“Even if we help just one, it will make a difference.” Twila True, True Sioux Hope Foundation founder.
Twila True, Oglala Lakota, seems to lead an enchanted life. Think Cinderella without the fairy godmother, but with a keen business mind, work ethic and vision that helped guide her to entrepreneurial success. Through a string of high-end nail salons, a jewelry store, line of cosmetics and multiple real estate holdings, True is a classic American success story. The Newport Beach home she shares with her husband looks out over a bay filled with sailboats, and November southern California temps in the mid-70s.
A dozen steps away, a 60-foot yacht in a private slip completes the scene.
Twila and Alan have four children –Taylor Warrior True, the youngest, was adopted soon after being born on Pine Ridge Reservation. Having a heart for the innocent has been a guiding principle in the couple’s philanthropy. While living in China, the Trues opened an orphanage and adoption service called True Children’s Home for severely disadvantaged and dispossessed Asian children.
ICT recently caught up with True a few days after her first True Sioux Hope Gala and Fundraiser at the Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach on November 11. The tony gala, attended by many of the most prominent families in Newport Beach, was to raise awareness and money for the True Sioux Hope Foundation, True’s 501(c)3 non-profit established in 2015 to provide targeted economic assistance for her own Oglala Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Until this gala, True Sioux Hope Foundation seems to have stayed pretty much under the radar. Why?
Some people love the media and the limelight … and, I don’t want to say it’s not important, but it’s just not high on my list. [Publicity] is something I need to do – but for the right reasons. Too often it’s not done for the right reasons.
Over the years, many philanthropic groups have reached out to assist Native Americans. A brief scan of economic conditions, particularly on Pine Ridge Reservation where, for now, you will exclusively operate, speaks to their lack of success. How will you succeed where others have found the challenge daunting?
Because most of my life has been in the business world. I treat philanthropy and business separately, but I approach everything from a business aspect. There are a lot of wonderful people with a lot of wonderful intentions in this world – but that doesn’t mean they get a lot of movement. Because I approach things through business, I first understand what my goal is, then I try to understand how to get there; and, because I do this on a regular basis, it keeps me pretty focused on what I’m trying to do.
Speaking to Oglala Lakota tribal members on the tribal committee of your foundation, they say you’ve been at this for nearly three years.
Yes, three years sounds about right. We were living in Asia for about 14 years, and about 2014 I was trying to decide what my next philanthropic effort might be after being gone for so long. The effort had to be something that touched me. Sometimes the obvious things are right in front of you – and you don’t see them. It was my husband, Alan, who said I think you know about something very intimately that not a lot of people know about. So, I thought: Let me see if I can have some kind of an effect here.
Were those three years establishing True Sioux Hope spent developing roots for your effort?
They were three years studying how to go about identifying goals, and how to achieve them. To develop relationships, create some partnerships, that’s the kind of thing you do in business when you’re doing due diligence. I had to do this to understand what was going on, and what my approach would be. Also, it takes time to formulate a 501(c)3 and to get your plan in order. 2016 is just when we started to come out with guns blazing.
The Gala – was it a success?
I think the gala was more than a success. I couldn’t be more pleased with the response we got from the local community. A lot of galas around here support very good causes and do very good work. You know, you come and you drink the finest wines and you eat the very best foods, you meet and see Broadway dancers… That’s what this community is very used to. Which is what is different about us: to bring something which is really about tradition and culture was quite unique. Of everything I’ve heard, that has been the number one overwhelming response.
Could we talk about your childhood?
What I can share with you is that mine is a very typical story in many ways. To where my mother struggled with alcohol – still does. She struggled with many different things; I was born when she was 16, and my grandmother raised me from somewhere when I was 3 and 5. My grandmother was very traditional. We returned to Pine Ridge almost every summer. We had relatives there. And I know, from the relocation program, some of us went to Arizona, some of us got put into Southern California – and so, in that way, it was very typical. I lost my grandmother when I was in my late 20s, just a few months apart from when I met my husband.
You said you did your “due diligence” in preparing your foundation, did you examine other efforts to help create positive change in Pine Ridge?
Using the business perspective, we are trying to approach everything with an eye toward long term solutions. In other words: not just backpacks for school children. Those things are good, but they are just immediate. We’re trying to focus more on life-changing, generational issues. At first glance, Pine Ridge can seem really quite daunting. There are so many things you don’t have. So, here are my short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. We also have to ask the question: What do I have a chance to be successful at? Everything else is just a dream. Finally: How do I get there? Like all businesses, we have to create a plan and we have to create some strategic partnerships.
The military has phrases like “shaping the battlefield” and “changing the facts on the ground.” Because tribal members, especially the very young, are often casualties of social pathologies that exist on Pine Ridge Reservation, do you see your efforts, even somewhat, as fighting a kind of enemy?
I don’t really see it that way. Whether it’s one, or 10, or a thousand people we’ve made a difference with, I say we’ve won. I have seen people who make very little money, and yet they give up their life to help people. If you want to call it a battle, that’s the way it’s won. I’ve been in many boardroom meetings, I’ve done my share of owning companies and buying companies – nothing has ever measured up to those types of people who give themselves up for a worthy cause.
That said, you have to be very careful. We have met people who are not very good. Who meet people trying to help and see it as a way to monetize themselves. People in need, people in poverty, are often victims of that.
How do you see True Sioux Hope Foundation being able to avoid those kinds of scammers and schemers?
It’s always a danger, but I’m in a unique situation. I have a background and history with my people. And because of where I am, I don’t have to be doing anything. I’m very fortunate that is not an issue for me. If I have a need, it comes from the inside, it’s a part of who I am. I can’t buy that.
Could you provide a few examples of where you’ll be targeting the foundation’s efforts in the beginning?
We have a tribal committee of local people to assist us in identifying where we should concentrate our efforts and what our programs will be. And then we have those who will assist us in implementing our programs. We are looking initially into the areas of high infant mortality rates and youth suicide attempts, to name two. One of the best places our tribal committee thought we could start was in helping to provide counseling in those areas.