Board Profile: Michael E. Roberts & Creating the “And”

Michael E. Roberts

Michael E. Roberts, President, CEO and Board Member of First Nations Development Institute

If you know Mike Roberts, you’ve probably heard him talk about the “and” – how a Native American can be Indian and something else. “Being Indian defines you,” he asserts, “but it’s not the only thing that defines you.”

In his role as President, CEO and Board Member of First Nations Development Institute, Mike calls on this simple part of speech regularly, using it as a guide to empower people and communities. He shares the power of “and” in his own life and in First Nations’ investments in Indian Country.

Redefining Bravery

Mike’s drive to be Indian and something more took root in southeast Alaska, where he witnessed a form of bravery he didn’t recognize was brave at the time.

Mike was born and raised in Ketchikan, but his Tlingit family was originally from Klawock. His grandfather was a product of one of the early Indian boarding schools, and at 11 years old he had the responsibility of guiding his eight-year-old sister to Chemawa Indian School in Oregon. The journey involved a trip, first by fishing vessel to Ketchikan, then via steamship to Seattle and then across Seattle’s waterfront from the steamship docks to the train station, where they would catch a train to Oregon. This was a long trek through an unfamiliar town, all so the U.S. government could institute an elimination of Indians by taking their kids away from their households, and stripping them of their languages and cultures. The story repeated itself for Mike’s father, only this time the boarding school was at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka, Alaska.

When his father was a sophomore in high school, Mike’s grandparents decided this school solution was no longer ideal for their children’s future, and the family decided to uproot their lives and move away from their traditional Tlingit village.

Mike gives acceptance remarks upon receiving the "Asset Builder Champion" award from the Center for Global Policy Solutions in April 2016.

Mike gives acceptance remarks upon receiving the “Asset Builder Champion” award from the Center for Global Policy Solutions in April 2016.

Mike says his grandparents’ willingness to leave everything they’d ever known for the benefit of someone else is indicative of the kind of people they were.

In Ketchikan, Mike’s father was able to go to the local high school, but it wasn’t without cost. Approaching the end of his senior year, Mike’s dad was on a path to become valedictorian when he received an arbitrary B. While there was a large Indian population in Ketchikan, the Indians lived on the “Indian side,” south of Ketchikan Creek, and it quickly became clear that he was not to be Indian and Valedictorian.

It was indeed a segregated community, but it was still something Mike didn’t fully recognize until middle school and high school. Before then, he attended the local elementary school, which unbeknownst to him was the “Indian School.” “But there are benefits to growing up like that,” he says.

He delivered papers to the neighborhoods where the Native Americans and other minorities such as Filipinos, who were tradesmen and business owners, lived. “In some ways it was idyllic. It was an aspiring Indian and middle-class community,” he says.

Ultimately, however, the reality of being Indian in Ketchikan became painfully obvious once all grades led to the one high school in town. “Being poor and Indian means you showed up for your first day of class in the predominantly white school, already with two strikes against you,” he says. “It was clear that no matter how well you did, there was little likelihood that you could be Indian and become part of the powerbase in the community.”

Still, growing up in this community south of Ketchikan Creek gave him the strength to go when it was “apparent he had to leave.” And he owes this to the bravery of his grandfather and father.

Mike with Jona Charette, First Nations Development Officer, at the "taco truck" during a staff meeting in 2017.

Mike with Jona Charette, First Nations Development Officer, at the “taco truck” during a staff meeting in 2017.

“There was discrimination and racism, but the cost of pushing back could have meant a loss of livelihood,” he says. “But they made sacrifices so I could have that community, I could go to school, and I could have choices. That’s a bravery that I probably didn’t fully give them credit for until later in life.”

Venturing Out

Mike left Ketchikan for the College of Idaho, a small liberal arts school just west of Boise. Here he hoped to reinvent himself in a community where he was not defined by his family, his ethnicity or his impoverishment. He was a math and science major. But then, wanting to pursue a career in architecture, he transferred to the University of Colorado for its architecture program. From Colorado, he set his sights on a master’s degree, eventually enrolling at the University of Washington.

But once there, he found himself more drawn to the business aspects of architecture – project management and project financing, and he soon transferred to the MBA program. After graduating, he looked to move back to Denver with his wife whom he had met while at the University of Colorado.

Still, he balanced his Indian heritage with an identity he was still defining. He cites Jess Walter, who wrote that people only have two or three opportunities in their lives to reinvent themselves. Despite his desires to do this, he typically found himself in the very familiar environment of being one of the few Indians in his environment. But now he was a Native American and a professional with a business degree. If there had been a desire to reinvent himself as something else, he was learning he didn’t need to.

Coming to First Nations

Mike during his first week with First Nations in 1992.

Mike during his first week with First Nations in 1992.

