Could Native American Executives Like Debbie Atuk Be A Role Model For Business Leadership?

Native American Corporations are developing successful businesses around the country, helping revitalize both native and non-native American communities. Despite the perception that most Native Americans are still living marginalized lives, leaders like former CEO Jim Williams and Debbie Atuk, an Alaska Native and business development specialist, are showing how leaders can step up and make a difference for their communities. For many Native American business leaders, their mission is not only to build profitable companies, but also provide jobs and opportunity that help improve local economies.

Starting in 1971, Alaska Native communities banded together and fought to develop their own corporations that protected assets and enabled their communities to empower themselves. Many other Native American Corporations have been able to follow suit thanks to a part of the Indian Reorganization Act known as “Section 17”, a federally chartered Native American corporation that allows tribes to do business as a corporate entity.

As a result, many started developing businesses as a way to invest in both their communities and their future. This business model has proven to be highly successful. Quite a few of the Native American businesses have now grown into major corporations that bring millions, even billions of dollars, into the communities where they develop enterprise.

It’s noteworthy that the leaders of these successful organizations are also using their success to help others. For example, Jim Williamson, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe of North Dakota is the former CEO and founder of New West Technologies. Inc. Magazine listed him as one of the  “Top 10 American Indian Entrepreneurs” in 2010. His highly successful Native American Corporation was recently purchased by Civergy. As Williamson was busy building a highly profitable company, he also worked to mentor and encourage young American Indians to pursue careers in math and science where skilled workers are needed. This is the mark of a true leader – using one’s success to make a difference for others.

Alaska native, Debbie Atuk, is another business leader who gives back. An Alaska Native and Inupiaq Eskimo, Debbie is a shareholder in two Alaskan Native Corporations where she learned how business can also foster economic prosperity for a community. In her role as Business Development Director for the Colville Tribal Federal Corporation, she looks for business ideas that could be both profitable for the corporation and good for the community at the same time. “I wanted to be part of helping companies like these bridge the gap between enterprise and community because they are the foundation for each other’s success,” shared Atuk.  “What’s most interesting for me is helping Native Corporations grow sustainable businesses that can contribute jobs, opportunity and support services for people who need it.” For many Native American business leaders, this is part of their cultural values. In addition to serving on the board of The Family Center in New York, Debbie serves as co-President of the Native American Alumni Association of Dartmouth College and spends much of her free time mentoring Native American students and entrepreneurs.

These are just a few examples of how Native Americans are transforming business and lives. Based on their success, it appears that the Native American Corporation has a business model worth watching. Could other corporations learn from these American Native Corporations and their leaders? According to Atuk, the answer is “Yes!” She believes that this way of thinking is fundamental to business. It isn’t unique to Indian owned businesses or Alaskan Native businesses.  This is just good, sound business practice.

“A Mom and Pop store needs to do the same and be a good member of the community. As long as their pricing is right, they should make money. In the case of our model, we return 80% our net income to the tribe that owns our corporation,” she explains. While it would obviously be beneficial to have enterprise, government and the community working together, it doesn’t happen often enough. This triple bottom line – the company, the shareholders and the community working to succeed together – is where Native American Corporations stand out. Thanks to leaders like Debbie Atuk and Jim Williamson, the idea is catching on.