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Programs arise to aid native American entrepreneurs

As entrepreneurs, more native Americans are beginning to learn the ropes, despite relatively few models so far from within their own community.

"It was tough going. This was a new project, and there was nothing to compare it to in Indian country or non-Indian country," says Ed Goodrich, Jr., a member of the Stillaguamish tribe, which is starting a commercial nursery of pesticide-free native plants north of Seattle.

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After an initial feasibility study, the tribe was able to secure grants and loans from a variety of public and private sources, including the Economic Development Administration and the US Forest Service.

The state of Washington confirmed that the tribe was on the right track, by recognizing it with a small-business start-up award. But it's too early to tell if the business will succeed.

Other start-ups are turning to a number of native-American-run organizations that offer business-training programs for tribes around the country.

They include:

• First Nations Oweesta Corp., a native organization that helps Indian communities develop financial institutions. Through start-up loans to individuals or private organizations rather than tribes, Oweesta (the Mohawk word for money) teaches such practices as balancing risk with responsible lending, delinquency and defaults, good collection procedures, and staff development.

• National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, which seeks to develop and expand an American Indian private sector.

• Falmouth Institute, which since 1985 has trained tribes on how to conduct business activities, such as run corporate boards, run cost/benefit analyses, and generate financial statements.

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• Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Works with tribes to research and consult on successful tribal economic development.

• Oregon Native American Business and Entrepreneurial Network (ONABEN), which offers business and marketing training to individuals, not tribes.

Types of businesses that ONABEN has helped get off the ground include an athletic-shoe and apparel store, art galleries, quilt shops, espresso carts, construction companies, restaurants, a heating and air-conditioning business, a buffalo farm, and a telecommunications company.

More than three-quarters of those businesses survive.

"We are blown away by the percentages of people still in business," says Tom Hampson, ONABEN executive director.

"People that come through our business-planning class have expectations that are more realistic," he adds. "They go into their businesses on a scale that is appropriate to who they are and where they are in the market."