Harnessing resources and directing them back to Native communities through capital, education, training and advocacy: It’s the purpose of First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), and it’s why First Nations Board Secretary Shyla Sheppard is so committed. Sheppard knows first-hand the power of resources and the impact they can have on business development and communities.
Sheppard (Mandan/Hidatsa) grew up in the Twin Buttes area on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, a small community with fewer than 250 people. There was just one elementary school, a small satellite clinic and no post office at that time. Kids were transported off the reservation by bus for high school. With life in this border town “it was evident that there was a lower expectation of us kids from the rez,” she says. “I felt that. And it made me work harder.”
She says, “Growing up, one of my grandfathers used to tell us to be like the buffalo who never turn their backs on a storm; they face it. He said that in life there will be challenges but no matter what: face them and push through.”
Acquiring Tools for Success
As Sheppard worked to excel in school and athletics, one of her grandma’s friends, a former recruiter for the United Scholarship Services, watched her progress. When graduation grew closer, she urged Sheppard to consider Stanford University. “She introduced me to her niece who was also attending Stanford and who helped me apply and write my essays. And more than anything, they believed in me,” Sheppard says.
Sheppard’s resources came in the form of education and encouragement, and in the fall she was off to the Silicon Valley. At Stanford, she walked on to the track team, and she discovered the world of venture capital.
“It was there where I was exposed to the power of capital to drive innovation and ideas, and I was hooked,” she says.
Four years later, with a degree in economics, she brought her education back to her community.
“We have to be the best we can be. We have to raise expectations, be resilient, and encourage and support each other and the next generation.”
She first returned to Fort Berthold for a short-term project to develop a U.S. Department of Justice-approved program for the tribe’s newly-built justice center, which would house its troubled youth. It was a project Sheppard was deeply connected to because her grandfather had been the reservation’s former chief of police, and the new center carried his name.
“Kids who got into trouble didn’t have a place to go,” she explains. “Without a facility where they could stay, they would be sent away, which would further isolate them.” Running with the project, she met with community leaders, the school board and tribal elders. She was able to direct resources and create a program that the community believed in and, most importantly, could sustain.
The experience showed her again what could be accomplished when people are driven and armed with the right tools. From there Sheppard headed south, where she joined the founding team of New Mexico Community Capital, a social-impact investing firm. The firm was focused on investing in businesses whose products or services solve basic human needs, including health care, agriculture, water and green-building products, she says. “Again I saw the power of capital, this time toward innovations that improved quality of life.”
Investing with Intention
For eight years, she worked with the firm, and in that time she was introduced to First Nations Development Institute.
“This is an organization committed to connecting the broader philanthropic world to the needs of Indian Country and I was very intrigued.”
With her background in investing, she recognized First Nations’ track record of attracting capital, selecting and funding initiatives, and fostering philanthropic connections. And, since then – throughout her years on the board – she has seen the impact First Nations has had on Indian Country.
“First Nations understands their market. They know who they’re serving, and they’re in tune to what communities need to be successful,” she says.
Sheppard explains how First Nations is investing in food sustainability, farming, agriculture and, importantly, the next generation. “They’re fostering appreciation of culture and our heritage, and it’s tremendous.”
“First Nations is an engine,” she says. “They have a connection and vested interest in the communities they serve. They’re able to invest in initiatives that are making a difference. Then they’re able to tell that story to others – raising more capital so they can invest further.”
Making a Path
This year, Sheppard has moved from venture capital on to her next business venture: the opening of Bow & Arrow Brewing Co., a craft brewery in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. focuses on producing and selling high-quality brews featuring local and indigenous ingredients. For example, she says, the “Flint & Grit” is a take on an English Mild with the addition of roasted blue corn.
Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. also fosters appreciation for the subtleties of its brews, the production process and the ingredients. The on-site tasting room features large windows with views into the brewing area, and weekly brewery tours are offered. Customers are served by a knowledgeable staff who encourage responsible drinking and interactions.
Indeed, Sheppard makes the most of her actions. She continues to build on her own resources and the encouragement that she’s received throughout her life, while she pursues every opportunity to give resources and encouragement back to the tribal community.
“Because people are still watching,” she says. “We have to be the best we can be. We have to raise expectations, be resilient, and encourage and support each other and the next generation.”