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Native American business people face their own set of challenges. For example, they often have smaller networks, which make it more difficult to gain entry to the kinds of jobs that lead to the C suite. What’s more, investing in businesses located on tribal lands is viewed as risky due to a lack of a uniform regulatory process resulting from inconsistent tribal governments, according to a report on Indigenous entrepreneurship from the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Despite these challenges there are success stories, and founding a business is a key route to becoming a chief executive officer (CEO). In the U.S. alone there are 270,000 Native American–owned businesses, according to the latest available U.S. Census Bureau data.

Key Takeaways

  • Native American CEOs face difficult challenges, starting with small networks and the view that investing in businesses on tribal land is risky.
  • Still, here are five Native American CEOs have presided over remarkable success stories.
  • The businesses they oversee range widely, from architectural and financial consulting firms to purveyors of natural foods and a renowned chain of barbecue restaurants.

Tamarah Begay

CEO, Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, LLC

Tamarah Begay is the first Navajo woman to be a licensed architect. A member of the Navajo Nation, the largest indigenous group in the country, she also founded the first architectural firm owned by a Navajo woman, in Albuquerque, N.M.

Begay’s firm, Indigenous Design Studio + Architecture, LLC., works with Indigenous communities across the American Southwest, and Begay has been noted for designs that engage the environment while remaining true to the culture and heritage of the communities with which she works.

She accomplished all this in a traditionally male-dominated profession at a time when there are relatively few women-owned architectural firms in the U.S.

Lacey A. Horn

CEO, Native Advisory

Lacey A. Horn is CEO of Native Advisory, a financial consulting firm focused on helping tribal leaders. She also runs the cryptocurrency consulting firm Horn CPA.

In 2012 Horn was listed by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development in its “40 Under 40” list. In 2014 she was named the Native American Finance Officers Association’s Executive of the Year.

Horn is a member of the Cherokee Nation, becoming its treasurer in 2011 at the tender age of 30. Before stepping down in 2019, she ran a $1.2 billion annual budget and negotiated a $170 million loan to enlarge healthcare options for Native Americans. She also serves on the board of the Native American Rights Fund and as a trustee for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Stephanie A. Bryan

Tribal Chair and CEO of the Poarch Creek Indians

In her position as Tribal Chair and CEO, to which she was elected in 2014, Stephanie A. Bryan is responsible for tribal operations for the Poarch Creek Indians. This includes oversight of the Tribal Government, which involves legislation connected to gaming, the Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority (CIEDA), and the PCI Gaming Authority (PCIGA).

Bryan, who describes herself as a lifelong member of the Poarch community, is the first woman to hold the position of Tribal Chair and CEO. She has worked on a national level on legislation affecting the Tribe and Indian Country. Organizations she has collaborated with include the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), and United South and Eastern Tribes (USET).

Karlene Hunter

CEO and Co-Founder of Native American Natural Foods

Karlene Hunter, who is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, has won many awards. They include the 2007 SBA Small Business Woman of the Year for South Dakota, as well as the 2012 Vision Leadership Award from the Specialty Food Association.

With Mark A. Tilsen, her long-standing business partner, Hunter started Native American Natural Foods, LLC, a certified B corp, in 2006 on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The company sells buffalo-based foods.

Hunter has been deeply involved in educational and economic development in South Dakota. She has served on the board of directors of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, the board of directors for the Native American Rights Fund, and the National Indian Business Association. In 1996 she co-founded the Lakota Express, a direct marketing company, and over the years has raised more than $25 million for Oglala Lakota College.

‘Famous’ Dave Anderson

Founder and Former CEO, Famous Dave’s

A frequently feted entrepreneur and Harvard graduate, David Wayne Anderson founded three publicly traded companies on Wall Street, generating more than 20,000 new jobs. However, he is best known as ‘Famous’ Dave Anderson, the restaurateur who founded Famous Dave’s, one of the most renowned barbecue chains in the country.

A member of the Ojibwa and Choctaw tribes, Anderson was once “a Native American kid at the bottom half of his high school,” according to notes on the restaurant chain’s website. It was a passion for southern barbecue that pushed him to found Famous Dave’s in Hayward, Wisconsin, in 1994. Since then the restaurant claims to have won more than 700 awards.

Anderson gave up his CEO position when the company went public two years after the Hayward restaurant opened, but he remained as chairman of the board until 2004, when he resigned to become the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs during the George W. Bush Administration. After leaving government service he founded another restaurant chain, Jimmie’s Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse, named for his father.

Meanwhile, Famous Dave’s was struggling to survive, and the chain asked Anderson to return in 2014. He became an advisor, serving as “brand conscience” to CEO Jeff Crivello, where he remains today. On Nov. 8, 2021, Anderson was inducted into the Native American Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, Okla.

How Many Businesses Are Owned by Native Americans?

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are 26,064 American Indian– and Alaska Native–owned businesses, with $35.8 billion in receipts.

Are There Any Native American Billionaires?

What Is a Tribal-Owned Business?

A tribal-owned business is a corporation that’s owned by an indigenous group, as opposed to a business owned by a member of a group. There are different ways in which tribal-owned businesses are structured, with varying tax implications, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Bottom Line

Native American CEOs have forged success in the teeth of difficult odds. Despite considerable challenges, they’ve impacted many sectors of the U.S. economy, ranging from highly esteemed food chains to architecture.

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