Micro loans open doors for small business

EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. ? Hunter Bear Products is the first recipient of a micro-enterprise loan on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation from the Four Bands Community Fund Inc (FBCF). The home-based specialty gift marketer is getting $1,000 and invaluable technical advice.

The company sought the microloan in response to increased sales and demand on the reservation. Hunter Bear, co-managed by Evan Hunter Bear and Natashia Frazier, markets its decorative items and knick-knacks through both the Specialty Merchandise Corp. catalog and booths at local events. Loan proceeds will be used to repair the firm's van and purchase additional inventory, said Tanya Fiddler, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the loan and technical assistance officer for the fund.

Fiddler added that FBCF put in more than twenty hours of technical assistance on the application, especially working on the company's cash-flow projections, and will continue to provide assistance after the loan is repaid.

"This is the first of its kind for this community," said Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, FBCF Executive Director. "We are taking the initial step for our organization as we continue to educate and fund reservation business that will create economic sovereignty for the area ? this is our mission and we are moving ahead with it. It's nice to know that a federal government agency gets down to the grass roots in a rural community."

FBCF was formed in 2000 by Tribal members, councilmen, local bankers, business owners and other interested client advocacy groups to assist small business development on the reservation.

Education and training in business management are key components of the microloan program. Applicants are required to attend a 10-week training program for loans above a very minimal amount, a process Sarkozy-Banoczy said is "almost a step program" because of the commitment required.

He added that administrative costs for the FBCF are kept down by having only three full-time employees. The board members are all volunteers. Some of the board members are regional bankers and existing business owners, adding expertise to the running of the fund.

The FBCF had assistance and input on corporate set up, the fund charter and grant writing, said Sarkozy-Banoczy. He said he hoped the FBCF would be in a position to return the favor.

"We had a mentor in the Lakota Fund and hopefully we will be able to do that for others in Indian Country," said Sarkozy-Banoczy.

Fiddler said a second microloan has been submitted to USDA and three or four more are in the works. FBCF has two lending levels, a $1,000 microloan and a $5,000 small-business loan.

An application is also in the pipeline to start a convenience store on the reservation. Although the small loan amounts FBCF has available normally would not be enough to start up a business, Fiddler noted that this particular applicant has received tribal support and the donation of buildings, in addition to supplies available from his contracting work.

"These are some of the most go-getting folks I've ever come across," said Fiddler of her applicants.

The fund recently received a $150,500 award from the Treasury Department's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. It plans to use that money to build loan capital, staff and capacity as well as to buy computers and equipment for board training.

Last year, the Four Bands fund also picked up $5,000 from the Eagle Staff grant program of the First Nations Development Institute of Fredericksburg, Va.

FBCF seeks to build up the reservation's economy by making loans to small and home-grown businesses in an effort for CRST to achieve what Sarkozy-Banoczy calls "economic sovereignty" for the tribe. The fund has implemented a ten-week business plan program called CREATE (Cheyenne River Entrepreneurial Assistance Training and Education) for budding CRST entrepreneurs.

Amber Lopez Bald Eagle, Mayan and Blackfeet, is CREATE's coordinator. Bill Picotte, chairman of FBCF, also heads housing non-profit Oti Kaga. Donna Rae Petersen is the fund's vice chair.

"We took the time to scale up the education side while we prepared to make the loans," Sarkozy-Banoczy said. Even though the initial amount was small, it "certainly was a thrill to finally make our first loan. This is a niche that has never been filled. We're looking to do that," he added.

Eventually, the fund hopes to make larger loans, perhaps up to $25,000, Sarkozy-Banoczy said.