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ONABEN Fuels Entrepreneurship Among Native American Communities
ONABEN Staff Pictured from left, standing: Kristi Burns, Program Director and Tom Hampson, Executive Director. Seated are: Selena Yokoyama, Administrative Services Director, and Jung Fitzpatrick, Marketing Specialist

Championing the growth and development of entrepreneurial activity among Native Americans, ONABEN, a Native American Business Network, has created strong business networks across the region. Through programs that link would-be entrepreneurs and small business owners with knowledge and resources, ONABEN has served as the catalyst for Native American entrepreneurs to move their ideas forward.

On November 1-2, 2006, ONABEN will host its fifth annual Trading at the River, a gathering of tribal enterprises and Native American businesses. The event, which be held at the Red Lion Hotel on Jantzen Beach, will focus on innovative tribal economic development success stories and business development strategies for Native American entrepreneurs. More than 200 participants across the Pacific Northwest and all over the countryare expected at the event, which features an exhibitor area, speaker panels and numerous learning opportunities for business owners and entrepreneurs.

ONABEN also hosts small business education and training classes through its Indianpreneurship® curriculum. Working alongside tribal small business information centers, ONABEN staff organize classes for more than 100 participants each year. The Indianpreneurship® curriculum is story-based, presenting real examples of Native American entrepreneurial experiences and successes.

Recovering from serious financial difficulty in recent years, ONABEN is positioned to effectively serve its client base, says Tom Hampson, executive director. He led the ONABEN reorganization and implemented the turnaround that delivered the organization from a serious financial hole.

“By being extremely frugal, we were able to restructure our finances. Then, we worked on re-establishing relationships with tribes to come up with some new ideas for services,” he says.

At a recent interview with editor Maileen Hamto, Hampson talks about how ONABEN is working to find new and innovative approaches to better serve its clients.

Trading at the River provides an opportunity to link small businesses with tribal enterprises. Why is it important to establish these connections? Our mission is to build strong private sector through small business development. Because we are part and parcel of the Indian economic development strategy, tribal leaders and tribal enterprise managers need to be at the table for business development purposes. What we try to do is help small enterprises take advantage of economic opportunities that the tribes are presenting.

If you look at the way business is structured in general, you see small, medium, large businesses. If you’re going to be effective at intervening on their behalf, it’s important to know different strategies, depending upon where they are in their life cycles. In the dominant economy, medium to large companies represent growth industries. In Indian country, we have to look at tribal enterprises as the “traded sector” – the growth engines for the economy. Small enterprises represent the seed beds that make up the basic community of commerce, such as service and retail industries. Small businesses are there to support and add diversity to the overall economy.

In Indian country, the traditional economy was quite robust, but was devastated after genocide and colonialism, when the economy was replaced by a colonial exploitive economy. In rebuilding it, the tribes are critically important because they’re the sovereign government that’s in charge of the reservations. They also are the only entities within Indian country that has the potential to amass resources to start and grow an enterprise.

In terms of offerings to tribal enterprises, we provide education and training to tribal business managers. They may need help with trying to figure out how to run a casino or golf course, and the training we offer is valuable to augment their general business experience.

What are some of the success stories? Bear Robertson (co-owner of Spirit of the Bear, a wildfire and general forestry contracting business) took our ONABEN business development class, and pursued his goal to establish a sustainable timber harvesting business. Eagle Eye Optical in Portland is also a great one.

How do you define success? When I look at the people who have taken our classes, all those who graduated are success stories. Those people who started their business by developing and implementing a business plan are success stories.

The press is always looking for businesses that are experiencing substantial growth, which is how entrepreneurship is defined in dominant culture. From my point of view, this definition is destructive to the core purposes that entrepreneurship serves: finding a vehicle to express your own personal vision of the world through a product or service. Almost all the time – that expression does not result in substantial financial gain – but it does result in substantial “psychic” returns. Then, the question becomes how do you do that and still have the lifestyle you want to have and meet your own financial goals?

The bulk of our clients are in the lifestyle categories. They start a business and it becomes an important part of their life. But sometimes, it is not necessarily the sole source of their income. One of the commandments that we have in our classes is “Don’t quit your day job.” Especially in the first one to five years of starting a business.

Why do your clients come to you? We’re one of many service providers for the communities that we serve. Often, in our communities, there’s a huge barrier to entry to get help because that means that you have to admit what you don’t know. For our clients, there’s a cultural overlay that comes with getting services from organization outside of the community. Because we’re an Indian organization, we have a good reputation with Indian country, so the comfort level is quite high. People who call us are often referred by a tribal office, and they come to us because they know that they will be treated well.

In offering Indianpreneruship business development classes, what do you consider as the most important charge for ONABEN?

The challenge for us is to create an environment that people are comfortable with. For our classes, we’re cognizant that our offerings have to be in a welcoming, comfortable, accessible atmosphere, welcoming that is conducive to storytelling.

How do you select instructors and facilitators for the program? We’re very intentional about picking instructors. Most are self-employed people, because they need to have a sense of what an entrepreneur goes through. About half of our instructors are non-Native. If they’re not Indian and are willing to work for us, it shows that they want to work with people who belong to a different culture or community. Approachability and openness are important elements, because they come back to idea of building a comfortable environment.

Should our instructors be Native or not? The reality is that, for us, it’s an important factor, but one’s cultural background is not as important as approachability. From the client’s perspective, a Native person who is not approachable, judgmental or thinks they know it all because they have the right answer will not be effective in the instructor role.
What we look at the most is whether our instructors are open, approachable, smart, funny, creative, and interactive.

What important trends have you seen in recent years? ONABEN has always been a pioneer in terms of services. Our classes remained about the same size, same frequency, year in and year out. What we have seen in terms of growth is interest in other communities on the importance of entrepreneurship. I think part of that is the fact that tribal enterprises are doing well. There’s cash in the economy, and in many cases, that cash is going off the reservation to non-Indian businesses in neighboring towns. There’s an interest in building businesses that can help re-circulate money within the reservation. There’s also an increasing interest among other regions of the country in implementing the Indianpreneurship® curriculum for their clients.”

Fall 2006

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