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Business Incubator to Boost Entrepreneurship on Pine Ridge

More than 500 businesses were funded over the last 30 years by the Lakota Funds on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Determined to continue that trend, Lakota Funds, a community development financial institution, is now venturing into online certificate programs through the newly formed Building Native Business Industry Institute. At least 60 new businesses are expected to be created on Pine Ridge over the next three years as a result.

In the beginning, much energy will go into curriculum development and assessment of the program. “In the first year, we are working with several partners to develop the curriculum,” said Kadem Fischer, project coordinator, explaining that the first online programs will benefit future and present business owners in retail sales, arts, and construction industries.

Classes are expected to begin sometime between March and June. “The expectation is that over three years, a projected 625 people will complete the Building Native Business Industry Institute classes and 120 will apply their training in a business setting,” Heidi Cuny, a principal at Cuny Communications, said. There will be an impact on the ground of start-up businesses after three years.”

Cuny, who is involved in developing the extensive website, said the class courses will include Starting a Business, Growing A Business, Business Management, and “Finance and Marketing.

“The site can be accessed from anywhere. There will be between 20 and 25 webinars over the course of three years,” she said.

The first three years will consist of testing and evaluation. “We have done a lot of planning so far, and I feel like it is going to be a great success,” Cuny said. One business category will be “A Native American Journey Into Small Business” that is based on an Indian entrepreneurship course from Oregon. 

“It is pretty popular nationwide in economic development. It will take into account that the tribal environment has unique challenges,” Cuny said.

Keeping the courses culturally appropriate is a key element of the programming. Sandy Burns of Project Solutions in Rapid City, South Dakota, has worked with Lakota Funds in the past. The federally funded group specializes in creating customized, culturally appropriate business programs taught by a Native instructor. “We do a lot with the tribes,” Burns said. “We use case studies from other tribal businesses, so they are things people in training might go through.”

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Burns noted that many people starting a business did not grow up with business experience in their family. “We work to customize their program and teach them the basics of business; and if they have already run a business we can take it to another level,” Burns said.

In the first year, five trainings will be delivered by consultants. In the early stages of the program’s release, business leaders will be asked for their feedback. The programs will be presented live but will also be podcast, enabling people who work full time or lack reliable transportation to complete the entire program; and there will be pre- and post-tests to measure the proficiency of both the students and the efficacy of the program. “We are recruiting community members to be a part of the first five trainings,” Project Manager Fischer said. “We want them to be able to take it any time they can, at their pace, and still earn a certificate of completion.”

Once the program is completed, Fischer said, “An email is sent to us, and we will know how many attended, what the test scores were, and what they gained from it. Our success coaches will email them and then put them on a course to help them do what they set out to do.”

Many tradesmen lose business by continually joining with a contractor rather than acting as the contractor themselves, and according to Fischer, the program will help individuals create their own start-up companies. Noting that being able to create an accurate quote with appropriate mark-up is critical to a business success, he added, “In construction, you have to be bonded and insured.”

Fischer said that many contractors on the reservation were losing out on bids because they were either not aware they needed to be bonded or could not get bonding. Through Lakota Funds, contractors can obtain lines of credit, giving them the opportunity to be bonded at higher levels which will allow them to bid on larger projects.

The same support offered to contractors will be found in the curriculum for other businesses as well. “There are people who are beading, who are not officially a business,” Fischer said, adding that the majority of Lakota crafts are sold on the reservation. “You can sell sand at a beach, and our Lakota artists are making the most beautiful works but selling them in a saturated market. If they are licensed and they sold to other markets, they could charge up to 100% mark-up on the things they make.”

According to Fischer, the craftspeople on the reservation rarely charge fees based on the time they put into creating their art. Through Lakota Funds, artists can access a more national clientele. “Our classes will teach them how to market to off-reservation customers, no matter what industry.”

The Institute will be accessible from anywhere through the Lakota Funds website. “The site will take you to a recorded course. There will be a six week boot camp for start up businesses, and you will gain a certificate after you submit your business plan,” he said.

Any federally recognized tribal member can take the courses, however in order to gain lending and financial support from Lakota Funds, a tribal member must be living within 25 miles of exterior boundary of Pine Ridge.