In 1990, President George H. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November as National American Indian Heritage month. Similar proclamations have been issued each year since 1994. Today, the United States works closely with 564 federally recognized tribes to ensure that each has a strong voice in shaping policies that directly impact the nearly 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.
We’d like to introduce you to some leaders who have made significant contributions of their own, and celebrate their heritage as First Americans.
Jim S. Williamson
Chief Executive Officer
New West Technologies
Please tell me about your Native American Heritage. I am a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe of North Dakota. Our reservation is very close to the Canadian border. This is a very small tribe. It was one of the bands that was relocated from the New England area, migrated across the top of the Great Lakes, and came down and settled in Southern Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Montana. After the Indian Wars were over, we ended up with a very small land grant around Belcourt, North Dakota. When some of the tribal members in Canada came down to North Dakota, there wasn’t enough land for all of the tribe, so we were given land in western North Dakota and over into Montana. It was on this other land, which is called an Indian Service area, which is where I grew up. We moved over to the Ft. Beck Reservation when I was ten years old, and we lived right on the edge of the reservation in Montana. I’ve grown up around Indian reservations and tribal lands throughout my childhood.
[sws_pullquote_right]”If you get the education, you will get better paying jobs and you will naturally bring up the standard of living for your family.” [/sws_pullquote_right]
How has your Native American heritage affected your business, from its beginning to now? The thing that has had the impact on our company is a program in the small business administration called the AA Minority Contracting Program, where individuals that are economically disadvantaged can apply. Certain federal contracts are set aside for disadvantaged AA businesses. When I first started this company in mid-1996, I wanted to create a company that was going to help Indian tribes handle their energy issues. We did a lot of work with Indian tribes, helping them form utility companies, negotiate contracts and provide low-cost electricity to their members on their reservations. In 2002, we restructured our whole company so I could apply for and get this AA status. We started to work for primarily federal agencies. That’s really when our company started to grow rapidly. We still work for some of those tribal organizations, such as the Administration for Native Americans, which is a sub-agency for development of Indian tribes. The Indian heritage is what allowed me to get the company AA-status. We are now competing head-to-head with larger companies, on the basis of our technical capabilities for providing services.
What was your background before starting up New West Technologies? I’ve always been involved in energy. My formal education is from Montana State University and University of Berkeley. I became heavily involved in different energy technologies; I worked for the Atomic Energy Commission and I was on a presidential panel for President Carter. I worked at national labs. One of the last projects I worked on was helping to set up the Solar Energy Research Institute, which is now called the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. I had seventeen years of research back at those labs before I started to go into private business myself. I’ve been involved in several companies, and kind of become a serial entrepreneur. New West has been going on for fifteen years.
From 1996-2002 most of your business was from Native Americans. Has it grown from there to non-Native Americans? What percentage of your business is still primarily Native American? I would say 20% of our business is helping federal agency programs is helping Indian peoples and Indian reservations. But the client is really the federal government. 95% of our client work is all for federal government. Tribal work is now a smaller portion of our overall company, but we keep on pursuing other opportunities to work on different programs with Indian companies.
I also read you are active in philanthropic support for Native Americans. What do you primarily give to? I originally wanted to be a teacher. I’ve always stayed involved in the education side. I really think education is the key to all ethnic groups, whether Native America, Hispanic, or African-American. If you get the education, you will get better-paying jobs and you will naturally bring up the standard of living for your family. So that’s where I focus most of my giving: to programs, particularly scholarship programs, to send minority students to college. We did a lot of high school programs to encourage students to get involved with STEM, and there was always a college scholarship component of it. We are involved in the American Indian College Fund which gives to tribal colleges and universities.
Do you think Native American-owned and -operated businesses are growing? Not at the rate that I would like. The problem again comes back to the fact that American Indian students in K-12 represent 1% of the total students in the United States. But only 1% of that 1% will actually complete a bachelor’s degree at a college or university. Of that, those students that will get a bachelor’s degree there is a very small percent that will get a graduate or doctorate degree. So until that change, I don’t think you will see as many successful large Indian-owned businesses by individuals or entrepreneurs. When people talk about Indian businesses, usually they refer to businesses that have been started by Indian tribes. Those businesses and my business struggle to find qualified Indian people that have the necessary STEM degrees to fill the job openings we have. We still have a priority preference hiring for minority students, but we have trouble filling those jobs. With an unemployment rate that is 9%, you would think you would be able to find a lot of qualified people for those jobs. Skilled people with the degrees are hard to find. So, it comes back to education.
What do you think is the most important issue facing Native Americans today? The proliferation of drugs on reservations. Minority or not, my rational is that people that don’t have a job lose their self-esteem and can’t provide for their families are more susceptible to turn to alcohol and drugs. When they do that, they get into a spiral that is very difficult for them to cover from. We just keep seeing that there is more and more of that on Indian reservations. It’s a big issue; I think until we get our young people to not turn to those drugs, we will not be able to be successful in the wrong end.
President & CEO
Please tell me about your Native American heritage. I am a Sioux- St. Marie. [The tribe] actually originated as the Sioux-St. Marie Chippewa in Northern Michigan. I hail from Cheboygan, which is up in the straits region of historic Mackinaw where Lake Michigan and Huron come under the bridge called the Mackinaw. Our tribe was never actually recognized as a tribe in the 1934 Indian Act. Our tribe fought for its tribal recognition during the ‘60s and ‘70s during the revival, as I’m so told by my elders.
