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Mohawk Andra Rush on Building Three Businesses, Revitalizing Detroit and Tribal Ties

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Andra Rush jokes that she lives on Delta Airlines.

The 53-year-old mother of three adult sons also is the founder of Detroit Manufacturing Systems, the largest creator of new manufacturing jobs in America’s motor city in decades. Established in 2012, the company is being praised as a business owned by a Native woman and one that hired more than 700 employees in its first 18 months.

A single mother since her husband died 12 years ago, Rush balances a busy schedule as founder and chairwoman of the Rush Group, which includes Rush Trucking, Dakkota Integrated Systems and Detroit Manufacturing Systems.

Together, these manufacturing, trucking, assembly and distribution enterprises make up one of the largest Native-owned businesses in the nation.

“My golf game is not as good as it could be,” said Rush, who is Mohawk. “My physique is not as sharp as it once was. It’s a lot of hours; it takes a lot of time.”

Rush received national attention January 28 when President Barack Obama included her success story in his State of the Union Address. Rush was invited to attend the address and sit in the first lady’s viewing box.

RELATED: Mohawk Entrepreneur Andra Rush to Join First Lady at State of Union

“Two years ago, as the auto industry came roaring back, Andra Rush opened up a manufacturing firm in Detroit,” Obama said. “She knew that Ford needed parts for the best-selling truck in America, and she knew how to make those parts. She just needed the workforce.”

The business started in June of 2012 with 45 employees. By the beginning of 2014, it employed 730, with nearly 500 of those workers living in Detroit.

“What Andra and her employees experienced is how it should be for every employer and every job seeker,” Obama said during his address.

In recent years, Rush has been recognized by many organizations, including minority business groups, the Native American Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Women’s Foundation, but her story as one of the most successful Native women in business had humble beginnings 30 years ago.

As a 23-year-old MBA student, Rush took a summer internship with a freight company and realized that unreliable service could cost the company a lot of money. She opened Rush Trucking in 1984 with three trucks and hauled auto parts throughout the Detroit area.

Rush was something of a lone woman in a man’s world, she said.

“I faced a lot of the stereotypical thoughts – that no woman can run a trucking business,” she said. “It was hard to be taken seriously because there weren’t a lot of women in positions of decision-making.”

During the first years, there was a lot of trial and error, a lot of door-knocking, Rush said.

“People looked at me and saw a young person, a woman,” she said. “They always wanted to know if my husband or father was running it.”

Success came from building a reputation, Rush said.

“In the beginning you have no points of reference to give customers the feeling that you are reliable,” she said. “When an opportunity came, you had to exceed expectations.”

Having seen first-hand how the Mohawk people lived on New York and Canada reservations, Rush specifically wanted to create opportunity in underserved areas, she said.

“I saw the poverty, the 80-percent unemployment that is repeated over and over in Indian country,” she said. “If I could create opportunities on or near reservation land where people don’t have to leave the community, then I could be successful.”

Although she didn’t build her business on tribal land – and legally can’t practice Native preference in hiring – Rush reaches out to all races and genders, and to veterans and handicapped employees.

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“I would put our company up against a lot of companies and show we have a lot of diversity at every level,” she said. “If I was on a reservation, I would venture to say I would have more Native Americans than not.”

Rush was starting her business as Detroit's automobile industry was in a downward spiral. More than a century ago, the Ford Motor Company was established there, followed by Dodge, Chrysler and others, ultimately transforming Detroit into the nation’s fifth-largest city and establishing the “rust belt.”

The city reached its peak in the 50s and 60s, when tens of thousands of black workers migrated from the South in search of jobs on the assembly lines. In 1950, Detroit’s population topped 1.8 million, but it also struggled with racial tensions. Between 1945 and 1965, there were more than 200 acts of racial violence, most stemming from black families moving into all-white neighborhoods.

Detroit’s long decline began when the auto industry moved out of the city and eventually overseas. The population dropped by more than 40 percent during the last four decades, and the city claimed bankruptcy in 2013.

Rush, meanwhile, had committed to hiring and training people who were chronically unemployed, said Carolyn Cassin, president and CEO of the Michigan Women’s Foundation.

“She made it her policy every single day to help somebody, to give somebody a leg up,” Cassin said. “She reached out a hand just to make sure that everyone in this community got an equal opportunity.”

As Detroit crumbled, Rush Trucking grew to include more than 800 tractors and 1,350 trailers, with 485 employees and 400 associates. In 2002, Rush partnered with Magna to establish Dakkota Integrated Systems, which provides complete automotive interior systems for original equipment manufacturers. Ten years later, Rush launched Detroit Manufacturing Systems, which manufactures and assembles automotive and interior components.

Also in 2012, she was appointed to the U.S. Manufacturing Council, the principal private-sector advisory committee to the Secretary of Commerce on manufacturing matters.

Rush views her latest business venture as a way to “help transform Detroit into what it once was or even greater.”

“The highest point I have right now is being able to serve in this opportunity with Detroit Manufacturing, bringing opportunity to underserved communities that have been chronically unemployed,” she said. “It’s rewarding and energizing.”

Another high point was meeting Obama in January, an invitation that sprouted from her work with the U.S. Manufacturing Council. Her success growing jobs in Detroit “touched a nerve,” Rush said, and Obama included the story in his address.

“It was overwhelmingly such an honor and privilege,” she said. “It was so positive for our people, our city and state.”

Much of Rush’s success came from her commitment to Detroit 50 or 100 years after the “legacy auto people” had made their mark on the city, Cassin said.

“She made a commitment to Detroit to employ the chronically underemployed or people who had been unemployed for a long time,” Cassin said. “She made a commitment to find those people, train them and give them hope and opportunity by giving them a skill they could use at her company and for the rest of their lives.”

Success came with sacrifice, however, Rush said. Her biggest regret comes from being a mother who put in long hours at work and spent too much time away from her family.

“Especially when you’re brand new in a business and you’re working in a non-traditional field, there are sacrifices,” she said. “If you’re wanting to prove your commitment, you would sacrifice time you should have been home.”

Cassin called Rush the “consummate entrepreneur and businesswomen” and “a woman who made a difference, who made life a better place.” Because she is a woman in a non-traditional field, Rush stands as a “champion for the good things going on in Detroit,” Cassin said.

“I think it’s courageous when people jump into an industry when they’re the only one with the ilk to do that,” Cassin said of Rush. “She walked in, decided she was going to be a part of this industry, and I don’t think she looked around to see if there was another woman there. She just said this is something I can achieve.”

Rush maintains close ties with her tribe, she said. Family members still live on the reservation in New York, and she visits to attend pow wows, seek advice from the tribal council and volunteer her time as a mentor or in speaking engagements.

When asked what advice she would give to other female entrepreneurs, Rush spoke of patience and perseverance. 

“The Japanese talk about growing a bamboo tree,” she said. “You water it for six years and nothing happens. Then in the sixth year, it shoots up six feet tall. For six years, you get no results. A lot of time, there’s not the immediate gratification, but you have to just keep going.”