Across Indian Country, efforts to promote, enhance and sustain tribal sovereignty have been steadily gaining ground over the last two decades or so, in tandem with tribal economic development efforts. Until recently, those economic development efforts have largely been in the form of tribal enterprises—businesses owned and operated by tribal governments. Private sector business development and entrepreneurship have generally taken a back seat when tribes plan and implement economic development strategies.
In Montana, however, tribal representatives and business leaders have established a new coalition to help private business sectors grow and flourish. The Montana Indian Business Alliance (MIBA) focuses on strengthening tribal sovereignty and economies by drawing attention to the important role the private sector can play in Indian Country.
Planting the seeds
MIBA is a direct outcome of the Montana Indian Business Conference, which a diverse group of sponsoring organizations and planning team members hosted in Great Falls, Mont., in February 2006. However, the seeds for MIBA were planted long before the conference planning began.
Since early 2004, a small group of individuals led by Susan Webber, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and owner of Nitzitapi Consulting, had been working to provide assistance to tribal members who were encountering difficulty in obtaining funding for their small businesses. The group, informally called the Montana Indian Business Mentoring Group, realized early on that in order for small businesses and entrepreneurship to flourish on Montana's Indian reservations, technical assistance and financing for business owners were not the only resources needed. Just as important, a number of significant changes were needed within the tribes' legal and governmental infrastructures to create business-friendly and business-sustaining environments.
When it comes to strengthening tribal economies, Webber notes that all areas of need are mutually dependent.
"In addition to providing mentoring to business owners, we recognized early on that tribal economic policy and laws that are supportive of private sector development, tribal courts that effectively uphold sound tribal commercial law and policy, and lenders that understand tribal socioeconomic environments are essential to create the foundation for sustainable private business growth."
A "law and policy" focus
The mentoring group expanded as it began planning a conference around these issues. The outcome, the Montana Indian Business Conference, was designed to address tribal legal, governmental and policy issues as well as business financing. Its primary target audience was tribal policy- and lawmakers and financial institutions—not Indian entrepreneurs and small business owners, whose needs for technical assistance and training, the group determined, would be better met through the direct delivery of resources and services.
The two-day conference drew 250 attendees representing all of Montana's tribes and numerous state, federal and local government and regulatory agencies; nonprofit organizations; financial institutions and other businesses. Attendees appreciated the "law and policy" focus on private business development and deemed the event a tremendous success.
After the conference, organizers developed plans to follow up with a series of meetings to more specifically and strategically address the needs of the "Indianpreneur," a term that ONABEN* uses to capture the experiences, challenges and opportunities that Native entrepreneurs face in starting and owning businesses.
An alliance forms
Within a month after the conference, 45 individuals from a wide cross-section of organizations and tribes met in Great Falls to discuss how to best leverage resources and services to meet the training and financing needs of Montana's Indianpreneurs. The all-day event resulted in a unanimous vote to form a statewide alliance of organizations dedicated to promoting private sector business development in Indian Country, and MIBA was born. During a second all-day meeting held at the state capitol in Helena last May, members selected a chairperson and executive committee, developed work plans for 2006, and—most importantly—crafted a mission statement and identified the four high-level objectives MIBA would pursue.
The mission of MIBA is to promote private Indian business development by maximizing and developing resources that encourage and support Montana Indianpreneurs. MIBA's four high-level objectives and the teams established to focus on them are:
- Be a proactive network and resource advocate for Indian business (Resource Team);
- Be a catalyst for Indianpreneur growth and enhancement (Training Team);
- Promote successful Indian Country business environments (Business Environment Team); and
- Foster accessibility to financial resources (Financial Resources Team).
The Resource Team is currently building MIBA's Web site, hosted by the Montana Department of Commerce, and compiling a Montana Indian business directory.
"The Resource Team has really stepped forward to get our team actions moving," remarks Dr. Johnel Barcus, who serves as executive director of the Browning Community Development Corporation and a MIBA executive committee member and is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation. "Along with the Web site and Indian business directory, the Resource Team has started planning the next MIBA conference, which is scheduled for September 2007."
The Training Team is conducting a series of workshops to develop the skills of Indian business mentors. The sessions will cover a number of topics, including needs assessments, best practices, and tools for delivering services and training to existing and potential business owners.
"The development of private sector business owners is essential to the prosperity of Indian communities," notes Philip Belangie, entrepreneur development program manager for the Montana Department of Commerce and MIBA executive committee member. "The Montana Department of Commerce is committed to assisting these entrepreneurs—or Indianpreneurs—through technical assistance, training, and the development of long-lasting mentoring relationships."
The Business Environment Team will work with the Indian Law Clinic of the University of Montana's School of Law and its director, Maylinn Smith, to compile all the existing commercial and business laws of Montana's tribes and publish them on the clinic's Web site. In addition, the clinic will work with a MIBA subcommittee to perform a "gap analysis" of those laws, in order to assist the tribal governments in further developing and updating their legal commercial infrastructures.
Finally, the Financial Resources Team is creating a financial resources guide for Indian business owners and lenders. The team will also research the possibility of developing alternative financing resources. Major Robinson, an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who serves as a senior economic development specialist for the Montana Governor's Office of Economic Development and a MIBA executive committee member, is excited about the potential economic impact MIBA could have.
"Indian Nations of Montana and Indian business owners already contribute a great deal to Montana's overall economy," Robinson points out. "Through the efforts of MIBA, we're striving to provide resources and opportunities for all Indian people, on and off the reservation, to develop and enhance their own interdependent economies."
Making the resources reachable
MIBA's members are hopeful that the alliance will serve as a useful resource—not only for Indian entrepreneurs and business owners, but also for tribal governments, tribal colleges and other tribal organizations that work with Indian business owners. Maria Valandra, who serves as MIBA chairperson and vice president of community development for First Interstate Bank in Billings and is a Cree Indian, notes that "the concept of focusing on private business ownership in Indian Country is long overdue."
Valandra emphasizes the importance of partnerships.
"Together with many tribal, private, nonprofit, grassroots, state and federal organizations, we're working hard to reach out to all Montana Indians who have the qualities of an entrepreneur and the desire to own a business. Our goal is to make sure the resources they need are readily attainable and not out of reach."
The most recent MIBA event was hosted by G&G Advertising, a Native-owned business in Billings, Montana, on September 7. The featured guest speaker was Kitch Walker, president and cofounder of Ripple Marketing, who presented on "The Passion of Entrepreneurship: Embracing Your Destiny." Other agenda items included a demonstration of the MIBA Web site; team status updates; a business plan presentation by Kim Iron, an American Indian Business Leaders student and Crow Tribe member; and a presentation by Theo Hugs, owner of River Crow Trading Post on the Crow Reservation, on the challenges and opportunities of starting and operating a business in Indian Country.
The next all-day MIBA event is scheduled for January 25, 2007 (location to be determined). MIBA welcomes anyone who is interested in furthering its mission of encouraging and supporting private business development in Montana's Indian Country to attend and become an alliance member.
For more information on MIBA, visit www.mibaonline.org.