Native American Companies Are Changing Lives Says Business Developer Debbie Atuk

Part of the “People Who Make a Difference in Business and the Community” Interview Series

Native American corporations are leading the way in making a real difference for both Native and non-Native American communities around the country according to Debbie Atuk, a business development strategist. That is surprising considering the perception that most Native Americans are still living in rural communities and reservations where opportunity seems to be little or none. Yet, many communities around the country are starting to experience growth, jobs and a many new businesses opportunities like the little community of Atmore, Alabama (known previously only for its Federal Prison) who was the beneficiary of business investment by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. So, what had changed?

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.” Slowly but surely, with little fanfare, Native American corporations started using the assets they had to develop businesses as a way to invest in both their communities and their future.

Today, those little businesses have grown into major corporations bringing in millions of dollars into the economy. The jobs and opportunities they are providing have affected communities around the country. Native American corporations have started to make their mark and it’s a pretty big footprint they are leaving on communities. To understand more, we sought out an authority on the subject, Debbie Atuk, an Inupiaq Eskimo who has chosen to specialize in working with this type of organization.

The following is the interview with Atuk:

Debbie, you are a business development specialist for a very unique type of corporation. What is a Section 17 corporation?

Debbie Atuk: It’s a federally chartered corporation that allows tribes to do business as a corporation. It provides Indians a way to do business as corporate entities, rather than government entities because sovereign tribes are government entities. They needed to separate the government from the enterprise.

It’s interesting that you have chosen to specialize in working with this type of corporation. You went to Dartmouth, is that correct?

Debbie Atuk: Yes, after getting my undergraduate degree I worked as an Investment Banking Analyst for a few years before deciding to go back for my MBA.

As I understand it, after you finished you started your own company in the film industry which led to you doing fundraising consulting for filmmakers. What made you give up your career in film in order to go back to working in the corporate world?

Debbie Atuk: Because I grew up in a small community in Alaska and my father was actually a part of the early days of the Alaskan Native corporation formation which was in 1971, since then I’ve watched the corporations grow. Some are more financially viable than others, depending on where they are and if they have natural resources to exploit like oil, timber or salmon, there are new ways for the corporation to become involved in the economy. Now we have Alaskan Native corporations that have over a billion dollars in revenue.

So, my interest is because it’s part of my background and my culture. My work is in making sure the corporations are financially viable, but also that the returns to the community happen so that there are support services available in the community for people who need it through housing or assistance with their children. And most of these types of corporations do that as part of their value.

You are an Alaska Native. Do you belong to a certain tribe?

Debbie Atuk: I’m an Inupiaq Eskimo from Nome, Alaska. I also belong to two Alaskan Native corporations and am a shareholder. It’s very common, especially in the Inupiaq culture, which is my culture, to take care of one another and that is why it is a strong part of the Alaskan Native corporate culture. I strongly believe in that and want to be a part of that.

It is interesting, when we’re talking about making a difference in the community, that a structure has been put in place where you are operating profitable businesses in order to fuel the success of the community. So, they have shareholders in the corporation which are actually members of the community. That is not the case for most Indian tribes that I know of is it?

Debbie Atuk: The Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act is completely different than the Indian Reorganization Act and the way business is done in the Indian tribes.

But both have developed corporations that are actually made up of a group of businesses that also support the communities in which they operate. Is your role as a Business Development Specialist, is it your job to further develop existing businesses or start new enterprise?

Debbie Atuk: My job is a combination of both. I am helping to expand existing business lines. At the same time, we are looking at building a new business and I am also charged with looking for new opportunities for investors to come and develop business on the reservation. That means I’m both doing a lot of business development outside the area and trying to attract investors to the area.

You also have a financial background which is not all that common in the business development and marketing world. Does that help the corporation with what you’re doing for them?

Debbie Atuk: Yes, I was a Financial Analyst before I went to the Tuck School of Business. It helps me to model possible ventures, to look at whether something would be potentially profitable for us and also for our partners. It’s very important if we can create some assumptions that something will be good for the community and make money for us and our partners.

What, in your opinion, is the number one thing a corporation should do to be successful?

Debbie Atuk: It’s like any business. These corporations need to follow good business principals. They need to have a market for the products and services they are going to provide. So they need to do good market analysis before they start a business and they need to control cost. They need to be able to deliver their goods and services in a way that keep their customers happy. All of this is fundamental to business. This 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 and as long as their pricing is right they should make money. And, in the case of our model, we return 80% our net income to the tribe that owns our corporation.

It seems the Alaska Native corporations versus ordinary corporations were developed for the good of the community. Is that right?

Debbie Atuk: The answer is both “No” and “Yes.” The corporations were formed as a way to return the value of the land that the Alaskan Natives deeded to the government. These corporations were given a lot of latitude to do what they liked. Every community had a choice. They received a transfer of land and money in exchange for becoming a state.

So it was not exactly formed for the community. Although, because of traditional values, the corporation has become very community centric because the shareholders are all community members. The shareholders have certain expectations for what the corporation will provide in terms of jobs and dividends. So they do need to be mindful of their prosperity.

They need to be profitable, provide jobs in communities which is particularly a concern in rural areas where there’s not a lot of economy and dividends are an important part of the equation because people count on those as part of their income. The government and the community should work together. The communities are stakeholders because they provide the labor force and if the company puts out any waste it affects the community. So, they need to take care of each other. The company, the share holders and the community. It’s the triple bottomline.

Debbie you are a role model for today’s successful Alaska Native and for business developers around the country in that the work you do is designed to build strong, financially stable and successful communities. Do you feel the corporations have a responsibility to their constituents and that you are making a difference?

Debbie Atuk: I think it’s making a difference if I can help attract a new business to come into the area and that business helps increase jobs and the well-being of families so that families who are raising children have a better start, they’ll be more competitive.

Coming from a rural area or economically depressed area means students are already behind. So if we can increase the family’s income and make sure that they are getting all the technology they need to be competitive with their peers wherever they live, that will increase the number who become college graduates and come back home. We create this virtuous cycle. It does start with having enterprise and having economic development in these depressed areas. It’s a long run game that contributes to the health of the community.

It seems that businesses that believe in this philosophy not only help the community, but become more successful as a result. Do you agree?

Debbie Atuk: It’s a good model for any business and community to follow because it enables the success of both. Successful businesses provide the seed for successful communities.

Debbie Atuk moved from Alaska to pursue her education and currently lives in the state of Washington. A Dartmouth MBA and President of the Native American Alumni Association of Dartmouth, she is an example of how Native Americans, given quality education and opportunity can succeed. She supports her community by mentoring other students of Native American decent.

Read more about Debbie Atuk at: