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Pine Ridge Business Wins Innovation Award, Faces Challenges from Fast Expansion

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Social Venture Network (SVN), a national peer-to-peer network of socially responsible entrepreneurs and investors, has selected a business located on the the isolated Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota for one of its six 2011 Innovation Awards.

Native American Natural Food—known for producing the Tanka Bar, among other organic, buffalo-jerky energy bars and meat products—will partner with SVN leaders, who will serve as mentors to the company.

SVN chose Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen, owners of Native American Natural Food, for the award because they are "on a mission to heal people and Mother Earth by innovating new food products based on traditional Native American values."

As an Innovation Award winner, Native American Natural Food will also get free SVN membership, and they’ll be honored at SVN’s 2011 Fall Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from October 27-30. There, Hunter and Tilsen will present their work to an audience of over 250 socially responsible business chief executive officers, investors and social entrepreneurs.

But Native American Natural Foods, whose projected annual sales are $1.5 million, handles a double-edged sword. Its products, like the Tanka Bar, can now be found in 4,500 stores nationwide, co-founder Mark Tilsen told National Public Radio. "The good news is sales have increased by 155 percent," Tilsen said. "And the bad news is sales have increased by 155 percent."

The problem: Its buffalo hot dogs have sold 12 times better than projected, and to meet demand, the company must quickly come up with $80,000 to buy the raw materials needed to fill the new orders, NPR reported.

In the current economic climate, getting credit isn't that simple, and banks are increasingly averse to lending to small businesses. Tack that on to the fact that Indian land has no collateral value. The federal government holds tribal lands in trust, so the company's nearly-paid-off building on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation doesn't register on its credit.

"We literally went to every single lender in western South Dakota that would talk to us," Tilsen told NPR. "I think we met with 11 banks, and none of them would even submit the application."

While some government programs are intended to throttle development in Indian Country, there are many road blocks to obtaining them, according to Brian Brandt, president of the Center for Business and Economics of the Northern Plains, an organization comprised of retired business executives who try to help younger entrepreneurs excel.

"The models that we have right now for lending, not only in Indian country but into businesses of this size, are broken, and it's going to take a relatively sophisticated approach to change that dynamic," Brandt told NPR. "And I don't see any on the horizon right now."

For now, Native American Natural Foods is meeting the growing demand through the combined resources of many organizations, including a successful Minnesota tribe and a Los Angeles, California-based community development fund.


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