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Entrepreneurial spirit lands MSU students in first place


BILLINGS, Mont. – Some people, it’s said, wear their hearts on their sleeves. A group of Montana State University Billings students developed a prize-winning business plan where feelings could be worn on T-shirts.

Four students involved in the American Indian Business Leaders club at MSU Billings walked away with the best business plan among colleges in the organization’s annual national leadership conference in Arizona.

The team members included Mary Alice Walker, a member of the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska; Curtis Wallette, a Northern Cheyenne; Karis Jackson, a Crow/Hidatsa and Angela Deputee, a Crow.

“At first, we didn’t think it was a good plan,” said Walker, a recent business management graduate. “But after we did our research, we found out we’re the only ones to have this idea.”

The “idea” was actually a formal business plan developed by the four students to turn an old building in Lame Deer into a T-shirt business. That business, called NDN Translations in the business plan, promotes awareness and pride in American Indian culture and heritage on T-shirts. The front of the shirt carries a single word or phrase in a specific tribal language with a little arrow pointing to the back for the translation.


Curtis Wallette was a member of the Montana State University Billings team that won the American Indian Business Leaders plan competition in April.

While the concept seems pretty simple and tourist landscape is scattered with American Indian T-shirts, the students said their idea took things a step forward from the traditional images of famous elders, artwork of headdresses or bison. They provided a way to honor and celebrate their language with a word or phrase.

The shirt design is elegantly simple. Clear statements like “Nanomonestot-se” and “Sho Dah Gee” on the fronts make viewers want to follow the red arrows to the back for the translations of “make peace” in Northern Cheyenne or “how are you doing?” in Crow.

The sayings highlight unique differences between tribes that can be embraced by youth and adults alike, the students said.

The idea was further developed into a full-fledged business plan – complete with mission/vision statement, a financial breakdown and a marketing plan. The idea also featured a local economic development angle. The business plan would make use of an unused building owned by Wallette’s family in Lame Deer.

“It’s already commercially zoned and ready to go,” said Wallette, a junior marketing and management major. “The people from the tribe were really supportive. They like the idea of entrepreneurs and people who want to develop there.”

The students spent their March spring break working on the plan and traveled to Arizona in late April for the conference and competition. Fighting through laryngitis from one teammate and copious amounts of nerves from the others, the MSU Billings team managed to impress the judges and finished first in the community college/university division.

Dr. A.J. Otjen, an assistant professor of marketing and adviser to the AIBL group, said the first place finish shows not only that MSU Billings know how to apply their education, but can work as a team for a positive outcome.

“I couldn’t be more proud; not only for what they’ve done individually, but for what they’ve learned as a team.”

AIBL is the only American Indian nonprofit organization solely dedicated to empowering business students in the United States. The programs are designed to engage students in activities that stimulate, enhance and expand educational experiences beyond traditional academic methods. All students are encouraged to participate in AIBL regardless of race, academic major, or career objectives.

Otjen encourages maximum participation among students in AIBL (“nobody sits on the bench,” she is fond of saying) and she enjoys seeing students develop into leaders.

“The whole point of AIBL is to develop leaders and everybody who comes out of this club comes out a leader.”

For the students, the dual purposes of learning and leadership were relished.

“I learned a lot, but I had to learn a lot,” said Jackson, who studies health promotions and is the only non-business major in the group.

If investors can be found to help get the project off the ground, NDN Translations could be up and running within a year. By targeting 18- to 24-year-old non-Native Americans, the students said they can be successful not only in business, but in elevating their culture. People on the East Coast and in Europe seem particularly interested in all things American Indian these days, they said.

“This is a way we can help them learn about our culture,” Walker said.

Anyone interested in finding out about AIBL at MSU Billings should contact Otjen via e-mail at