Aurolyn Stwyer grew up on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs reservation in Warm Springs, Oregon. Whatever she has done over her life and career has been for the benefit of her tribe and other Native American communities. She served as a cultural ambassador when she served as Miss Warm Springs in 1977; and later she worked for her tribe, then went on to complete her undergraduate degree in accounting and finance from Marylhurst University in Oregon in 1990.
She had never intended to go further with her education, but her academic advisor suggested she consider applying to graduate school since she had earned 15 credits toward a master’s degree and had a high grade-point average. The advisor encouraged her to find funding for school, and that’s just what Stwyer did.
“That little advice energized me to get out there and look for some fellowships and scholarships,” said Stwyer. “Back then there was no Internet, so I went to the library and looked things up. There was a lot of information on scholarships, and I read magazines, whatever popped up. I made copies of what I found, took notes, researched information and I made phone calls.”
By chance, Stwyer attended a conference where Sherry Salway Black was giving a presentation on finance. Salway Black was then a top executive with the First Nations Financial Project, which would soon be renamed First Nations Development Institute. Stwyer learned about First Nations’ Tribal Commerce and Enterprise Management Program (TCEMP), a Native professional development program. (TCEMP was originally based at Yale University from 1986 to 1988, but had been moved to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. TCEMP was generously underwritten by the Carnegie Corporation of New York from 1991 to 1994.)
“I went to a conference where Sherry Salway Black was giving a presentation on finance and she talked about TCEMP. So it materialized that I met Sherry before I even applied for the TCEMP fellowship. She (Salway Black) became my idol after that,” said Stwyer.
Stwyer appreciated First Nations’ efforts to reach out and support the TCEMP students in not only their educations, but on personal, cultural levels. “Sherry Salway Black, she took us to dinner and for us, being away from home and for me being a single parent, it was a little care package. That helped a lot.”
However, it was not only a drastic change in weather from Warm Springs, Oregon, to city life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but an introduction into a whole new way of doing business.
“I really appreciated the esteemed alumni. They described their business value system, and we learned about the corporate culture. I had spent 12 years in finance with the tribe prior to going to school at UMN, and I had never worked off the reservation. It was an eye-opener. The ideas we discussed in class were the latest in business. It was fascinating,” said Stwyer.
The TCEMP fellows supported each other inside and outside the classroom. They held regular study times with each other where they practiced their presentations, and it’s a time Stwyer fondly remembers.
“It was our support system to lean on each other as we were doing the same tasks, and with a multitude of assignments, we’d bounce ideas off each other. We took it upon ourselves to give each other the extra help when we needed it.”
Finding and Creating Community
“There is a large Native American population in Minneapolis – that was a nice surprise. We’d go to the Native American student center at the University of Minnesota and hang out with the other Native American students. There was support there. Any conferences that we wanted to go to they’d figure out how to get us there,” said Stwyer.
Stwyer and TCEMP fellow Terry Mason Moore (Osage, UMN alumna, MBA 1992) also had to figure out how to get support for the conference costs that the university did not cover. They took the initiative upon themselves to get out and knock on a few doors, and not just any doors.
“Terry and I, we made a list of the businesses in the area and we’d solicit the Fortune 500 companies for whatever we needed to get to a conference. Nobody turned us down and that’s how I landed an internship at 3M. It was amazing, experiencing all the buzzwords that we were learning in the textbooks. It was a great experience to have. I didn’t feel like the little fish in a big sea,” said Stwyer.
Stwyer and Mason Moore were catching the attention of not only major corporations, but also the news media as well. A New York Times article published in May 1991 covered Stwyer and Mason Moore’s personal journeys and motivations for moving from their home reservations to Minneapolis to earn the MBA. It was the communal and cultural experiences from home that they brought into the classroom.
Class Project Becomes a Job
Stwyer’s communal focus and approach to her course work did not always mesh well with her fellow classmates, some of who were competitive and had financial advantages.
“We were working in teams and my team was all type A – they had all the tools – the computers, they had time to keep up with all the faxes. I had to go to the bookstore and pay for all my faxes per page. I knew the team that I was on was not working for me, so I decided to create my own team. So along with two other students, we worked on a financial strategy for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s Mystic Lake Casino.”
Stwyer’s decision to create her own team and focus on what was important to her – Native American communities – proved fruitful.
“Shakopee hired me as their Director of Strategic Planning and they were one of largest casinos at that time, and while I was there they went from 350 to 1,800 employees,” said Stwyer, who was in charge of the casino’s expansion. “I held weekly meetings to see where we were at it with things. It was phenomenal to see and experience that rapid development at an unbelievable pace.”
Shakopee’s Board of Directors at the time gave her the title of Special Assistant to the Board of Directors. Within half a year, Stwyer was promoted to Vice President of Strategic Planning.
While being inside the corporate culture was what Stwyer did on the job, she made sure to stay connected and grounded by dancing in powwows for her family and her son. She also went to events in the Twin Cities that had received sponsorship from Shakopee. She enjoyed being a part of the Minneapolis Native American community, staying grounded and meeting new people. Working with and establishing a relationship with one of the tribes at the forefront of tribal gaming allowed Stwyer a career entry she could not have foreseen when she left Warm Springs.
Reflections on TCEMP Impact
Stwyer worked for Shakopee for two years and went on to be a consultant for the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon, First Nations reserves in Canada, and many other tribes. Her consulting had her working in a variety of industries and projects from the hydroelectric power utilities, tribal gaming, and she co-authored the “Indianpreneurship” curriculum for ONABEN (Our Native American Business Network) of which she is on the board. She helped co-found the Potlatch Fund, and served on numerous boards. She owns the Red Skye Trading Post and Pawn Shop in Warm Springs, and is an accomplished artist of beadwork, jewelry, and other textiles. She also served on the 24th Warm Springs Tribal Council as Vice Chairman from 2007 to 2010.
All that Stwyer has created and mastered have contributed to her returning home to work for her tribe, just as she had hoped when she completed the TCEMP fellowship.
“Working off the reservation prepared me to go home to do the work to develop our businesses and to do the work I’m doing today with the myriad businesses here at Warm Springs. The TCEMP experience made me ready to take on the challenges here on my own reservation with a level of confidence, to articulate and communicate ideas for Warm Springs.”
Stwyer currently serves as the Business Development and Marketing Manager with Warm Springs Ventures and is working in the developing field of drones. Warm Springs has the only tribally owned, national test site for drones or “unmanned aerial systems.” The industry is booming and Stwyer is once again navigating new territory – this time her tribe and other tribes are seeking out her advice and expertise. She contributes her success back to that fateful chance to hear Sherry Salway Black speak and the opportunity that First Nations offered her with the TCEMP fellowship.
“I love my work. I’m very happy in my job today. I’ve been in positions where there are threats to management, possible threats to jobs whether it’s politics, females in the workplace, or industry changes, etc. I had to make decisions to get to the next step or plateau. Then my tribe recruited me home – when they saw what I could do.”
By Mary K. Bowannie, First Nations Communications Officer