By Loretta A. Tuell
)n March 27, President Donald Trump unveiled a new West Wing resident: The White House Office of American Innovation. Led by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and staffed by former business executives, the office is charged with leveraging technology and data to reimagine federal government at every level. This could be good news for Indian Country.
Gathering input from leaders in the business, philanthropic and academic communities, the office’s goal will be to remodel workforce programs and develop transformative projects that can be promoted under the banner of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, such as providing broadband internet service to every American. The White House touted the new team as having sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises.
This laser focus on highlighting innovative ideas with the intent to implement them for the betterment of the nation is an excellent opportunity for Indian Country to weigh in on initiatives that have the potential for positive impact on its people. To make the most of the opportunity, a good first step for Indian Country leaders to take would be to ask the White House Office of American Innovation to identify a “transformative project” in Indian Country. If history is a prologue, Indian Country must seize the moment or risk being left behind.
In 2014, as our national economy was on the upswing, a U.S. News and World Report headline pronounced, “Native Americans Left Behind in the Economic Recovery – Unemployment and poverty levels of native populations greatly exceed those of the overall populations.” The article recounted the gloomy socio-economic statistics that Indian Country continues to grapple with as the rest of the country recovers. The problem is that this is where the story always ends.
Observers find it is easier to identify Indian Country’s problems rather than explore solutions that disrupt the status quo. Yet, critical thinking exists on the barriers, recommendations, best practices, and promising efforts for economic progress.
In 2012, after a series of workshops lead by the Federal Interagency Working Group on Indian Affairs Committee on Economic Development, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System published a report entitled, Growing Economies in Indian Country: Taking Stock of Partnerships and Progress (GEIC). GEIC identified eight broad categories of challenges that workshop participants indicated as impediments to development on tribal lands. They include insufficient access to capital; capacity and capital constraints of small business resource providers; insufficient workforce development, financial management training, and business education; tribal governance constraints; regulatory constraints on land held in trust and land designated as restricted use; underdeveloped physical infrastructure; insufficient research and data; and a lack of regional collaboration.
Importantly, GEIC identified specific solutions to address barriers to economic and business growth in Indian Country. One recommendation was to reimagine the role of federal agencies that work with the tribes as business incubators. A business incubator is a physical entity providing small businesses with space, support services, and networks to entrepreneurs, investors, and clients.
The National Business Incubation Association (NBIA) defines business incubators as “a business assistance program targeted to startup early stage firms with the goal of improving their chances to grow into healthy, sustainable companies.”
The role of tribal business incubators is to create a one-stop shop for Native American entrepreneurs to access workspace, a collaborative environment, individualized business skills training, and opportunities to build professional networks. The incubators could promote economic growth by assisting Native American entrepreneurs in navigating regulatory complexities.
In March, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and former committee chairs Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) re-introduced to Congress a revised a bill entitled, the Native American Business Incubators Program Act. The bill, S. 607, seeks to help start-up and launch Native-owned small businesses and encourage job creation in Indian Country. An annual $5 million competitive grant initiative would be created within the Interior Department’s Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development to establish or maintain business incubators that serve Native American communities. The bill is supported by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).
Given the support for the tribal business incubator idea in Congress, yet considering the stalemates that at times prevent action there, Indian Country should invite the White House Office of American Innovation into the conversation. Ask the group to utilize its new sweeping authority to leverage federal resources to better assist tribes in their efforts to achieve sustainable prosperity in their communities through tribal business incubators. ♦