Public Service Innovators -- Lester Tsosie MPA 2003: Empowering Tribal Communities, One Entrepreneur at a Time

May 25, 2004
Molly Lanzarotta

The Arapaho saying, "If we wonder often, the gift of knowledge will come," is an adage you wouldn't expect to find in a business curriculum. But Lester Tsosie (MPA 2003) understands that using an innovative curriculum highlighted by culturally relevant sayings can provide a crucial learning bridge for his target audiences in Native American communities.
Tsosie directs a small business development-training program based in New Mexico through the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), in conjunction with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Launched in October 2003, the program's team developed a two-day, ten-topic training for native entrepreneurs in the 100 tribal communities identified by the 2000 Census as having the highest unemployment rates - some as high as 60%.
These communities face "daunting socioeconomic disablers," according to Tsosie, including geographic isolation, lack of social infrastructure and hurdles from debilitating federal and state public policies.
Since he and his colleagues took the training on the road, Tsosie says there's been a tremendous response from tribal communities. While a business school might focus on theory, Tsosie feels it's pragmatic business information that needs to be communicated.
In a meeting with "a grandmother who wanted to start a chicken farm," he looked at "what if?" scenarios. "What if I priced my chickens here?" Tsosie suggested she ask. "How would that affect my break-even analysis?" At the Greenville Rancheria in northern California, Tsosie helped tribal council members review the benefits and challenges of business ideas they were considering: a landscape shop, a tire shop, resort development, a nursery, and ranching.
When Tsosie graduated from the Kennedy School, he was offered "a terrific Harvard job." He realized there were many others who could step in and perform that job, while "in Indian country - well, there was no one else who was going to come out here. To come to an isolated location and see a grandmother trying to find a way to improve her quality of life - to see that in person and be part of that discussion is fulfilling for me."
Which is not to say the work isn't sometimes daunting. In speaking about a remote community he visited earlier this month, Tsosie said, "If I wasn't doing this training and if I just stopped there, the impression would be disheartening - it's very isolated. But when you sit down and talk with the tribal folks, they're trying hard to bring in economic activity. . . .we had this really collaborative, vibrant exchange on some of the ideas."
Tsosie, who grew up on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, is definitely not a person who is easily discouraged. As a Seneca saying included in the business curriculum states: "The more you ask how far you have to go, the longer your journey seems." Tsosie is not focusing on how far the tribal communities he visits have to go; he's helping to empower them, one entrepreneur at a time.


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