Originally published in Indian Country Today in June 2013.
“I want to develop my breakfast-burrito business into a restaurant,” said Lisa Lengkeek, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and 2013 winner of the South Dakota Indian Business Alliance contest for best business plan of the year (shown below left, with a customer). “I make the burritos at home and deliver them to a lot of customers, who I’m sure would patronize the restaurant.”
However, to open an eatery on the Crow Creek reservation, Lengkeek would have to start from the ground up, she said. She meant that literally: “There is no commercial space here—not one building I can rent. I would have to scrape the ground, pour cement, buy lumber, start hammering…”
Other entrepreneurs on the Crow Creek reservation are in the same position, whether they contemplate starting or expanding a company, she said. “My sister-in-law wants to open a florist’s shop, my daughter would like to sell scoops of ice cream, along with homemade jams, salsas and the like.” But they’d each need something like $40,000 upfront just to put up a building to house their enterprise, Lengkeek said.
“We have a dearth of storefronts,” said Elaine Kennedy, business coach and loan officer at Hunkpati Investments, a U.S. Treasury-certified community development financial institution (CDFI) in the Crow Creek tribe’s capital, Fort Thompson. If entrepreneurs leap initial hurdles, such as lack of equity to secure a bank loan, they soon hit other barriers, including no place to store inventory or set up additional workers as orders roll in. It’s hard to imagine any enterprises, even internet-oriented ones, that don’t require some kind of shelter, said Kennedy: “As a result, most of our few existing businesses are barebones. People can become discouraged.”
The solution is a business incubator, which would provide sorely needed infrastructure, according to Corrie Ann Campbell, an entrepreneur and educator who has just taken over as the CDFI’s new director. “Hunkpati’s board of directors is very committed to the incubator, and a lot of planning for it has already been done,” Campbell said. Among other steps, the tribe has provided land and $200,000 in funding. Campbell is now looking for another $800,000.
“When Hunkpati asked if the tribe could help, I was more than willing,” said tribal vice-chairperson Eric Big Eagle. “To start or expand businesses, our people currently have few options.”
“This council is open to new ideas,” added tribal treasurer Roland Hawk. “The old ways certainly didn’t work, and now we have to find out what does.”
Since Hunkpati’s founding in 2009, it has jump-started small businesses with entrepreneurship courses, financial-literacy classes, credit-building programs, a buy-local initiative, tax-preparation help and technical assistance in areas like market research and funding. Along with a partner, community-development group Harvest Initiative, the CDFI has provided loans and grants to an auto-and-small-engine-repair shop, a quilting enterprise, a roofing service and numerous other concerns—but much more could be done, Kennedy said.
Standing in central Fort Thompson, Campbell pointed out the spot where the building will go, near the Lodestar Casino, the tribal-owned motel and Hunkpati’s current offices. “The front portion will be for businesses,” Campbell said. “We’ll also have space for classrooms, meeting rooms and offices for business coaches.” During the fundraising phase, the design will remain flexible, she said. This will accommodate preferences funders have for the way their money is spent.
Campbell wants the incubator up and running ASAP: “We’re working to secure funding within the next year. Hunkpati has such positive momentum.” Bottom line, Campbell said, “A lot of people around here are working for change.”
c. Stephanie Woodard. Photographs courtesy Hunkpati Investments.