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Native Students Show Off Their Business Skills at American Indian Business Leaders’ Annual Conference

“The Difference is YOU!” was the theme of the 19th Annual American Indian Business Leaders Conference held April 11-13 at the Talking Stick Resort on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation in Arizona. A group of about 100 young Native students from all over the country attended this year’s event. Students ranging from middle school to college participated in conference activities designed to engage them in business-oriented skill development. In addition to their traditional business plan competition, this year, students had the opportunity to compete in several new events, under the Workforce Warrior category; students vied for prizes ranging from $100-$300 dollars, showing their skills in the use and integration of MicroSoft (a sponsor of this year’s event) Office software programs to develop business documents, cards and resumes. Students also competed in simulated job interviews. Awards were also given to Chapter of the Year and Student of the Year, who each received a $500 scholarship. Most of the competition categories were divided by; Pre-college, Tribal college and University.

Courtesy AIBL

Monty Bitloy and Mathew Esalio, of Fort Lewis College, make a presentation on their Cradle Board business in the Business Plan Competition.

The American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1994 by Michelle Henderson’s (Assiniboine) vision outlined in her master thesis, while attending the University of Montana, Missoula. Her core concepts have become embodied in the American Indian Business Leaders' mission today to: “Increase the representation of American Indians and Alaska Natives in business and entrepreneurial ventures through education and leadership development opportunities.” Nearly 20 years later, the organization, under the leadership of a 10-member board of directors and two staff members, Business Leaders continues to stand strong with around 80 chapters throughout the US. Tina Begay (Dine´) current executive director, has been involved with the nonprofit for more than 17 years. “I have seen many students blossom into leaders through their involvement with the American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL) and these conferences, when they first come they are so shy, and then they learn to become more confident,” she said.

Begay’s dedication has been ongoing; she first joined the group as an advisor for her students at Salish Kootenai College. “AIBL helps students to grow, many of who come from poverty…. All it takes is someone to dedicate a few hours of their time to help students start a chapter.” Membership is free to anyone wanting to organize an AIBL chapter at their school; although its primary focus is young Native Americans, it is not limited to just Native students. In addition, students as young as the K-12 grade ranges can start an ABIL Chapter. The AIBL website provides all the documents needed to start a chapter including a student handbook that provides a structured outline for students to learn and follow on organizational development. Member students are encouraged to participate in business related activities throughout the year. Most of the students who attended this year’s event did their own fundraising.

AIBL offers a great opportunity for Native Students to prepare for a life in the professional world while learning important leadership skills and their success could definitely make all the difference for Native communities. For more information on AIBL, visit their website at or their Facebook page listed as National American Indian Business Leaders.