How do you keep your heritage alive in an age of assimilation and blending of cultures? I have children, so it’s my job to understand their heritage. We respect a lot of cultures, and we talk about a lot of them. We take lots of trips to Northern Michigan; we tour around there and spend a lot of time with my family. The history and heritage comes from being around family. So during that week we don’t do a lot, so my children can actually get the heritage from my aunts and uncles and grandparents.
How has your Native American heritage affected your business, from its beginning to now? There are some advantages of being a Native American, specifically from being a minority. The name ishpi is a Chippewa word for advance, to move forward, or above. We knew going into it [we would be] a Native American, minority-owned, service-disabled veteran, small business at the very least. We wanted to choose a name that respected the culture. We focused on building a business that really respected the employee. We are always trying to advance, whether it’s our client’s mission or our employee’s lives. We give them the opportunity to reach whatever heights they want.
Why did you create your company? There’s a need for good, honest contracting. The government cannot survive on government service alone. We wanted to run this business with the Seven Feathers, which again is a teaching from the Native Americans. We remember wisdom, love, courage, respect, honesty, truth, and humility. There’s a way to do business out there, there’s a customer service, and I was in other organizations where that was not their focus. A lot of my employees have been veterans. We have taken our uniforms off but we hang them proudly. So we are here to provide a service, a vital service. We wanted to do business a different way, and [we’ve been] fairly successful.
Ishpi means to advance; how has this word become a part of your company? It’s part of our culture. We absolutely must in all cases provide value to all our clients. We are a servicesbased company. If our services are not advancing their mission or solving their problems, than we have no value there. It’s very important that we work with our clients to help them solve their mission. In most jobs we are directly impacting the war fighter. We have a vital mission; that’s something my management team and I work very hard to help our employees understand. As contractors, we are very heavy into cyberspace. It’s vital we are providing a value.
Your three year growth is extraordinary. What do you affiliate this to? People, first off. Putting the right team together. It has nothing to do with me; it has everything to do with the team that I put in place. They uniquely understand the needs of the client. We are a small business with a niche. We didn’t start a business because we are small and minorityowned and there are special advantages; we have worked very hard to be the best we can be. I attribute [success] to an unyielding devotion to ensure that you’re meeting with the client, advancing their mission, and adding value to your client.
How many employees do you currently employ? 70. They’re distributed in the national capital region, the tidewater Virginia region, and in San Antonio, Texas. Corporate headquarters are in Charleston, South Carolina.
Are you active in any Native American philanthropy? What do you primarily give to? I am a board member of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of the Carolinas. We serve both North and South Carolina. I run a couple of committees as a part of the board. I [also] routinely will go up to Northern Michigan on my own to talk to the tribal chairman about expanding their economic development outside of the traditional Native American gaming enterprises. I am trying to encourage the tribe.
Do you think Native American owned and operated businesses are growing? I think the opportunities are there for the Native American businesses to expand, that includes tribally as well as individually. I believe there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity. I think the government gives you an upper-hand if you are just willing to get out there and take the initiative. I’d like to see tribes diversify their portfolios, and do what my tribe is doing– giving back. Not only giving back to the elders but to the community. They have health care, education, you name it. Our tribe is doing a great job at giving back to the tribal members. But there are so many tribes that could be doing more. As my company grows and stabilizes, I fully plan to do more outside of my tribe. I’m from the state of Michigan; I’d love to help out the state, too. As long as I’m allowed to be here, my life will be filled with more and more giving back.
What do you think is the most important issue facing Native Americans today? Diversification of businesses. The Alaskan Native corporations and tribes in Alaska have done a great job diversifying. They’re involved in defense contracting heavily. A lot of the tribes could do the same things. It’s educating and diversifying their businesses. Why do we need to diversify our businesses? Our community needs a lot of help; there is a lot of sickness, whether physical or mental. There is a lot of unhappiness today. Alcoholism runs rampant in some communities. And one of the ways to help that is to have the financial resources to provide hope. That’s why we need to diversify, not to make money. It’s so the money comes in, so we can help more of our people.
National Lead – Accenture American Indian Interest Group
How do you define leadership? Leadership to me is about integrity and good communication. I have been lucky to observe those skills in my mentors. People can handle tough situations as long as you are honest with them.
What is your most rewarding career accomplishment? One of my proudest moments was being selected to be on the Accenture corporate rebranding team. It was not only successful, receiving many industry awards, but I also felt like I was part of history.
What’s the worst mistake a leader can make? Being dishonest and not communicating with candor. People will not look to you to lead if they cannot truly believe in what you stand for.
What was the best advice you ever received? Nothing can ever replace hard work; the harder you work the luckier you will get. Tap into your natural talent, keep your nose to the grindstone and stay focused on your abilities.
What risks should a leader take? Challenge the status quo. Encourage people to stretch and embrace change. Being bold and disruptive in a calculated way helps to drive out solutions that address a situation with fresh eyes. Ask hard questions, mix things up.
Vice President of Operations
How do you define leadership? In the words of John Quincy Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
What’s the worst mistake a leader can make? The inability to make a hard decision or standing by a decision that has been made. People want a leader who is decisive and who lays out their vision and priorities. Betraying trust, personal arrogance and surrounding yourself with people that don’t have a contrary opinion.
What was the best advice you ever received? I once worked for an individual who was not well-liked but was well-respected who told me to be yourself and don’t try to be what others want you to be. Treat everyone the same, stay out of the political game; there is always someone better then you. “Do your best and the best will happen for you.”
What are some personal and/or professional sacrifices to being leader? Unfortunately the hardest part of being a leader is the effect it may have on your family and friends. Leadership comes with a responsibility to the organization and the people within it. Time, in some cases, is not a friend, and sacrifice to those who are the closest to you is the most difficult.