Business skills are certainly essential in any good business degree experience, but they alone will not create meaningful social and environmental change or provide greater economic opportunity. Only when students possess a strong network of support, a sense of what works, and an appreciation of what doesn’t can they be powerful leaders of change. Here are some examples:
A shared “best-practice” environment. A universal truth of our experience working with members of more than two dozen tribal communities in the Gonzaga University MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship program is that there is no universal “tribal” identity. Every tribe has its own governance structure, its own resource opportunities, its own leadership, and its own ways to doing things. One of the most important elements of the Gonzaga MBA-AIE experience has been and continues to be the opportunity to learn how their colleagues in other tribal organizations get things done – how they move change, how they identify opportunities, how they build coalitions, and how they examine and explain results.
To enable compassion and common understanding of challenges. Just as our program provides a pulpit for students to explore and understand what is working, similar value is found in understanding when well-meaning organizations are heading in the wrong direction. The challenges facing tribal communities are vast, often relying on resources that are unavailable, expertise that can be difficult to muster, and a history that promotes a pessimistic outlook. Our students benefit from the opportunity to share where things went wrong, and in doing so understand that while sometimes it might be better everywhere else, sometimes it’s not. They learn that we all face the same challenges, challenges that call for broader intervention with policy, structure, education.
To create community. While a great deal of what we do in the classroom focuses on providing tools and applications, an essential byproduct of that experience is the development of a community of learners dedicated to themselves and each other. Our 60-plus alumni stay in touch with each other – particularly with their cohorts, with whom they spend two years learning skills and gaining knowledge alongside one another. Given the systemic nature of the problems faced by many native communities and the vast human and financial resources needed to fix them, relationships are important. One of the most powerful tools our students possess is the ability to call a friend and colleague who understands their challenge, knows their abilities, and can recommend action.
Over the past fifteen years, nearly 75 students have taken part in the Gonzaga University MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship. This program, originally created to provide opportunities to business educators in native communities and tribal colleges, has adapted over the years to focus on one of the most pressing challenges in Indian Country – the development of empowered individuals who seek change and possess the technical skills to make change sustainable and meaningful.
Ours is not the only program to focus specifically on the challenges facing tribal communities and native populations, and in the current environment of higher education where every degree and program must justify its unique contribution to the educational landscape, it is appropriate to ask the question why we need “native” MBA programs. We need them because they help students and businesses thrive in Indigenous communities.