By Victoria Clark
The motto of The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (The National Center) is “We Mean Business” – which is no surprise considering that the nonprofit has dedicated more than 50 years to developing and improving Native-owned businesses.
From humble beginnings in Los Angeles, California, in 1969, The Center prioritized helping local Native entrepreneurs and businesses make ends meet. Now, with more than 20 staff members and nine offices throughout the country, it counts more than 1,100 companies as clients.
Chris James, president and CEO of The National Center, said some of the organization’s greatest accomplishments were driven by its expansion. He added that its national footprint now centers around growth for the Indian Country’s economy — which means diversifying business beyond gaming.
“We don’t simply focus on gaming or government contracting — though those are incredibly important parts of our economy,” he said. “We have a much larger focus on international trade and exports — in particular, through the [U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency] Arizona MBDA Export Center that we operate and our partnership with the government of Canada to foster cross-border Indigenous trade.”
MBDA promotes the growth of minority-owned businesses. Through certification courses, government funding and initiatives, it furthers competitiveness and economic prosperity for companies of underserved backgrounds.
James said leading an MBDA center in Arizona is a major part of The National Center’s progression. The collaboration began in 2021 and has since expanded. He said the ongoing partnership gives Indian Country an opportunity to broaden its reach.
“Last year, we opened an MBDA Business Center in our Washington, D.C. office. It will help clients and potential clients on the East Coast to take their next steps in business and further solidify our presence on the East Coast,” he said.
James said the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act dedicates $13 billion to Indian Country. Funding will go toward tribal water settlements, powering tribal buildings, drought resilience, tribal water systems, broadband expansion and more.
Attendees at the recent Reservation Economic Summit (RES) learned about the strategy for implementing this fresh funding. RES supports Indian Country with high-caliber networking, teaming opportunities, speeches from successful entrepreneurs and more.
“RES started as a small luncheon, with attendance in the low hundreds,” James said. “Now, it’s the premier business development event in Indian Country with well over 3,000 people in attendance at one of the most iconic hotels in Las Vegas.”
The theme of RES 2023 was “Empowering for Generations,” which recognized the organization’s accomplishments — while also looking to the future by mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs.
“RES 2023 was one of our biggest and best ever — with thousands from across Indian Country, the federal government, and corporate America in attendance,” James said. “We had a week jam-packed with informative sessions, networking opportunities, amazing keynote speakers, a massive trade show and incredible entertainment.”
With more programs such as its Native Edge Institute and Trade Talks, he said The National Center will continue to make an impact.
When asked what’s in store for Indian Country three to five years from now, James is optimistic and hopeful that diversity will continue to lead the organization to new heights.
“I’m very bullish on the future of the Native American and Alaska Native economy in the near term and long term… because of the diversity of our economy,” he said. “A diversified economy means we are less susceptible to economic downturns or struggles in any given industry.”
With the help of The National Center, it appears the only way for Native-owned businesses to go is up!