The Rewards are Great — Working with Entrepreneurial Native American Communities

ONABEN’s mission is to support Indigenous individuals, economic development organizations, and communities by increasing opportunities for sustainable economic growth through culturally relevant entrepreneurial training and organizational development.

Like any community, working within Indian Country has its challenges. But, the rewards are great. Having provided entrepreneurial development services to Native communities for over 25 years, ONABEN has worked from coast to coast, including Alaska and Hawaii. Every community is unique…every entrepreneur driven by his or her individual desire to make a difference…every culture defined by the stories that are told through the arts…sovereign nations within a larger nation—complicated and separate, yet beautiful and resilient. The story of Indian Country and the peoples and places that make up its identity, is a story that can be difficult to tell. So, for the sake of space, I will focus only on the work that ONABEN has been involved in, and not the stories of struggle and survival.

Nestled in the Smoky Mountains is the Eastern Band of Cherokee. This story is a testament to the power of partnerships. Thanks to funding dollars provided by the Administration for Native Americans, ONABEN worked in partnership with Sequoyah Fund, a Native CDFI, to develop and implement an artist-entrepreneur program. Our project took on a life of its own. Drawing breath from the passion that can only exist within the arts, more than business knowledge was expanded. Our teams worked to create a brand, a website, an annual event, excitement, and ultimately an identity for a group of contemporary Cherokee artists. The key to sustainability is buy-in from the community and a determination to succeed. Authentically Cherokee was born out of a desire to create positive change, but it has become an outlet for cultural tourism to grow and flourish with its focus, “Experience the Contemporary Tradition.”

We are fortunate to work with Native CDFIs throughout Indian Country. But, once in a while, we encounter a people or place that is unforgettable. We love our work in South Dakota and once took a bus tour visiting three tribal communities with a group of Native economic development leaders to explore what social entrepreneurship means within Indian Country. The natural resources were breathtaking, the cultures unforgettable. It was an enlightening experience. A few of our takeaways? Native peoples have a love of place. Social entrepreneurship looks a little different in Native communities. But, that’s not a bad thing. Definitions put into action are often subjective. Oh, and South Dakota CDFIs are some of the best in the field.

For many, Indian Country is a little mysterious. But for ONABEN, it’s home. And, there’s really no place like home. Funding dollars are often limited. But our work is important. Access to capital is a common barrier.  But every business established is a job. And, every job created is critical to building assets and creating lasting change.

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