurship Pipeline supports first and second year business students at tribal colleges that do not partner directly with the Foundation. Interestingly, the College Fund has also gone into the secret sauce business and has developed “student success services” such as coaching and mentoring, transition assistance and peer tutoring.

Native American Heritage Month LogoWe also heard from Loris Taylor, president and CEO of Native Public Media, a network of 57 radio and four television stations. Loris gave a wonderful presentation on the strengths and challenges of Native Public Media and its role and potential in education.

The best of this meeting took place at the very beginning when we had presentations from two Johnson Scholars from Northern Arizona University. Dylan Graham, from the Navajo Nation, has just obtained a degree in hotel management and was president of NAU’s student body. She presented very well and, not surprisingly, has several options. She may go overseas to work with an international hotelier or to Arizona State University for an MBA.

Elliott Cooley is also from the Navajo Nation and is in his senior year of business management. While in high school he suffered nerve damage in a car accident that partially paralyzed his left side. After two years of physiotherapy he joined the Marines and served for four years, including a tour of duty in Iraq. He began college on the GI Bill and, when it ran out, obtained a Johnson Scholarship. Elliott is an entrepreneur and won the NAU Center for American Indian Economic Development (CAIED) business competition. He hopes to do business on the Navajo Reservation and serve as a role model for other would-be entrepreneurs.

Elliott referenced his tour of duty in Iraq and stressed how grateful he is for the freedom to pursue education and a career of his choice. Gratitude was a good theme at our meeting and for the Foundation’s work generally. A year from now it will be Native American Heritage Month and we will be back in Scottsdale, talking to our grantee partners about how we can support another year of their excellent work. We should all be grateful for this opportunity.

Malcolm Macleod is the president and CEO of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF). Since joining the Foundation as president in 2001, he has spent the past 17 years working with the Board, staff and grantees to ensure that JSF is a Foundation that makes quality grants serving as catalysts for effective change. Prior to his work with the Foundation, he had a 26-year career in law and is currently a member of the Bar.

What Coyote Stories Teach Us About Success

Among many Native Tribes in North America stories have been an important part of the oral traditions passed down over many generations. While each tribal group has stories unique to them, many times there are common themes shared by several different tribes. In the Northern Plains and Northwest U.S. these are often referred to as “Coyote Stories.”

Fox looking at the camera

Fox

While not all stories involve Coyote, he is a very important, and complex, character. Coyote is charged by the Creator with helping the people and looking after them, which he does enthusiastically. Knowing his flaws, however, the Creator asks Brother Fox to look after Coyote. Many stories are told about monsters or an evil of some kind that is threatening or killing the people. Coyote hears of this and rushes to the rescue. Inevitably, he charges full-steam into the battle with great courage and good intentions, but no plan or foresight. And, inevitably, he is killed. Along comes Brother Fox and performs some action or rite to bring Coyote back to life. Coyote then comes up with a clever and creative plan to defeat the monster.

An important aspect of Coyote Stories is that each listener is free, in fact encouraged, to reflect upon each story and find the lesson in it. These are some of the lessons I have drawn from these stories:

1) Good intentions and bold action are not enough. We often confuse action with progress. In times of crisis we tend to want to “do something.” Our first or most obvious choice of action can be counter-productive and lead to more serious problems. Careful planning, creativity and marshalling resources turn good intentions into effective outcomes.

2) Persistence pays off. Initial failure need not lead to defeat. We have all seen examples of students, businesses or clients who, having failed, need to be picked up, given some resources and encouraged to try a new approach. This initial failure is natural and not to be treated as an endpoint, but simply another stop along the path. Likewise, we, as service providers, initiate new programs, reach out to new populations or otherwise act boldly with good intentions. Often with little success. Coyote stories remind us to learn from failure, get assistance and try to come up with a better plan.

3) Each one of us is sometimes Fox and sometimes Coyote. Within each of us, and our organizations, live both Fox and Coyote. We tend to see our organizations as always playing Fox, the helper. But we are sometimes Coyote; acting boldly, making mistakes and not getting expected results. We often need assistance to plan creative approaches to solve existing problems. This is just part of the process.

