It’s not all about money.
Sounds like a George Bailey quote from the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s also the logic behind the concept of “sustainable and responsible investing,” a money management strategy that looks into the social, political and environmental track records of companies when making investment decisions.
As director of the Oneida Trust Enrollment Department, it’s a philosophy Susan White, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, champions not only at work but also in life. She directs a multi-operational department in capital strategies for protection and growth of trust assets and for management of the Oneida Nation’s census records. White maintains the trust’s sustainable and responsible investment (SRI) philosophy by coordinating shareholder activism for Indigenous peoples’ rights and well-being when affected by corporations. She is also responsible for the maintenance and protection of tribal citizen records for the elected Oneida Trust Enrollment Committee.
Overseeing a deep pool of tribal investment portfolios that has grown considerably over the past two decades, White carries a strong voice across Indian Country and beyond.
“When I interviewed for my position the tribe had already accepted a socially responsible investment (SRI) aim,” explains the seasoned trust director who lists the 1946 Frank Capra film mentioned above as a favorite. “In 1994, we revised the investment policy statement and now work in solidarity with other tribes to support that aim.”
Sovereignty Through Activism
There’s a big stage for tribes that want to influence corporate America and exercise sovereignty through shareholder activism. While addressing issues ranging from excavation of Native burial sites by superstores to stereotyping of Native American imagery in college and professional sports, White has engaged major corporate players. As a result, companies like Honeywell, Peabody Energy, Bank of America and FedEx have reexamined not only their own business practices but also those of industry peers. She admits that securing support for causes such as the Washington NFL team’s name-change can be a daunting challenge, but she doesn’t lose sight of her goals.
In 2010, the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin received the Honoring Nations award from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development for its and White’s work. At the time she was co-chair of the Social Investment Forum’s Indigenous Peoples Working Group and said, “This award tells us we are on the right path. We hope that more tribes will use the power of their investment dollars to open doors for greater advocacy for Indian Country.”
Later in 2011, White received the SRI Service Award and was recognized by her colleagues for her professionalism, ethics and success raising awareness of responsible investing. She was a speaker at Native American Finance and National Aboriginal Trust Officers Association conferences and the SRI Conference. Her work to engage and change corporate interests detrimental to Indian Country is truly making a difference.
White started her career in the financial industry in 1987, and began working for the Oneida Nation in 1994. With the advent of Indian gaming, she built the Trust Enrollment Department to be a pivotal function in the Oneida Nation’s infrastructure by developing the trust funds as an endowment vehicle to fund scholarship programs, other departments, and a nationwide life insurance policy for all Oneida citizens.
To say White has a full plate is an understatement.
‘The Creator Gave Me Extra’
“Oneida calls it Yukwatsistay^ which means “our fire, our spirit within each one of us.” The Creator gave me extra, I think,” said White.
A typical day might find the Old Dominion University alum presenting to tribal elders about their trust investments, collaborating on a quarterly newsletter to youth beneficiaries, negotiating lower fees from investment managers, and tirelessly forging partnerships among an extensive network of local banks, tribal departments and universities.
“Sometimes tribal citizens come to us for investment advice,” White commented. “We don’t have that authority, but I do give presentations on budgeting and minor’s trust processes. We also include personal finance tips in the newsletter that tie into the ceremonial season.”
When she makes financial presentations, she enjoys discussing traditional Oneida cultural tasks such as planning ahead and farming to make financial concepts relatable.
“There are a lot of things I like about my job,” shared the former “Navy brat” who began her career in the securities division at a large bank on the East Coast. “I truly appreciate the supportive team I work with. My supervisor, the committee and my staff all listen to my concerns and address them. I also take pride when we are able to recover trust funds. We’ve had issues with our funds at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and I stayed on it until we received the funds due to Oneida. This has occurred twice and the closure was fun both times.”
Focused on the Big Picture
With all that White is responsible for, she keeps focused on the big picture and relishes all the accomplishments along the way.
“Reaching certain milestones, even when no one else realized them. I am optimistic and remind my teams of our hard work and how we got to this point. Seeing policy change for the better, receiving awards, ceremonies, and receiving assistance from national Native organizations means that they see you and will assist in your efforts for the betterment of Indian Country work. Now that’s great validation!” said White.
She likes that more Native women are getting involved in the financial industry, and reflects on what she’s learned over the years.
“Create stability in your work environment with your staff, and provide authoritative and governmental support. Without these things, it is easy to get lost in the turnover of tribal leadership and priorities, but not your own. Be sure to always groom successors to pass along what you’ve learned and experienced,” said White.
Aside from her career, White is also active serving as co-chair for the Investors and Indigenous Peoples Working Group, the Women’s Fund of Greater Green Bay Emeritus, the Oneida Auxiliary Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7784, a trustee for the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac, the American Foundation for Counseling Services Ethics in Business Selection Committee, and, formerly, a member of the Board of Directors of First Nations Development Institute.
(Note: Susan joined the Board of First Nations Development Institute in June 2017. Unfortunately, she resigned from the Board in March 2018 due to health reasons.)
‘Go To’ in Indian Country
“I feel First Nations is the ‘go to’ in Indian Country. I am proud to be associated with First Nations, its board, staff, and the many programs they are involved in,” said White when she originally joined the Board.
“Susan is so humble and polite, and we have been delighted to have her as part of the loan committee at First Nations Oweesta Corporation and on the Board of Directors of First Nations Development Institute,” said Michael E. Roberts, First Nations President & CEO. “I remember once at an Indian investor conference when one of the panelists misanswered a nuanced question about a derivative. Susan raised her hand and, very respectfully but very accurately, corrected the gentleman’s misguided answer. It was pure Susan – accurate, but respectful.”
She resides in Oneida, Wisconsin, with her husband and two sons. She enjoys cooking and family gatherings. The youngest daughter in a military family with five siblings, she didn’t have a chance to learn how to cook while growing up, but has since honed a formidable set of culinary skills from watching cooking shows. Never far from her roots, she’s a senior warden at the same church where her parents were married and enjoys cheering for local teams like the University of Wisconsin Badgers, the Milwaukee Brewers and, of course, the Green Bay Packers.