Jeff Estep, the President of Heritage Global Solutions and the spokesperson for Native American Veteran Business Network.

Native American Veteran Business Network Connects

Kelly Koepke

With a mission to encourage, connect and educate American Indian veteran entrepreneurs, the Native American Veteran Business Network acts as a contact point for some 1,500 Native and veteran business owners. NAVBiz, as the network is known, is a contract program funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Native American Affairs, managed by California-headquartered Heritage Global Enterprises.

“When I came into office in May 2009, we assessed the impact of all our programs,” says Clara Pratte, National Director, Office of Native American Affairs, SBA, and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. “We saw that our outreach to Native American veterans could be improved to let them know about the existing programs for them. We also saw a need for business development skills for Native American vets. We discussed how to do increased training for vets in Indian country. We saw that Jeff Estep and Heritage Global had been there, done that, and had training experience. It seemed a natural fit.”

Initially funded for $50,000 and extended by another $30,000, the project conducted 11, three-day business development sessions around the United States, including Hawaii. The contract concluded in March 2011 with presentations at RES 2011, sponsored by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development in Las Vegas.

Jeff Estep, the President of Heritage Global Solutions and the spokesperson for NAVBiz, is an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a former Marine, with more than 25 years of business experience.

“I’m frustrated with the lack of tribal leadership response and job creation in Indian country. Native Americans have had the highest percentage representation per culture in the military for the last 100 years. There is a huge veterans’ community and heart within Indian country, and NAVBiz puts together resources with those who are or want to be business owners.”

Estep says the NAVBiz bimonthly newsletter and Facebook page have connected about 1500 individuals. Through its presentations around Indian country, NAVBiz estimates that it has spoken to 400 to 500 Native business owners, by going through the American Indian business associations and chambers of commerce. There is no charge for NAVBiz advice or services.

Estep also counsels those in the program to focus on private sector retail or service businesses. “We need to get out of the mindset of only selling to the government. We explain that other entities all have goals to hire diversity. We encourage owners to have a strong small business first, then take advantage of Native American and/or veteran status.”

Bradley Rousseau of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul, is one of the individuals NAVBiz helped find resources.

“As a new business guy, I invented a tool to change the wheelchair industry, and got a patent on it,” says Rousseau, who attended the Turtle Island PTAC Procurement Conference in Boston in June 2010. “[Estep] said that we had to file our taxes in a timely manner and that would prove I’d been in business. I got almost $10,000 back and I got into the Central Contract Registry and other programs.”

Rousseau, Turtle Mountain Chippewa (North Dakota), explains that this earlier business start date, and the tax refund, have propelled his business forward. The money helped him pay for prototypes of his wheelchair lift tool, and for development of a folding model for police and fire personnel.

Estep and Pratte both point to another success story. NAVBiz connected Gila River Telecommunications, Inc., provider of affordable telephone service to the Gila River Indian Community, to tribal entities in Alaska and Montana who want to do the same thing.

Whether NAVBiz continues as a program of the SBA depends on funding, says Pratte. “When we get appropriations for FY11, we’ll certainly assess NAVBiz to see if we would fund it again. It is my hope to continue the project because it has been successful.”

Estep hopes for a corporate sponsor to fund a website, and do more networking beyond what the SBA funds. “But we can’t do more without funding of some sort.”

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