Certainly, in my career I have helped many Coyotes, students who failed a class, or entrepreneurs who can’t pay the bills. But I have often relied on the assistance of organizations like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, American Indian College Fund and American Indian Graduate Center to be Brother Fox.

An alumnus of the Gonzaga University MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship (MBA-AIE) program, Keith Rennie (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) taught business at Salish Kootenai College. He chaired the Business Department until 2017 when he launched his business, Brother Fox Consulting. He lives and works on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana.

Investing in Indigenous Business in Canada: Key Opportunities and Challenges

Aboriginal business opportunities are arising at a revolutionary rate but the capacity (knowledge and experience) to take advantage of these opportunities is generally acquired on an evolutionary and generational basis. How do we reconcile the two?

Challenges

  1. Joint Venture Partnerships with domain-experienced companies can be one way to overcome capacity challenges allowing Aboriginal companies to take advantage of opportunities more immediately and the other joint venture partner to access business on a preferential basis. CAPE Fund (a grantee partner of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation) has found that at least in our country, Corporate Canada has been slow to react to these opportunities and when they do emerge, they are structured to flow cash to Indigenous communities with little opportunity for the transfer of business knowledge and the creation of Aboriginal employment.
  2. Cape LogoIn modern society, business is supported by a complex “ecosystem” which includes access to knowledgeable capital from a variety of sources, a well-educated and trained labor force, experienced management and governance resources and advanced infrastructure (IT, transport, power, water, education, health care, etc.). These are not a “given” in most Indigenous communities.
  3. Politics play a great role in the affairs of Indigenous communities. While many communities make great efforts to separate business and politics by establishing appropriate governance structures, the temptation to mix the two frequently leads to bad or uninformed decisions negatively affecting business. These complications are avoided when we invest in Aboriginal entrepreneurs as opposed to community-related businesses.
  4. For generations, Canadian federal law has encouraged the creation of structures, which encourage dependency and foster dysfunctionality in Indigenous communities. One example of this is the two-year election cycle mandated by the Indian Act for most First Nations’ chiefs and councils. When a First Nations elder was asked by a CAPE representative if a particular Nation would be committed to a project requiring five to 10 years of development and millions of dollars of investment, the response was “Yes, but can we abandon the project in two years if a new Chief is elected?”

Opportunities

  1. Aboriginal youth represent the fastest growing demographic in Canada. Over 50 percent of Indigenous people in Canada are under the age of 25.
  2. Canada is facing a labor shortage, which is forecast to worsen in coming years.
  3. It is now a legal obligation for corporations to consult and, where possible, accommodate our Indigenous peoples when their traditional territories are to be impacted by commercial development. This has given rise to impact/benefit agreements negotiated between developers and our Indigenous peoples, designed to mitigate environmental impacts and provide economic benefits including jobs, Native business creation and profit sharing.
  4. Sean Manitobah MukluksThe rise of successful Aboriginal business and Aboriginal entrepreneurs can lead to the creation of role models who can inspire and motivate Indigenous youth to stay in school, work hard, pursue an education in business and become productive members of their communities and Canadian society in general. One example of such an entrepreneur is Sean McCormick, CEO of Manitobah Mukluks, one of our most successful investments.

We are seeing the emergence of a number of successful Indigenous businesses in Canada, notwithstanding enormous challenges faced by our Indigenous peoples brought on by almost a half of a millennium of marginalization and abuse. Ultimately our goal should be to assist our Aboriginal brothers and sisters to find justice and substantially improve the quality of their lives in all respects. Business creation and growth is only one piece of a great puzzle representing the true holistic solution required. It is, nevertheless, an important vehicle for our Indigenous peoples to generate the wealth necessary to improve quality of life and provide meaningful employment opportunities for their benefit as well as our country’s at large.

Peter Forton is Managing Director of CAPE Fund (Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship), a $50 million, socially responsible investment fund, established to encourage Aboriginal entrepreneurship and capacity building in Canada. The Fund is the vision of former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and his son David and is backed by 18 of Canada’s leading corporations as well as three international foundations.

