Over the last few years, a historical infusion of federal money and a growing diversified economy have created a promising outlook for Native businesses and communities, which include Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. But for now, unique struggles remain in Indian Country.
“Indian Country has unique access to capital concerns. Many of our remote reservation communities lack access to some of the basic services most take for granted, like broadband internet. The historic federal investments made over the last couple of years are starting to come in and make a difference, but it will be sometime before we are close to parity,” said Chris James, president and CEO of The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (The National Center).
With over 50 years of assisting American Indian Tribes and tribal people with business and economic development, The National Center has evolved into the largest national Indian specific business organization in the nation.
MBN USA recently caught up with James and Amanda Smith, president of the Native American Business, which was founded in 2019 and is another advocate for Native American business owners and entrepreneurs.
MBN USA recently caught up with James and Smith to discuss business challenges and opportunities in Indian Country and the road ahead state of Native-owned companies.
Q: What is the state of Native-owned businesses in the supply chain?
Chris James (CJ): The easy answer is strong, but there is always room for improvement. One of our primary focus areas has been increasing the number of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-owned contractors in the supply chain, both government and large, Fortune 500 companies. We do this both as a connector — we host matchmaking events at our annual Reservation Economic Summit and other events — and through direct training run by our APEX Accelerator (formerly Procurement and Technical Assistance Center). More and more companies are coming to the realization that corporate diversity extends beyond their own workforce; it includes their entire supply chain and the businesses with which they work. We serve as a resource — and are often the first call - for the companies committed to diversifying their supply chain.
Amanda Smith (AS): Native American-owned businesses have historically been underrepresented in the supply chain and are still present-day because of contributing factors such as lack of access to capital, resources and procurement opportunities.
Q: What are the major challenges for Native-owned businesses and how is your organization helping them to overcome these challenges?
CJ: In some ways our challenges aren’t much different from other businesses. We are trying to navigate an economy that continues to hum despite headwinds created by high interest rates and nagging inflation. Starting or growing a business while the cost of capital is at two-decade highs is certainly a challenge.
But in other ways, we are different. Indian Country has unique access to capital concerns. Many of our remote reservation communities lack access to some of the basic services most take for granted, like broadband internet. The historic federal investments made over the last couple of years are starting to come in and make a difference, but it will be sometime before we are close to parity.
Like the broader minority business community, we are concerned about the impact of the recent Supreme Court decision on Affirmative Action, as well as a lower court decision in the Ultima case that calls into question the future of the 8(a) program and other federal incentives for minority-owned firms. The National Center was proud to stand with allied organizations when we signed onto a letter sent to President Biden and Vice President Harris advocating for the administration to support new legislation affirming these programs and generally promote the value and need for strong minority businesses.
Beyond our work with other organizations and advocacy in general, The National Center helps businesses overcome challenges in several ways. Our APEX Accelerator works directly with businesses to help them get certified and ready to compete for both federal and private-sector contracts. We host one-day Native Edge Institutes across the U.S. featuring some of the smartest minds in business to give both established and emerging entrepreneurs the tools they need to be successful. And, of course, there’s our annual
Reservation Economic Summit (RES), which brings together thousands across Indian Country and beyond to network, make business connections and learn about the many opportunities in our community. I hope you join us from March 11-14, 2024, in Las Vegas, Nevada. [The theme of the 2024 RES is “Strength in Unity”].
AS: Native-owned businesses face many unique challenges, including geographical isolation, limited infrastructure, cultural barriers, lack of outreach and resources and exclusion from many minority-based programs.
Our organization is actively working to help our Native-owned businesses by being an advocate and resource for them by working with outside corporations and organizations to provide education and access to the necessary resources they need. We also actively work to educate non-Native diversity officials on the importance of inclusion for our businesses and help to connect them and send the message that our Native businesses are here, have the capability and capacity to perform, and deserve the same opportunities as others.
Q: What are the major opportunities for Native-owned businesses, and what must they do to take advantage of these opportunities?
CJ: Indian Country’s economy is diverse, spanning every field imaginable. And that diversity is only growing. So, there are really opportunities everywhere, in fields not typically associated with Native American, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs.
One of the fields that I’m really excited about is agriculture and agribusiness, including the culinary field. There is a growing “food sovereignty” movement in Indian Country, with tribes focused on Indigenous foods and reclaiming their food supply chains, including producing more food on Native-owned land. On the culinary side, chefs and entrepreneurs like Sean Sherman, owner of Owamni in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Ben Jacobs of Tocabe in Denver, Colorado, are showing the possibilities are endless — and the market is immense — when it comes to Native cuisine.
There is a strong interest in creating a stronger role and presence for Indian Country in the next farm bill, including a recent Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on the topic. This is an important topic because the farm bill sets the country’s agriculture policy and the budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is already tremendously important for Native communities. It is only reauthorized every five years. I’m hopeful the Farm Bill will boost the growing food sovereignty movement even further.
The other area is international trade. This is a major focus area for The National Center, which includes the Arizona MBDA Export Center, which is run out of our headquarters in Mesa, Arizona. The Export Center helps businesses interested in starting or growing their export business navigate what can be a complicated and intimidating process. In addition, we recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the International Trade Administration to further promote both international trade and foreign-direct investment in Indian Country. This led to two of our team members participating in a Trade Mission to South Africa and Ghana in August of 2023.
AS: The federal government is actively providing opportunities that are specific for Native-owned businesses. To take advantage of these opportunities, Native-owned businesses need to:
• Have the knowledge and awareness of the opportunities, including where to find them and how to access them.
• Know which ones are right for their business.
• Know how to apply to them.
Also, given the funding allotted to our Tribal communities, there are many opportunities for our Native-owned businesses to partner with others to participate in these funding opportunities, such as broadband, transportation and energy. They can then continue that partnership and growth opportunity into other private and public sector opportunities through these relationships.
The focus on diversity in the supply chain also provides significant opportunities. For Native-owned businesses to take advantage of these opportunities, they must know who to reach out to and let these companies know that they are here, ready and able to do business.
Q: What is your outlook for Native-owned businesses in the supply chain over the next five years?
CJ: I remain an optimist, but there’s no doubt there are clouds on the horizon given recent legal decisions. However, Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-owned businesses have positioned themselves to compete for contracts against any business. They are in high demand because they have developed expertise in sought-after — and sometimes niche — fields. Plus, their ability to adapt to changing requirements and a changing economy will serve them well during a period of economic uncertainty and transition. Regardless of the challenge, The National Center will be there to help businesses weather it.
AS: Over the next five years, there will be more Native-owned businesses, and many will scale up and overcome some of these challenges. If government initiatives continue to provide opportunities and implement programs with a mission to promote economic development, it will offer greater opportunity. As technology, infrastructure and transportation initiatives for our Tribal communities evolve, this will equip our Native businesses with more tools and the ability to provide significant efficiency and better participation in the supply chain. Many of our rurally located businesses will have new access and resources that previously prevented their participation.
Also, with more Natives in media, there is more of a demand in our Native supply chains. More companies are looking for social reparative justice and reconciliation, so there are more opportunities to provide cultural experiences and products. For example, Indigenous Box [Inc.] has grown exponentially over the year with companies like Amazon and EY being their top customers.
To learn more about The National Center, visit ncaied.org.
To learn more about RES 2024, visit res.ncaied.org.
To learn more about the Native American Business Association, visit nativeamericanbusinessassociation.org.
To learn more about Indigenous Box, indigenousbox.ca.