CHOTCAW, Miss. – A member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, James Robinson grew up on the Choctaw reservation and graduated second in his class from Choctaw Central High School. With encouragement from his grandmother, family members and his tribe, he attended Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., earning a bachelor’s degree in business management.
Wanting to maintain a close connection to his people and 3-year-old daughter, he accepted a job offer from the tribe after graduating. The tribe paid for his education through its scholarship programs. “I am very thankful for the tribes help,” Robinson said. “Although I don’t have to pay the tribe back for my education, I feel that is something I want to do by staying in the area and working for the best interest of the tribe and my people.”
Robinson went to work for the tribe as a business analyst and contracts administrator with Applied Geo Technologies, Inc., while learning the ins and outs of the federal marketplace. When the tribe decided to pursue a new business venture in 2008, Robinson was one of the few people with the right background to make the project a success.
Formed as part of a diversification plan to utilize the growing technological resources of the tribe, Choctaw Ikhana, a sister company of AGT, provides laboratory services to Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company in San Antonio, Texas, for the maintenance of aircraft engines. Robinson, 28, serves as the president of Choctaw Ikhana overseeing the company’s business development, operations and corporate direction.
Ikhana provides calibration services for measurement equipment and instrumentation. Accuracy is crucial, according to Robinson, when working with measurement programs instrumental for load, acceleration, temperature, pressure and other factors. Ikhana is dedicated to providing accuracy and expertise in the calibration and cleaning of highly sensitive measurement equipment and metrological laboratory systems for its clients.
During Robinson’s college career, he had a unique opportunity to work for NASA through a development program which was part of a student run organization focusing on the earth science division at NASA – the Science Mission Directorate Applied Sciences Program fostering human capital development and helping extend NASA science research to local communities.
A young program at the time, Robinson was interested in expanding it to NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center. He started the program at Stennis and became its director. While working there, he collaborated on a project with the tribe through AGT.
Growing up playing stickball, eating traditional Native foods and participating in his culture, Robinson enjoyed every bit of it. “The tribe as a whole mentored me to become the person I am. I was given opportunities and support and told by the tribe and my grandmother that I could succeed and accomplish things. My grandmother told me that to make it in life I needed a high school and college degree and needed to be able to outwork everybody else. That is one of the things that I have always carried with me. I don’t think I’m the smartest, but I can work when someone else is sleeping.”
One of his passions is to be an ambassador for his people. “I love to talk to the younger generations about the importance of post high school education and how the opportunities are limitless. There is nothing that we can’t accomplish. It would be nice to hear someday from one of the students I spoke to that what I said had touched them, helped them or spoke to them and made a difference.”
Getting ready to head back to the classroom himself, he is taking the Graduate Management Admission Test and planning to earn an MBA or a master’s degree in economic development or marketing.
In addition to providing services to Lockheed Martin, Ikhana also has the capabilities to provide gas and material analysis, metrology engineering, environmental testing, electronic repair to national or intrinsic standards of measurement and prototype development of missiles, robotics, rockets and engines.
The laboratory is in the process of applying for 8a certification, a Small Business Administration designation for minority-owned businesses, and, according to Robinson, in five years will have defined some commercial clients and have some federal contracts. As the service arm of the tribe, he said they are considering expanding to include information technology, wind energy and photovoltaic technology.
“I tell people I am the product of my tribe. I have lived on the reservation all my life and graduated from the tribe’s high school located on the reservation. I enjoy learning about other tribes and their cultures and feel it’s important to pass that on to our children.” His daughter, Jaci Poncho, is a fancy shawl dancer and part of the future of the tribe her father is working hard to develop.
The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development honored Robinson with the 2009 “40 Under 40” award at its 34th Annual Indian Progress in Business Event held Sept. 16 – 18 in Tulsa, Okla.