How AIBL Challenges and Inspires Native Business Students

American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL) was organized in January 1994 and was recognized as a 501(c)(3) organization in 1995 on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, Montana. Michelle Henderson (Assiniboine) was a graduate student in the MBA program and wrote her thesis on AIBL. She approached School of Business Administration Dean Dr. Larry Gianchetta to be the chair of her thesis committee. The original idea evolved from concerns expressed by many tribal leaders that recognized the need for business educated and business experienced tribal members to assist with tribal economic development. Michelle became the first executive director of the AIBL organization, and Larry became the faculty advisor to the University of Montana AIBL Chapter.

American Indian Business Leaders black and gold logoThe mission of AIBL is to increase the representation of American Indians and Alaska Natives in business and entrepreneurial ventures through education and leadership development opportunities.

AIBL’s vision is to become the preeminent national nonprofit organization serving American Indians and Alaska Natives by providing business and entrepreneurship education, leadership development training, and the necessary support to help young men and women who aspire to purse studies and careers in business, entrepreneurship, or related disciplines.

Today, AIBL has student chapters throughout the United States, and the chapters fall into three categories: High School, Tribal Colleges, and Universities.  Each of the chapters has a least one faculty advisor. Faculty advisors and student members can go to the AIBL website (www.aibl.org)  and click on chapters to find all the resources necessary to organize and run chapter meetings.  Each year the primary focus for the student chapters is the Annual Leadership Conference. This year our annual Leadership Conference will be April 26-28 at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Arizona (more details on the conference can be found on the AIBL website).

The Leadership Conference has students going to learning sessions in career development, personal development, networking, etc. Many of the corporate sponsors will be attending the conference and will be available to discuss both internships and career opportunities. We also have many sponsors interested in our AIBL students, representing well-known Indian owned businesses who have both internships and career opportunities for students. Students participate in competitions such as Business Plans and Chapter of the Year. Members of the National Board of Directors are located across the U.S. and come from industry and education. They are dedicated to the mission and vision of AIBL and will all be available at the annual Leadership Conference.

Students participate in the general session of the 2017 American Indian Business Leaders annual conference.Finally, go the AIBL website and click on conferences. You will see the students involved in all of the activities available to them engaged in life-changing experiences. You will also see the remarkable speakers that come to present at the AIBL conference. A large part of the AIBL experience throughout the academic year is the fundraising students do to pay their way to the conference, as well as preparing to do very well individually and as a chapter in the competitive events. Each year we ask a few of our AIBL alumni to come back to the Leadership Conference and share with the students what impact AIBL has had on their lives. This is always a very powerful experience for our current AIBL students!

If you have any questions, please contact AIBL Executive Director Prairie Bighorn at prairie.bighorn@aibl.org.

 

3 Things I’ve Learned From the Seven Generation Money Management Game

We all know that games can be fun, even educational. But what about life changing?

student standing at a table while woman writesSeven Generation Money Management (7G MM) developed by the Center for American Indian Economic Development at Northern Arizona University with support from the Johnson Scholarship Foundation is a hands-on financial literacy game targeted toward Native American youth to increase their money management skills and to give them a basic understanding of investing, opening a bank account, purchasing a car, renting an apartment, buying a house and other life skills.

As of today, CAIED has hosted 68 7G MM workshops/trainings and has had more than 1,600+ participants.  Thus, I thought I would share three things I have learned from 7G MM and how it has impacted my life.

students around a table writing in notebooks and laughing#1 Life Happens!!!!

The one thing I have seen and also experienced is that life happens.  In 7G MM, life also happens. Let’s say you need to buy a refrigerator, the air conditioner goes out and needs to be repaired, or the stove stops working and needs to be replaced.  Yep, life happens in the game and in life.  All three of these events happened to me within 10 days.  At the time I was grateful to have had an emergency fund and it was less of a hindrance to replace and/or repair these items.  However, where is my emergency fund now ….

