Mastering the business world

DALLAS - American Indians with a flair for business are invited to pick up their briefcases and head for Texas. Currently, only 0.5 percent of the nation's students enrolled in Master of Business Administration (MBA) courses are American Indian, but a new initiative from The Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas aims to boost those numbers. Inspired by Steve Denson, director of diversity, and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, SMU Cox has launched a recruitment drive to attract Native MBA students.

"There's a growing need in Native America for business leaders," says Denson. "My tribe has gone from an $11 million annual budget to $99 million over the last 15 years, so our businesses are growing. That's not federal money, that's money we're generating from our businesses. So we need better leadership, because we have political leadership in the sense of making tribal decisions, but political leaders aren't business leaders."

Denson is working with the Chickasaw Nation Legislature in his recruiting efforts, and has also received endorsement from the Choctaw and Creek nations. This year he will coordinate with other tribal leaders, student councils and American Indian academic organizations to identify potential applicants and assist them with the Cox admissions process. Two Native students are already enrolled for MBAs this year, and Denson reports "enthusiastic support" for his ambition to grow those numbers.

"I'm happy if we get to where we have five Native students a year, because that's five corporate leaders who can go back to Native America and help their businesses and their tribes become stronger and more profitable."

Denson counters the fear that Native students following the classic business school track could lose their sense of culture and heritage, by saying that the benefits will actually increase cultural pride.

"Tribes are hiring non-Indian people to run our businesses, because we don't have anybody with the business expertise. These people run them very efficiently a lot of times, but they don't have the vested interest in success they would have if they were Chickasaw or Choctaw. As we achieve more economic independence, away from federal dollars and away from public programs, it's a source of pride in the tribes that I've dealt with to have one of your own running the business."

He also emphasizes the value of keeping salaries within the tribe, rather than going to managers whose homes are elsewhere.

"The money we pay these people would be much better used if it was going to a Chickasaw family and being spent within the tribal nation."

"I feel excited about this proposal," says Wilson Seawright, a Chickasaw Tribal legislator. "Our Native American tribes are trying to go more into business but oftentimes we're not finding many of our own people who've got a business degree. We go through managers pretty rapidly and most of the time they are not Native."

Seawright observes that while plenty of Native students are taking degrees in other subjects, the lack of formal business education limits the potential for tribal businesses.

"The only things we've really done well at are bingo and smoke shops. We need to go beyond that, and to do that we've got to have people from this business program."

Seawright confirms that the SMU Cox initiative has been well received by the Chickasaw legislature, but anticipates that the major problem will be finding students who are willing to leave their familiar surroundings.

"The primary concern is that people don't want to go to the metro area, they prefer to stay closer to home, and go to school where they know people, so it's going to be a little bit difficult. Where I live it's pretty much a rural area and people have strong ties."

SMU Cox is committed to helping that move, by assisting with accommodation, support groups, programs for spouses and partners, and all the information students require to find their feet. Denson earned his masters degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and he recognizes the issues.

"We try to create as much of a sense of community as we can," says Denson. "Having made that transition myself from a town of 400 people to Pittsburgh, having never been to a city before in my life, I know how challenging it can be. There's a lot of help available, from finding an apartment to how to use an ATM machine or a parking garage. These are things I didn't know, moving from a little town. Some people may already know this and that's fine, but a lot of people are intimidated by day-to-day functioning in an urban area."

Denson says that scholarship dollars are also available.

"We're a highly ranked school and we're an expensive school, so I don't go out expecting people to ante up the money themselves." Students are unlikely to receive complete funding through scholarships, but with work-study and similar programs, their loans should not be higher than if they went to a university in their home area.

Of course, some MBA graduates may decide to make their name on Wall Street rather than return to their reservations to work, but Denson still sees that as a success story.

"If you don't come back and work for your tribe, or if you take time to work in the outside world and then come back, you're still creating positive role models for other students. You're representing us as a people outside of the tribe and creating greater awareness of Native America, which is a very small population, and easily overlooked by large groups and corporations. But it's a very effective source of good employees, because within the tribes that I deal with, there is a work ethic that is very strong."

SMU Cox is also developing a "Doing Business in Indian Country" course.

"We want to make it available also to corporations looking to get their foot in the door in Indian country," says Denson. "We want to facilitate networking between Native and non-Native interests."