It was the chance for Native teens and young adults to see Native entrepreneurs in action. An opportunity to stand before a crowd and present their own innovative ideas. And a unique door-opening to meet role models, explore possibilities and envision a future where they will soon play an active role.
This was the inaugural Native Youth Business Plan Competition at RES 2020, a partnership by First Nations Development Institute and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) to engage Native youth in business, leadership, and success, made possible by an investment from the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation.
“The experience showed me what else there is to offer. For people like me to get off Reservation and see what is out there in the world, it opened up a lot of new opportunities,” said Josh Bushman, a student from Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa whose team took first place in the high school division for their project Coffee Cart: Latte for the Oyate.
A partnership for the future
This was exactly the purpose of the Native Business Plan Competition, which grew out of a collaboration between First Nations and NCAIED to let Native students see up close and personal Native business owners and entrepreneurs excelling and thriving in the world and being given a chance to participate themselves.
Chris James, President and CEO of NCAIED, said bringing the two organizations together to highlight students and their ideas just made sense. “We were blown away with some of the ideas that came out of this competition and hopefully we’ll be able to see some of those ideas turned into businesses. It’s our goal to plant that seed,” James said.
“At First Nations, we’ve been building the court, hanging the backboard and finding the balls and the jerseys, and now it’s time for us to put the players on the court,” said Michael Roberts, president and CEO of First Nations. “This is an opportunity for young people to flex that muscle. And we can move forward and get them into business rather than just talking about it.”
Opportunity by design
The competition process began in 2019 when First Nations put out a call to Native communities inviting Native youth to submit abbreviated business plans for their products or companies. From these applications, five semifinalist teams were selected from each age division (high school and college) to receive additional mentoring from Native business owners, entrepreneurs, and other professionals working in this space to further flesh out their business plans and design. Then, semifinalist teams participated in an on-stage competition held in conjunction with the Reservation Economic Summit (RES), where a team of Native judges and investors decided which business venture they would most likely fund.
RES is a multifaceted event from NCAIED featuring unparalleled access to respected tribal leaders, members of Congress, federal agency representatives, state and local elected officials and top CEOs on a national platform. Here, on day three of the event, youth participants honed their projects through a full lineup of workshops: Business Plan Essentials, Perfecting Your Pitch, Assessing Your Business Plan for the Future, and Accessing Capital & Building Your Budget.
Nine high school and college teams then had five minutes to pitch their ideas and business plans outlining the value of their products and services, operational and technological viability, and capital requirements and financial forecasts, and more during the onstage competition later that evening. Winning teams in each division were awarded cash prizes: $7,500 for first place, $5,000 for second place, and $2,500 for third place.
First Nations Senior Program Officer Kendall Tallmadge, who helped organize and facilitate the competition, said all participants, from the applicants to the final winners, should be commended. “These students represent a bright next generation of innovation and excitement. It was an honor to be in a position to hear their ideas and see how they are valuing their culture and heritage through innovative business designs to make a difference in their communities.”
Value beyond dollars
Regardless of prize winnings, the experience the students took away from the competition was priceless, said Prairie Blount, who was the advisor for the winning high school team for Latte for the Oyate and who served as the emcee for the event. “It gave the students exposure to the larger Indigenous world. They were amazed that there are so many Indigenous professionals in business,” she said. “As a student, you’re consumed with your campus. But this gave them an opportunity to step outside and see that we’re all working toward bettering our communities. Others are coming along and paving the way.”
Nate Lee, Vice President of Native American Financial Services for BOK Financial who served as a mentor for the High School team Lumbee Nation Youth Enterprise, said that the value of the experience was enormous. “For the students it was a powerful and rewarding experience to compete on a national stage and also to interact with Native professionals in finance and economics.”
The students agreed:
Josh Bushman of Latte for Oyate said he would 100% recommend the program to his friends. His teammate Antone Manning from Pyramid Lake Paiute added that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a unique environment, and that winning was a validation of all his team’s hard work.
Kristall Vega (Cloverdale Pomo), who was on the College first place team, California Indian Museum with their product Acorn Energy Bites, said she loved seeing all the Native youth present on projects they are passionate about to better their communities. “I believe there is a lot of value in experiences like this one because it gives a platform for Native youth to share their voices,” she said.
The Native Youth Business Plan Competition is one of the many ways First Nations invests in Native Youth and gives them opportunities to learn, be mentored, and connect with Native leaders who set an example for collaboration, success and advancement. It’s the type of opportunities that Mentor Nate Lee said are imperative in creating sustained and repeatable financial success in our Native communities. “It must start with our youth, and that includes opportunities to showcase their talents and raise the bar. The future of business is bright for our Native communities as we fill the pipeline of talented and ambitious Native youth, but we must go further to keep that pipeline full by preparing the next class of Kindergartners.”
Indeed, the first-ever Native Youth Business Plan competition will fuel that pipeline, and the 2020 event has built the groundwork for further entrepreneurial opportunities for young people who are ready to explore them.
Advisor Prairie Blount concluded: “These students are the future leaders, who are actually leaders already.”