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Group that grooms future business leaders tackles younger students

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MISSOULA, Mont. - The American Indian Business Leaders program, not content just to groom Native college students for careers in commerce or as entrepreneurs, has reached down to the high school and elementary levels as well.

AIBL, based at the School of Business at the University of Montana here, has added seven high schools and two elementary schools to its national network of 47 chapters in 16 states, including 18 tribal colleges.

Native colleges with AIBL chapters include Din? College in Arizona, Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, Oglala Lakota College and Sinte Gleska University in South Dakota, Sitting Bull College and Little Hoop Community College in North Dakota, Salish Kootenai College and Dull Knife Memorial College in Montana, Fond du Lac Tribal College and Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota, Little Priest Tribal College in Nebraska, and Northwest Indian College in Washington state.

The elementary schools are T'iias Naz Baz Community and Seba Delakai Elementary in Arizona, while the high schools are in Montana, Washington, and Oklahoma, Michelle Henderson, founder and director, reports.

AIBL is helping those younger students "get an early start" on career choices, she said, as well as fostering support for them to go to college (where they can find support in the college AIBL chapters).

Keith Weasel, Nakota (Assiniboine) from the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, belongs to the AIBL chapter at Harlem (Mont.) High School which he represents in the Student Ambassadors program which held a leadership training seminar in Washington, D.C.

Weasel, 17, is an honor student and involved in activities including cross country, the Future Farmers of America, the Technology Students Association, speech and drama. He won a speech contest talking about uses of buffalo. He is a traditional pow wow dancer and is learning the Nakota language from his grandmother. He plans a career in business administration and education .

AIBL goals include stimulating student interest in business and tribal economic development, providing support, mentoring and networking for Indian students in what can be unfamiliar surroundings and developing youth leadership.

Henderson said it is particularly interested in the intersection of Native cultural values and business practices, and hopes to improve economic conditions on Indian homelands through its student chapter, whose graduates take their skills back to reservations.

There are more than 400 students in its chapters and more than 40 alumni, said Henderson, also Nakota (Assiniboine). Professional chapters have been started in Billings and Pablo, with more expected to follow.

AIBL sponsors internships, a career placement program, a scholarship database, two competitions (with prizes of up to $1,000), and entrepreneurial programs. It helps Indian students find summer and permanent jobs. And though its main focus is business, Indian students in all disciplines can join.

This year's annual leadership conference in Albuquerque featured winners in business plan and tribal advertising contests. The advertising contest with a theme of developing a Web site was sponsored by True North Communications of New York City.

"These presentations were phenomenal," Henderson said.

The annual meeting also showcased the group's Student Ambassadors such as Carol Agnigalak Hollingsworth, Inupiaq, vice president, Marketing & Promotion. She is president of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AIBL chapter.

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"Through my involvement with AIBL, I have gained valuable skills for success in the business world, she said. "My communication skills and confidence have improved remarkably. I am inspired by the people I have met through the AIBL program."

Hollingsworth said her involvement has led to "a strong desire to learn more about issues affecting Native people and incorporating this knowledge into my future career."

As for her future goals, Hollingsworth would like to work in Alaska "to help build my Native Alaskan corporation" and "to someday become a professor within Native studies."

AIBL is interested in getting students to develop their own businesses and to stimulate tribal economies. So far, 10 chapters have started campus businesses, six of them on reservations.

AIBL got its start in 1995 as Henderson's master's of business administration thesis at the University of Montana. She was the only Indian in the graduate program and the first to be awarded teaching assistantship at the School of Business. Since AIBL started, nine other Indians have earned MBAs at the university and five have had teaching assistantships, she said.

She is proud of the program graduates. Some completed the circle and returned to their reservations to become tribal economic development planners, some work in tribal business information centers, some have gone into private industry with firms like Nike and IBM and some have started their own businesses, she said.

AIBL has two full-time employees, down from its normal three, and employs three interns during the school year. "We're a real believer in the internship experience," Henderson said.

She added that mentoring is as important to her as for students. Her mentors include Sherry Salway Black, vice president of First Nations Development Institute, Norbert Hill, who used to run AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Students), and Larry Gianchetta, dean of the UMT School of Business, among others.

Henderson, who grew up mostly on the Fort Peck Reservation though she is enrolled at Fort Belknap, is the author of an as-yet unpublished book called "Doing Business in Indian Country."

She noted Indian values, like not looking someone directly in the eye or not extolling your own virtues, can backfire in job interview situations.

"We want to help our people to operate cross-culturally."

The nonprofit is funded by corporations like Verizon and Honda of America and foundations like the Kaufmann Center for Entrepreneurial Development. It has received funds several times from First Nations.

Henderson said the group uses a very lean 25 percent of funding for operations, spending the remainder on programs.

Salway Black, Lakota, who serves on the AIBL board, said her group provided money for organizational development and for a special initiative to make sure Indian populations were accurately counted in the Census. She praised AIBL for developing role models for Indian youth on reservations, and said she was impressed by the exciting goals of three of the group's Student Ambassadors she recently met.

How has AIBL grown so fast? "Indian country was ready for it," the director said, calling the chapters a "good alternative to gangs" and a way to deal with such pressing issues as low self esteem and suicide among Indian youth.