Kathy Cobb - Associate Editor
Published July 1, 1992 | July 1992 issue
When Prosper Waukon located his contract manufacturing firm in the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis, he made a commitment to himself and to the local American Indian community.
Waukon, president and owner of Prosper Industries Inc., began his business in June 1990 with his wife, their life savings and a total of five employees. Two years later in his expanded space in the Franklin Business Center, he employs up to 110 people--90 percent of them American Indians who live in the immediate neighborhood.
Located in what is euphemistically described as a "labor surplus area," Prosper Industries has made a dent in the neighborhood's 34 percent Indian unemployment rate. And with a monthly payroll of $60,000 for the first three months of 1992, and $40,000 each for the three months prior, Prosper Industries is putting money back into the community.
Waukon, a Chippewa Indian from Nebraska, consciously runs his business with an American Indian philosophy. Formerly employed by Honeywell Corp., Waukon started his own business because he wanted to show that an Indian business can be successful without compromising his cultural identity. Waukon says he began his business with two ends in mind: Take social responsibility and make a profit. "I think it's important to balance social responsibility and capitalism."
At first Waukon had to deal with large turnover in his work force, but as soon as people realized that he was true to his word and showed respect for his employees, their sense of responsibility to the company grew.
Although he can only offer work hours based on the contracts he receives, Waukon says his staff is responsible and ready. An exercise equipment manufacturer gave Waukon 15 percent of its assembly work initially, now Prosper Industries has 80 percent of the company's volume. This increase in business, Waukon says, is a direct tribute to the efficiency of his work force.
Waukon has a unique management system. "Veterans are held in high esteem in the Indian community," Waukon says. So he has hired American Indian combat veterans as supervisors. He also tells applicants that he's not interested in their past. "I tell them to come in and work two shifts and if you can keep up with other people on the work team, you've got a job."
Waukon also delivers regular shop talks to his employees and encourages professional growth. His employees may begin by working on light assembly; then work their way up to tinning computer circuit boards or soldering electronic components.
He also encourages his employees to look for better jobs and offers help with applications and references. But first they need to stick with him for two months, and prove that they have basic workplace skills. So far, 15 people have moved on to higher paying, more skilled jobs.
While Waukon started his business without financial aid, he says now that he wants to expand, getting a lender's attention is a big problem. "Indians are at the bottom of the minority ladder when it comes to getting funding," Waukon says. "Most companies assume that because it's an Indian business that we get federal funding, which isn't true."
And, he thinks it's equally important for American Indians to realize that his operation is for-profit, not just a subsidized vehicle to give Indians jobs.
Because he's been there himself, Waukon understands the plight of the urban Indian and the loss of spirit and identity. Waukon says retaining those ties with his culture is essential to his well-being. "I'm an Indian first and foremost, and I believe we're all novices, none better than another."
His advice to other American Indian entrepreneurs is: "Never forget where you came from. Otherwise, you become a white business owned by an Indian and you forget your social responsibilities."