Largent: Realizing the goal of economic self-sufficiency in 2020

In 2003, more than 140 million employed people in the United States are expected to help push the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) past $11 trillion dollars. About $35 billion of that enormous figure will come from some 200,000 Native-owned businesses that employ fewer than 300,000 individuals.

Stated another way, American Indian Enterprises employ just .002 percent of the working population and contribute only .0003 percent of the nation's GDP.

It's been almost a year since 1,600 representatives of tribal communities, federal agencies, elected officials and Native business owners gathered in Phoenix and pledged to create 100,000 jobs by 2008 and attain economic self sufficiency by 2020.

It's been more than a year since then Assistant Secretary of the Interior Neal McCaleb called for a new strategy to "lead tribal economies into the 21st century."

The Native American Business Alliance (NABA) took both challenges seriously and is now implementing a plan designed to be useful to tribal enterprises and reservation based privately owned businesses. While ambitious, these initiatives, when completed, could provide the data and tools necessary to allow Native businesses to compete and win in the private sector.

Inventory of assets and resources

Success in business is often, in large part a result of knowing what business to be in. As simple as the adage "Do what you know, love what you do" is, it works. What business should a tribe invest in? Agriculture, tourism, gaming, manufacturing, technology, energy, raw materials? The possibilities are vast.

Even after the industry sector is chosen, finding the right niche raises a whole new set of hurdles.

In the private sector, these decisions are made based on market research, a current and accurate list of assets, a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and a comprehensive risk assessment.

Because the inventory of assets is not available for tribes, the Native American Business Alliance is currently raising the necessary funds to develop the data capture tool (survey) and contract with qualified individuals that will compile the data from tribes that wish to participate.

In addition to hard assets such as buildings, natural resources, infrastructure, computer systems, software and phone systems, etc., the survey will also collect information on "soft" assets such as tribal culture and history, education and collective work experience (a retired engineer, physician, skilled tradesman or software developer is an untapped asset), proximity to major markets, airports, rail lines, universities or deep-water ports.

Questions should be asked: What is the current relationship with local, state and federal governments? Nearby tribes? Where are off-rez tribal members living? What is their occupation? If a tribal member is a senior executive at a Fortune 2000 company, can that relationship be leveraged for tribal economic benefit?

The American economic landscape is changing. Globalization means goods and services can be manufactured or provided virtually anywhere. If tribes are to compete, we must know what our advantages are. It is a given that we will complete a rigorous due diligence effort and prepare a solid business plan.

Next, we must be able to communicate that business case effectively.

'Tribal Economic Development Toolkit'

The Native American Business Alliance fields calls and e-mails daily from tribal members and Native entrepreneurs asking how to improve business. "How do we convince an auto company to build a plant on a reservation?" How can we export a product?" "Is there a corporation that will joint venture with us?"

We also take calls from corporations stating they are being challenged to find lower cost production opportunities.

The opportunity is there. Putting the two together is the challenge.

If tribes are to penetrate the private sector, it is as critical to understand corporate culture as it is for the corporation to know and appreciate the tribal culture. It is our hope that the "Tribal Economic Development Toolkit" will bridge this gap.

By way of disclaimer, I am not suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. Each tribe is unique, each business different and for this reason, the Native American Business Alliance is reaching out to all tribes that wish to join in the development of this toolkit.

I am suggesting, however, that economic development is a process. Corporations run on processes. They hire consultants to evaluate processes and introduce "best practices," a euphemism for how other companies do something better than they do.

Corporations assess the processes of their suppliers and suggest or demand they change processes in an effort to reduce cost, improve quality or increase speed to market. Inefficiencies add cost and reduce competitiveness. Efficiencies reduce cost and provide a competitive advantage (although not for long as competitors adjust their own processes).

When tribal-based businesses are ready to compete in the private sector, they will know, accept and understand that economic development processes need to be efficient and attuned to the market.

Assuming that internal infrastructure (physical, technical and organizational) is in place, the "toolkit" would address the following requirements:

oSelecting the right people for the job. Education and experience in the tribal line of business(es) and an exceptional ability to communicate at the executive level is a given. Also essential is enthusiasm bordering on passion and a commitment to succeed reminiscent of a warrior.

oImplementing the right tools. An office environment with "world class" computer systems, phone systems (with voice mail), software for tracking budgets, developing presentations and monitoring contact information and project plans.

oDeveloping a knowledgeable staff. A staff with the understanding of the significance of the mission and the skills to carry it out.

oLeveraging an effective marketing mix. A marketing plan that is multi-channel and capitalizes on every cost effective opportunity. Trade shows, direct mail, face to face meetings, web broadcast and e-business, advertising, public relations, promotional activities are just some of the components that will be utilized and evaluated on a regular basis.

oKnowing the business and regulatory environment. A constant assessment of external factors (competitors, government policies or regulations, shifts in consumer preferences, technological advancements) that might impact the business of the tribe.

And the list goes on.

Who knows what role Native businesses will play in the 21st century? Will tribal communities become technology centers (call centers, data centers) or islands of wisdom for a spiritually starved population seeking to reconnect with Mother Earth?

Will a Native child develop an application that will become the next Microsoft or the medical protocol that reverses the death spiral of our current health care system?

Could Native businesses lead the continent in "sustainable business processes" for manufacturing or agriculture or energy?

As mentioned earlier, the possibilities are vast. But one thing is certain; either we modify the strategies of the past or we face the very real prospect of missing our goal and passing on the burden to future generations.

The Native American Business Alliance is a non-profit organization formed in 1995 to provide Native American businesses access to Fortune 2000 companies and their suppliers.

Funded with investment capital from General Motors, Ford Motor Company, UPS, Disney, Chrysler (now Daimler Chrysler), Honda and Toyota, NABA has grown to include more than 60 Fortune 500 companies and 11,000 Native businesses and tribes.

To contact the Native American Business Alliance, call (248) 988-9344 or visit www.native-american-bus.org.

William H. Largent is president and CEO of Dibaa Group, Inc., a Farmington Hills, Mich. company providing full service consulting and fulfillment in the CRM (Customer Relationship Management) space. A member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (Ojibwa), Largent is a board member of the Native American Business Alliance (NABA) and served a co-chairperson for NABA's annual conventions the past three years.