BROWNING, Mont. - Gary Gobert Jr. says he couldn't have opened his Two Medicine Signs venture without financial assistance.
While working with the Tribal Business Information Center in Browning to find some help, Gobert discovered the Four Times Foundation, a national nonprofit group headquartered in Red Lodge, Mont., about 70 miles southwest of Billings.
Gobert contacted the foundation, developed a detailed business plan, and was awarded $10,000 in start-up money in 1998.
"That's the only thing we started with."
That money enabled him to buy a used mobile home, which he converted into a workshop, specialized equipment and various supplies to get the business going.
Today, he and his wife, Janet, make signs, banners and bumperstickers for all outlets and occasions. They also create letterheads, business cards, flyers and brochures, as well as provide other services from their computerized desktop publishing system.
Gobert, 43, learned the sign trade while working nearly four years for a private company in Kalispell, about 100 miles west of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. But Gobert says he wanted to return home to the reservation and starting his own business looked like the ticket.
Gobert, an accomplished musician and singer, was raised in Browning. He says he quit school in the 10th grade to play music on the road. He still plays in his Southern Comfort Band most weekends, but his weekdays are spent running his business located next to his home in one of Browning's residential neighborhoods.
Jael Kampfe, the foundation's executive director, says Two Medicine Signs is a prime example of what the group is trying to accomplish - spurring economic development on reservations by helping individual entrepreneurs with their financial and technical needs.
"Four Times doesn't invest in businesses, it invests in individuals," she says.
The foundation's unusual name comes from a Lakota belief, Kampfe explains.
"A Lakota understands that you give what you have freely, knowing in time it will come back to you four times over," says Albert White Hat, a Native language instructor at South Dakota's Sinte Gleska University and president of the group's board of directors. "And when you receive a gift, you know you need to return the gift four times what was given to you."
Kampfe says the group was established in 1998 after several individuals in various reservation projects looked closely at the reasons many Indian-owned businesses are unable to get off the ground.
"A critical obstacle is poverty," she says, "so we decided to focus on economic development," primarily with individuals, because many of them lacked equity and were thus unable to obtain start-up loans. Individuals, rather than organizations, were also most likely to be ineligible for grants and other funding, she notes.
"There's white businesses on reservations, but not many Indian businesses," usually because of a lack of capital, she observes.
Kampfe says the group brainstormed about funding for about four years before approaching New York venture capitalist Ed Cohen, founder of the Echoing Green Foundation, which helps entrepreneurs start nonprofit groups that will affect social change. Cohen and others agreed to join the project.
"We started by addressing values." Kampfe says. Various reservation communities were asked what was important and the findings were blended into a set of guiding policies.
The first principle is that people are the most important resource, she said. Another is that every tribe is unique. A third tenet is that education is a crucial component.
In the first year, six individuals and nonprofit groups from the Blackfeet Reservation, South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation, and the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico received $10,000 fellowships.
Along with Gobert, Jeff Harwood of the new Harwood Meat Market got help in Browning. On the Zuni, Nolan Laate of Corn Mountain Inc., organized to help arts and craftsmakers expand their markets, and the Gallery of the Southwest were given grants, along with Veronica Poblano, owner of Veronica's Gallery.
Teddie Rae Herman's First Carousel Video Production, which documents issues and profiles Indian people to create broader awareness, received the Rosebud grant.
The group also serves the White Earth Ojibwa of Minnesota, as well as Montana's Northern Cheyenne Reservation, added this year.
Kampfe, who holds a religious studies degree from Yale University and has worked with White Hat to produce a Lakota language textbook, says the number of areas served is limited to establish a solid track record before branching out further.
"We wanted to start small and test the model," she explains, adding the group is able to fund up to 10 ventures a year.
Fellowships awarded in 1999 included the Rosebud Reservation's Dakota Laundry & Supply Co., owned by William Bearshield; Linda Szabo's Custom Creations; and Elk Valley Inc., run by Richard Lunderman, Rose Lafferty and Clifford and Sherry Lafferty. Also receiving grants were the Blackfeet Reservation's Piegan Tackle Shop, run by Cheryl Gobert; the Grizzly Bear Crossing store, owned by Raymond and Tammi Harwood, and the Iron Pipe Bed & Breakfast, established by Craig Iron Pipe.
Earl and Kathy Hoaglund received a fellowship for Maheengun Arts, a new outlet on the White Earth Reservation. Thirty people have applied for fellowships this year. Recipients will be announced in September.
Other foundation board members include White Earth tribal treasurer Erma Vizenor; University of New Mexico Law School professor Kip Bobroff; American Indian Business Development Corp. chief financial officer Tony Genia; and Levon Henry, the Navajo Nation's attorney general and a co-founder of the Navajo Land Owners' Rights Project.
Staff members include program officer Gerald Sherman, an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation who helped establish and direct the Lakota Fund, and administrative assistant Carla Emery.
Participating with the national selection committee are Monica Drapeaux, a businesswoman and member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe who has long been involved in development issues; Lakota Fund director Elsie Meeks and Michael Roberts, an Alaskan Tlinglet and First Nations Development Institute board member who also serves as a venture capitalist with the Meritage Private Equity Fund.
Kampfe said some refinement is needed after three years - funding larger ventures, offering more technical assistance in marketing and other business growth strategies.
"One of our learning curves has to do with (discovering how) to add the most value," Kampfe says. "Anybody can start a business. What's hard is maintaining one.
"You don't hear the words venture capital in Indian country, because it isn't in Indian country," Kampfe says. "I see us as a bridge. We're connecting reservations with each other, as well as Indians and non-Indians. Our goal is having Indian businesses the norm, rather than the exception."