Prairie Bighorn Blount & Her Vision For Indigenous Business.
Meet Prairie Bighorn Blount (pronounced blunt), a woman whose vision knows no bounds and her ability to turn dust into gold, impressive. I first met Prairie last winter at a sold-out business leadership conference she had spearheaded at Nike headquarters with notable speakers including the N7 founder, Sam McCracken, and Taboo from Black Eyed Peas.
Four years ago when American Indigenous Business Leaders (AIBL), a national organization for business leaders who work on or near reservations, announced it would close its doors, Prairie, then thirty-five years old, volunteered to bring it back to life. She now partners with world-class companies like Nike, HP and even the CIA. (Read below to find out about how that partnership came to be.)
On the last night of the conference, after the bright lights had faded and the fierce pace abated, we had a quick connection. We committed to meet up this summer after she’d moved back home and I got back on the road with GOING RURAL for a live interview.
Last week, I arrived in Wolf Point. Now, mid-August, yellow jackets are fierce, biting flies are unrelenting and don’t even get me started about the merciless mosquitoes. “There’s no place to meet in this town,” she’d texted. “Let’s grab coffee at Jitter’s to-go hut, then you can follow me to my house.”
She was in line when I pulled up beside her. She opened her passenger window just enough for me to hear her. I rolled down my driver’s side just enough to hear her. Flies whipped in her car. A bee dive bombed mine. She swatted. I swished. They kept diving.
“I’d love to look at the old boarded up garage down the street,” she quickly called out her window. “I’m thinking about opening a coffee shop. Do you mind making a stop?”
“Sure”, I said. We both quickly closed our windows.
A few minutes later we pulled into the dirt drive outside the building. The mosquito foggers had sprayed overhead the night before so we were spared their vicious attack. She talked about the need for a community gathering place in a town with only a McDonalds, a casino, and two small diners.
After peeking inside, I followed her home, down pancake-flat streets into her tribal-land neighborhood of modest ranch homes with periodic singlewides. Prairie’s home is a ranch style, filled with inspirational quotes and pictures of children. Her two cats Chloe and Buddy came to meet me. Her two “horrible dogs” were outside. “They hate me,” she said seriously, “I’m a cat person.”
I marvel how easily she slides between the corporate suits and heels, and this far more relaxed life on the reservation. She jokingly calls it “Indian time.” Looking at Prairie I see a young, thirty-something woman. When she speaks, I feel las if I’m talking to an ancient—her manner is so thoughtful and wise.
We slid into our formal interview.
When so many people are chasing a fast paced career, why did you take on the challenge of reviving AIBL?
I had done the fast paced track. I worked in DC, came back to work as a comptroller for my tribe, and then started a business.
When I heard AIBL was closing I said, no! That can’t happen. I was in AIBL when I was in school. It gave me the strength and knowledge to be a strong business woman. I couldn’t imagine a world without this organization and conferences they put on. I can’t even begin to count the number of indigenous leaders it’s helped create. There would be a huge void if AIBL were to fold.
I called the president of the Board and said, “You don’t even have to pay me. Give me a chance to get this going again.”
What does AIBL stand for?
AIBL stands for American Indigineous Business Leaders. The organization has been around for 25 years. It started as a woman’s master’s thesis and evolved into this nationally recognized organization. Their mission is to increase the representation of American Indians and Alaska Natives in business and entrepreneurial ventures through education and leadership development opportunities.
Was it hard to get it going again?
The first conference I spearheaded had sixty people. Sixty people! Total. That’s it. That included my board, the presenters, the hotel staff, the janitors . . . (she laughs again) everyone. The second year we had seventy-five. The third year, one hundred and fifty. This year we were sold out at two hundred. Next year, for our conference in southern California, we’ll cut it off at two hundred and fifty. We are such a specialized niche we purposely keep it small to give participants personalized workshops.
What has changed over the last few years?
That’s a great question. We are evolving so rapidly. AIBL conferences used to focus solely on economic development. Attendees wanted to know how they could go back home and work for the tribe to run the casino, to work at the gas station, to run the hotel. They wanted to plug into the bigger machine that was considered economic development on reservations.
Three years ago, when we asked our students what they were interested in and what they wanted to know, the overwhelming the response was, how to become entrepreneurs.
The next year we tried out an entrepreneurial track called Rich Rez Kids.
(She says it slower) Rich Rez Kids. It was the most attended workshop track. The attendees loved it. After that workshop, people said, “WE WANT TO KNOW MORE!” They are out there, winging it. They want to know how can they do it better, strategically, and successfully.
Here she gets serious…
You saw vacant buildings downtown. Vacant building after vacant . . . so many vacant. Our economies are suffering. I keep thinking, what if we had more small businesses working on a national scale through the web? How could this help our members and their communities?
Do you believe small business could make a big difference?
