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Meskwaki, Inc.: Inspiring Diversification and Entrepreneurship in Iowa

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Years ago, the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa sought to move beyond the casino business. That desire to diversify led to the creation of Meskwaki, Inc., in 2008. It took seven years before Meskwaki, Inc., started generating revenue, but today, business is booming. “In 2015, we grew to about $15 million. We’re approaching $20 million now. I think once the warehouse and distribution facility gets onboard revenues will grow quickly,” Mark Hubble, a Citizen Potawatomi Nation member who started working full-time as Meskwaki's first active CEO in February 2015, told KCRG.

But those big businesses—like the new Big River Trading Company warehouse-facility under construction behind Meskwaki Travel Plaza along Highway 30 in Tama, Iowa—are just an avenue to help Meskwaki support the small business economy.

Meskwaki, Inc.’s ultimate goal is to create economic viability for future generations by developing partnerships for tribal members to own small businesses. “We want to partner with them to provide overhead and support, provide training, and help guide them for funding and assist in setting up any needed wholesale networks,” Hubble said. “To ensure long-term success, we want to provide assistance to the entire aspect of small businesses, yet we want them to be the primary owners and key decision makers of their own business. My hope and goal for each business is that they can be passed from generation to generation.”

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When the members are set up for success, there’s a strategic and direct advantage, Meskwaki’s press release states. The tribe is the largest employer in Tama County and as its companies continue to grow and diversify, more high-valued jobs are retained locally. “Our goal is to keep bridging partnerships. As we add our breadth of product, I expect that we will see our products in all 50 states,” Hubble said.

Beyond the aforementioned warehouse, Meskwaki’s other major projects underway are Woodlands Construction Division, a 52-unit housing project in Marshalltown, and potential distribution of Cattail Creek brand premium coffee and Meskwaki Warrior brand barbecue sauces. And in addition to Meskwaki Travel Plaza, Meskwaki's family of tribal companies currently includes Woodlands Construction Company, Renards Tobacco, Fox Professional Services Inc., Red Earth Real Estate Holdings, Meskwaki Fuels Company, and Red Earth Gardens. The tribe’s Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel, it’s primary economic engine, and Pinnacle Bank, are not part of Meskwaki, Inc. “Tribes that are completely reliant on casino revenues often face challenges,” Hubble said.

Meskwaki, Inc. Warehouse

The warehouse-facility behind Meskwaki Travel Plaza will package and distribute tobacco products, including Renards brand cigarettes and cigars, bagged tobacco, and pharmaceutical-grade eJuice vapor products. Construction is slated for completion this fall.

The Sac and Fox Tribe’s far-reaching efforts to expand its enterprises is a bonus for surrounding communities, too. Meskwaki Inc.'s family of companies currently employs about 80 people—80 percent of whom are Tribal members. Hubble said he projects that a few years down the road, “by necessity, at least 50 percent (of Meskwaki, Inc.) employees will be non-tribal members,” Hubble told the Toledo Chronicle, adding that Meskwaki pays “above average wages” for the Tama, Marshall, Palo Alto and other nearby counties in Iowa.

Prior to joining Meskwaki, Inc., Hubble worked for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, as attorney general and COO, respectively. As an attorney, he has represented more than a dozen tribes and tribal organizations in state and federal courts. Most recently, he was the CEO of General Labor, Inc. He holds a law degree from Yale Law School, and an M.B.A from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. He was also a visiting scholar at Yale Law School and holds a Certificate in Public Policy from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

One of the first steps that Meskwaki, Inc. instituted under Hubble was the development of tribal internships for members of the Meskwaki Nation graduating high school, attending college or graduate school. “I knew from my previous experiences that this was a great way to get community participation both for — and from — the younger generation. We survey their interests and then place them where they can be involved in learning where those interests might intersect with a great career. We graduated two interns our first year, four our second, and six interns have just started this year,” Hubble said.

When the tribe formed Meskwaki, tribal leadership was keenly aware of the reports by The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development—namely that a Tribal economic enterprise performs better if there’s “some separation between the business corporation and tribal government,” acknowledged Milo Buffalo, chairman of the Meskwaki Nation, and chairman of the Board of Directors of Meskwaki, Inc.

“We have two Tribal Council members and one tribal community member, as well as two outside business experts, to form the Board of Directors,” Jason Davenport, another tribal council member added. “We then retained experienced management who could help develop those businesses most likely to succeed, and avoid some of the common pitfalls that young tribal corporations experience.”

Today the success of their tribal business owners is the heart of Meskwaki, Inc.'s mission. “We want to make sure the members are successful. I want this to be an entrepreneurial organization to help this generation lay the groundwork for future generations,” Hubble said.

Meskwaki, Inc., is dedicated to helping tribal entrepreneurs create sustainable businesses.

Meskwaki, Inc., is dedicated to helping tribal entrepreneurs create sustainable businesses.

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