Student and teacher smiling#2 Investments

Growing up, I did not know much about the stock market or investments outside of establishing and maintaining a savings account.  In the game, participants have an opportunity to make investments. Some make money and some lose money.  A couple of years ago we did a family investment project.  I met up with my brother, who has been involved in investing for years.  He gave my wife, my 11-year-old and me a quick overview and then we were off to play our own investing game.  I gave my daughter $100 and told her she could invest it in anything she wanted.  She decided on Blue Buffalo.  Later that day she was talking to her aunt and her aunt asked her what she did that day.  She proudly said, “I bought stocks!”  Her aunt replied, “Why did you buy socks?”  She looked at her aunt and was very determined. “I bought stocks. I own Blue Buffalo, so whenever you buy dog food, buy Blue Buffalo, because I own part of the company.”  Today we buy Blue Buffalo!

Students with name tags standing in line at a table#3 Moving Out of Your Family Home

In the game participants are challenged to move out, whether to go to school or to experience life.  My oldest daughters are now going to college. My wife and I decided to buy a second home that they could live in while going to school.  That is where the rest of my emergency fund went (toward the down payment).  I have found that this is a forced savings account with the headaches of being a landlord.  The first year we had a pipe burst and the whole basement was flooded by a rain storm.  Fun times, but the property continues to rise in value.

Finally, your life is going to change and so will your goals.  Whether it is going to school, changing a major, to having a family with kids or changing professions, just remember life is a present. Live it!

Three Reasons Why a Native MBA is About More Than Business

profile photo of young womanBusiness skills are certainly essential in any good business degree experience, but they alone will not create meaningful social and environmental change or provide greater economic opportunity.  Only when students possess a strong network of support, a sense of what works, and an appreciation of what doesn’t can they be powerful leaders of change.  Here are some examples:

A shared “best-practice” environment. A universal truth of our experience working with members of more than two dozen tribal communities in the Gonzaga University MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship program is that there is no universal “tribal” identity.  Every tribe has its own governance structure, its own resource opportunities, its own leadership, and its own ways to doing things.  One of the most important elements of the Gonzaga MBA-AIE experience has been and continues to be the opportunity to learn how their colleagues in other tribal organizations get things done – how they move change, how they identify opportunities, how they build coalitions, and how they examine and explain results.

Tcloseup of calculator, paper clips and peno enable compassion and common understanding of challenges. Just as our program provides a pulpit for students to explore and understand what is working, similar value is found in understanding when well-meaning organizations are heading in the wrong direction.  The challenges facing tribal communities are vast, often relying on resources that are unavailable, expertise that can be difficult to muster, and a history that promotes a pessimistic outlook.  Our students benefit from the opportunity to share where things went wrong, and in doing so understand that while sometimes it might be better everywhere else, sometimes it’s not.  They learn that we all face the same challenges, challenges that call for broader intervention with policy, structure, education.

people wearing graduation caps and gownsTo create community. While a great deal of what we do in the classroom focuses on providing tools and applications, an essential byproduct of that experience is the development of a community of learners dedicated to themselves and each other.  Our 60-plus alumni stay in touch with each other – particularly with their cohorts, with whom they spend two years learning skills and gaining knowledge alongside one another.  Given the systemic nature of the problems faced by many native communities and the vast human and financial resources needed to fix them, relationships are important. One of the most powerful tools our students possess is the ability to call a friend and colleague who understands their challenge, knows their abilities, and can recommend action.

Over the past fifteen years, nearly 75 students have taken part in the Gonzaga University MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship.  This program, originally created to provide opportunities to business educators in native communities and tribal colleges, has adapted over the years to focus on one of the most pressing challenges in Indian Country – the development of empowered individuals who seek change and possess the technical skills to make change sustainable and meaningful.

closeup of a 2017 graduation cap and tasselOurs is not the only program to focus specifically on the challenges facing tribal communities and native populations, and in the current environment of higher education where every degree and program must justify its unique contribution to the educational landscape, it is appropriate to ask the question why we need “native” MBA programs.  We need them because they help students and businesses thrive in Indigenous communities.