It was then that Mike was in Seattle, but scouring the classified section of The Denver Post, when he came across a job advertisement for First Nations Development Institute. The organization, then located in Virginia, was focused on economic development of Native communities.

Mike, who had never been east of the Mississippi, took the interview mainly to see the nation’s capital, assuring his wife that there was no way he would move them to Virginia. But during the interview he realized how drawn he was to what First Nations was working to accomplish, and they had no one on staff with his finance and accounting skills. That left only the tough job of convincing his wife to relocate to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he accepted the position as a research officer. Six months into the job, the then-COO left First Nations, and Mike stepped in on an interim basis.

Mike digging in at First Nations in 1992.

Mike digging into “business and numbers” in 1992.

Ultimately becoming the COO in 1995, Mike established himself as the “numbers and business” guy. He used his MBA knowledge to assess projects and analyze where they would have the most impact. He worked directly with Rebecca Adamson and Sherry Black, intrigued by their vision and key to the organization’s goal. In the early part of First Nations’ attempt to become a grantmaking organization, it aimed to reach a threshold of financing before awarding any grants. This longer-than-expected fundraising goal tested Mike’s skill in budgeting and operations early. He now laughs about how he was asked to make First Nations survive for a year-and-a-half on a 12-month budget.

But after five years, Mike reached a crossroads, and he needed to see what else might be out there. He left First Nations on good terms, and with a promise that he would remain on the board, he accepted a position in the Kaufman Foundation Fellows project, a two-year, mastery-level program in venture capitalism.

Now a Native American and a venture capitalist, Mike went on to work first for a regional venture capital firm, Kansas City Equity Partners, and eventually for Meritage Private Equity, helping the firm that would end up leveraging close to a billion dollars in managed capital and investing in large telecommunications companies.

Combining Worlds

Mike spent five years in venture capital. He honed a discipline in evaluating companies, their core competencies and their distinct advantages. And he learned how successful companies were the ones who were changing and adopting.

Mike with Harley Coriz at Santo Domingo Pueblo in 2013.

Mike with Harley Coriz at Santo Domingo Pueblo in 2013.

Ultimately, however, he realized that the value system of venture capitalism and his own didn’t necessarily align. As he and his fellow venture capitalists debated over deals with the potential of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, he continued to be drawn by the optimism of the social entrepreneurs who were approaching First Nations promising to change the world for five or 10 thousand dollars. “They believed that they could positively impact their communities with that modest financing,” he says. “And I realized that it was that change and their world that I wanted to be part of.”

In what he says was a very deliberate decision, Mike returned to First Nations as the CEO and president in 2002, taking over for First Nations’ founder Rebecca Adamson in 2003. On condition of his return, the organization was moved to Colorado and Mike retained his seat on the board. Mike was now able to draw from his for-profit experience in setting the fiscal direction of First Nations.

“I took to heart the venture capitalist idea of ‘innovate or die,’” he says. “I knew what well-conceptualized and well-run companies looked like and I was able to apply that knowledge in evaluating projects and programs. I could see what could have the most impact in Indian Country.”

The venture capitalist experience also gave him a new perspective on philanthropy. “Having sat on the other side of the table when people were asking for money, it made it easier to be the one asking. I knew how to present something fresh and new in the eyes of funders,” he says.

Indian and So Much More

Mike with his wife, Jen, and their two daughters.

Mike with his wife, Jen, and their two daughters.

Now Mike considers First Nations with pride. He says he came back to create an organization that was best in world first, best in nonprofit second, and the best Indian nonprofit in the world third. But beyond any balance sheet or income statement, the success of First Nations comes from looking out on Indian Country and seeing the progress.

Mike makes the somewhat tongue-in-cheek statement, “At First Nations, we make early-stage, high-risk investments in Indian communities.” In actuality, he says, the perception of high-risk belongs to the private foundation community, which perpetually underinvests in Indian projects.

“But for First Nations, there is little perceived risk, as we know that we are investing in the genius of Indian people. And the power of somebody investing in you can be transformational.”

Mike has come far from the small town of Ketchikan where he says one’s “Indian-ness” was not necessarily something you were conditioned to be proud of. But it was and continues to be part of his identity that he doesn’t need to reinvent. And this was evidenced when he was “given away” in a ceremonial hand-off from his Tlingit tribe to the reins of First Nations.

He values the bravery, opportunity and sense of community instilled in him by his family and his hometown, and the “and” continues to be part of his journey and his role at First Nations. He is Indian and a leader in advancing the Indian community. He can practice Indian values and employ principals of capitalism to increase ROI.

“And at First Nations we can invest in Native communities and in innovative practices that are true to the Indian ways of responsibility and respect,” he says. “When we stop doing that, we should probably shut First Nations’ doors.”

By Amy Jakober