When you are raised in a tribal community you are very aware that you are part of a community, and it’s your responsibility to make sure that community is supported. When I started my clothing company my dad said, “Why don’t you just get a job at Walmart then.” When my dad said that, it hurt. I’m educated, I’ve gone to DC, I’ve tried to make my dad proud. But what he was saying was, “What you are doing now won’t help our community at all.”
When you do business in Indian country, everything is for the community. Even if you are a for-profit entrepreneur selling t-shirts, nine times out of ten, that entrepreneur will find ways to give back.
Can you give me an example of someone who does this on a national scale?
Absolutely. Sam McCracken is the perfect example. He is the founder of the N7 shoe by Nike. Sam grew up here in Wolf Point. When he moved to Oregon in the late nineties his first job at Nike was as a receiving clerk. He loaded and unloaded trucks. He’d look down the aisles and see rows and rows of shoes. He thought of his community back home and began designing the shoe to help with neuropathy. Within two years he’d created N7 sports gear as a sub brand for Nike Global. N is for Nike, 7 represents how everything we do affects the next seven generations.
Now he’s created a partnership with tribes across the country, giving them a steep discount for their athletes so they can have quality gear. Sam could now be anywhere, but his life is committed to his Native community. He’s paved the way for Native designers to work at Nike.
When I started at AIBL, I stalked him. I wanted to partner with N7. And he’s such a great inspiration. You saw him? He lives and breathes for his people.
You all made the conference so fun and alive.
We have Emcee One. He brings huge energy. He’s great at connecting with the crowd and engineering a spark around the main stage. He keeps the conference alive and real. He’s amazing.
Your pitching competition was so good. I’ve never seen one quite like it. Is it always as engaging?
The pitching competition is one of my favorite parts. It’s so vital that business leaders learn how to engage others in what they do. I love seeing how proud they are when they win. This year we had some winners from Wolf Point.
At that very first conference, I wanted to do the elevator pitch but I was told the kids wouldn’t be able to do it. It was a non-Native person who told me. I really took offense but I also thought, perhaps they were right. Maybe the students couldn’t do it. So I didn’t do it. It’s sad how others can make us question ourselves and our youth.
The next year, on the fly, I said, I think we should give it a try. We hadn’t planned to do it but I thought, let’s just try it. If it’s horrible we won’t do it again. We scheduled 30 minutes thinking no one would do it. They loved it. It took 2 1/2 hours to get everyone through. It was a good lesson not to underestimate our students. And it’s was good lesson for me not to let someone convince me that I don’t know what the students are capable of.
That’s a big lesson to learn—trust your gut. Do you feel like there’s a difference between Native and non-Native ways in business?
Definitely. I lived on and off the rez. I’ve worked on and off. I remember one of the first real advice tidbits my father gave me was to speak last, don’t speak first. If you have something to say and someone doesn’t say it, you say it last. But don’t say it first. You wait, if it’s still relevant at the end of the conversation you say it.
That is very appropriate in Indian country. When I got to DC I quickly realized that’s not how it works at all. In DC if you come up with a good idea, you better say it before the other person says it first. I was very uncomfortable at first. I want our students to learn how to operate one way in Indian country then switch and operate a different way. It’s hard if you don’t have that experience in corporate America.
Is that corporate America or white America?
She laughs. White, for sure.
Speaking of white America, I’m curious why you partner with the CIA?
They found me. She laughs.
It’s a really great story. The agent is Native. She’s from Spokane. She’s now the head of their diversity division. When she first got there, diversity at the CIA meant Hispanic, African American, and Asian American. Zero Native American. Part of her mission is to bring Natives to the agency.
There is a perception that Native programs foster a sense of dependency. How do you battle that stigma?
With AIBL we purposely don’t give scholarships. We want the attendees to be invested in coming. I think it’s so important that we break the cycle of dependency that has been ingrained in far too many communities. When you came to AIBL what you saw was students excited to be there. They are engaged. They worked all year to be there.
I leave it up to each chapter to figure out how much money they need and how to raise it. It teaches students how to budget. How much in airline tickets? Hotel? Gas? They earn the money through having small businesses and fundraisers on their reservations, like haunted houses, food carts and candy valentines. They also get their own sponsorships.
There’s one more thing were are doing different. A pitfall with some Native conferences is wanting to talk just about Native stuff. It’s a great thing to do, for sure, but it’s not diversity. We want to have our students be comfortable sitting next to someone different than us. We want them to know you have to work with other people. The better you can, the better your life will be.
My last question, do you always have such great guests, like Taboo?
Oh my God, he was so awesome, right?
Taboo’s impact was huge! He’s Native and is passionate about doing what he does. It’s important for young leaders to see that they can dream big. Sometimes knowing that someone like Taboo believes in you is all lit takes to help push past fear to accomplish their goals.
I hope you can come next year.
It’s going to be awesome.
To get a glimpse of the dynamic environment of an AIBL conference check out the clip they did while at Nike.