The 5 R’s of Native Culture & Why they Matter to Business

This past month I have had the honor of visiting several college campuses where the Johnson Scholarship Foundation supports Indigenous scholars in their pursuit of careers in business and entrepreneurship. During these visits, I met some of the best and brightest future leaders of Indian Country. The next generation of American Indian business leaders will have to be better educated, more fluent in their traditions, possibly speak their tribal languages, and be comfortable both inside the dance arbor and in a three-piece suit.

students walking along a wet sidewalk

There was a time when being educated meant losing part of one’s Indian identity. There were also negative aspects associated with business in Indian Country. Many of the day-to-day business interactions were not good for our communities and this led to mistrust and the devaluation of anything to do with mainstream businesses. Having an education today – especially in business – means utilizing one’s natural Indian intellect and using that intelligence (braced with a dose of humility) to lead in an ever-more diverse American Indian environment.

Indian Country (and one had better know that is a legal term) is the last frontier in the United States. The most underdeveloped parts of the country are in the heart of Indian country and are ripe for economic development. But unlike in the past, the quintessential innocence that allowed outsiders to take advantage of Indian people and their generosity is gone. Young, well- educated Indigenous people who are savvy, well-grounded, and capable of leading their people through the next millennium are grooming themselves for the future. They are graduating with business and finance skills, and are changing the business landscape of  Indigenous communities. They are changing the negative connotations associated with business, and are negotiating a new, positive way of working in Indian Country.

United Tribes Technical College Spring Graduation on May 8, 2015

To fully develop as new leaders, our young business leaders need an advanced understanding of traditional ways and values. Matthew King, a Lakota traditional leader and perhaps the greatest American Indian philosopher of all time, once said, “Respect is the first law of Indian people.” That single concept is one of the most profound thoughts that can govern a way of life. The philosophy of a basic first law – Respect – for interacting with people is inherently simple but is extremely complex. Respect in this circle of life represents all living things: respecting animals, the earth, and especially each other. When a leader honors and lives by that single value, they will have the potential to be great leader.

Although respect is the core value of a positive symbiotic existence, there is a need to incorporate other values into a business leader’s way of life. These values can serve as guides to developing a good way to manage people.

Sherry, Greg Drummer and students

Close your eyes and using your best introspective powers, try to envision a medicine wheel, with Respect at the center. In each of the four directions, there are four other critical values, beginning with Relationships. The Lakota end their prayers with Mitaku Oyasin (all my relatives). Showing respect, the first law and value of Indian people, helps build relationships with everything in the circle of life. Honoring relationships makes good sense whether in business or in our everyday lives. Respect and Relationships go hand-in-hand.

The next direction on the medicine wheel is Responsibility. A good leader is responsible for both personal behavior and for making good things happen. A leader does the hard work, the follow-up, and will not ask a person to do something that they would not take on themselves. A leader tries not to offend others and must not be easily offended by others. Traditionally, great leaders must have a thick skin and allow themselves to be offended seven times before striking back. And when leaders strike back, they must be respectful, responsible, and considerate of relationships.

Group photo of adults

A great leader is also a great thinker, using Reasoning skills. A leader must listen to the people and use the best analytical skills and natural Indian intellect to guide his or her actions in all of their worldly dealings.

Finally, a great leader is generous. Reciprocity is critical to success. As in the past, the greatest leaders give the most. You should strive to help the neediest in your communities.

man standing next to a painted horse

My grandmothers said, “It is not easy to be an Indian. If you want to be an Indian it is the hardest way to live.” That is still true today for our leaders. They must embrace the traditional values of their people, have a well-rounded education, be blessed with a good heart, be willing to sacrifice, and most importantly, have the ability to make tough decisions in the best interest of their people without bias, malice, or sentiment. Many of our past Indian leaders were born with these values and succeeded through difficult times, albeit oftentimes by trial and error.

The American Indian business leader of the future that chooses to embrace and honor these simple values: The 5Rs, Respect, Relationships, Responsibility, Reasoning, and Reciprocity will serve the people in a good way and will have the potential to be a great leader. I have seen the future on my recent college visits and I have great confidence in our young business leaders.

Richard B. Williams (Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne) is a passionate and committed advocate and fierce champion of Native education in the United States. From 1997-2012, he served as president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, a national non-profit scholarship fundraising organization for American Indian students attending tribal colleges and universities which provide culturally based education and are run by the tribes. He presently serves as Indigenous Peoples Programs Consultant for the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.