A Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) based on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, and a Navajo woman entrepreneur whose company just celebrated 20 years of serving Indian country, received much-deserved awards at the Business to Business Collaboration Luncheon on day one of the Reservation Economic Summit (RES) in Las Vegas, March 21-24. The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development honored the nonprofit and Native leader for their significant contributions with a Small Business Empowerment Award and Native Woman Business Owner of the Year Award, respectively.
To present the first honor, the Small Business Empowerment Award, Karlene Hunter (Oglala Sioux), took the stage. Hunter co-founded Lakota Express, a full service management and direct marketing company based in Kyle, South Dakota, in 1996, and she co-founded (and serves as CEO of) Native American Natural Foods, the creator of the Tanka Bar, in 2007. Hunter additionally serves on the Board of Directors of the National Center.
Four Bands Community Fund in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, is evidence of the power of Native CDFIs to support economic growth and development in Native communities. The nonprofit organization continuously strives to create economic opportunity on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation by helping people build strong and sustainable small businesses and increase their financial capability to enter the financial mainstream.
"They're a CDFI. They've given out loans to businesses; they've given technical assistance. They work with entrepreneurship education and financial literacy," Hunter said.
Four Bands also provides services for youth-sowing the seeds to encourage private business ownership and financial literacy at an early age. "A few years back they started going into the school systems and working with high school [students] and also giving out loans to them to start their businesses — so planting the seed early," Hunter said.
Four Bands Board Member Donita Fischer accepted the Small Business Empowerment Award on behalf of the nonprofit. "Since 1999, Four Bands has been an organization in our community, and as of this year we have written $10 million worth of loans and created or sustained 510 jobs. On the financial literacy side, we have increased credit scores in 12 months on an average of 61 points," Fischer said. "Thank you very much."
Following much applause, National Center Board Chair Derrick Watchman announced the Native Woman Business Owner of the Year Award, which "recognizes outstanding leadership, management quality performance and commitment to excellence," he said.
Eunice Tso founded ETD, Inc. in 1995, and it quickly became the "go-to" environmental and planning consulting company in Indian country.
ETD, Inc. manages and facilitates a variety of professional and technical service projects in environmental consulting, project management, rural planning and community relations. "For more than 20 years, ETD, Inc. has worked with tribal communities, government agencies, and architects and engineering firms in Indian country," Watchman said.
"She provides expert consulting to tribes in Indian country. I've had the opportunity to work with her," Watchman continued. "She navigates a lot of complex environmental projects on the reservation. She also prepares land use plans that clearly articulate the communities' vision, priority projects and coordination efforts."
Tso, National Environmental Policy Act specialist and senior project manager, understands the environmental regulations that govern development on tribal lands and advises her clients about how to maintain an appropriate level of compliance.
Growing up in LeChee in Coconino County, Arizona, the stunning geological formations of the Navajo Nation sparked Tso's interest in landscapes. She was inspired to earn her bachelor's degree in geology from Northern Arizona University. After working for the Abandoned Mine Line Reclamation program, and learning about the federal and Navajo environmental regulations governing construction, she decided to return to NAU to earn her master's degree in geology with an emphasis in environmental geology. She then launched ETD, Inc. in Flagstaff, Arizona.
"I'm very humbled and honored to accept this award. We recently celebrated 20 years and I'm looking forward to 20 more years," Tso said.