NCN Hosts Webinar featuring Russ Seagle

On Friday, April 29, 2022, NCN hosted Russ Seagle, Executive Director of The Sequoyah Fund, Inc., located in Cherokee, NC. Seagle shared information about Tactix, a new mobile app and online learning community that offers a space for small business owners to access real-world business education and expand their network in their local community and across the country. He shared information about the features and benefits of Tactix for entrepreneurs and how Native CDFIs can support the business owners they serve through this platform. Click here to learn more about Tactix.

View the session video in its entirety below.

Interview #4 Jonelle Yearout | Nimiipuu Fund

Interview #4 Jonelle Yearout | Nimiipuu Fund

Interview #4

JONELLE YEAROUT | Nimiipuu Fund

 

The Native CDFI Network (NCN) developed the “Native CDFIs: Difference Makers for Indian Country” interview series to cast a much-needed spotlight on the many positive benefits that Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs) create for tribal communities and the leaders who help make Native CDFIs the transformational success stories they are.

Jonelle Yearout

In this latest edition of “Difference Makers,” NCN sits down with Jonelle Yearout, who is Executive Director of Nimiipuu Fund, a federally certified Native CDFI that serves the Nez Perce Reservation and traditional territories of Nez Perce in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Jonelle also was recently appointed Northwest Regional Delegate on NCN’s Policy Committee.

An enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe, Yearout is passionate about solving challenging social and economic issues for the Nez Perce Tribe, her fellow tribal members, and surrounding rural communities. Her mission-driven focus is on delivering innovative products and services that raise up her people’s voice and enable them to create a brighter future.

In this wide-ranging conversation with NCN, Yearout shares her personal journey and how it has shaped her approach to growing Nimiipuu Fund’s ability to holistically support the community members it serves.

NCN: Why do you what you do? How did you come to lead the Nimiipuu Fund?

Yearout: Back in 2013, I saw that the Nez Perce Tribe was developing a CDFI and advertising for the Executive Director position. Like a lot of other people, I thought, “What’s a CDFI and how is it going to help?” Again in 2015, the Executive Director position was advertised. I was in graduate school at the time studying Urban & Regional Planning, where we reviewed models for economic development that included Native CDFIs. My aunt Lilly Kauffman, who studied Native CDFIs, was one of the founding members of Nimiipuu Fund. She shared with me stories of powerhouse women like Eloise Cobell and Tanya Fiddler, formerly of the Native CDFI Network. She said to me, “I know you’re in school, I know you’re busy, but I think you need to apply for this job.” When your Aunty or an elder tells you something, you listen. My personal life was full at that time as a single mother attending graduate school and separating myself from domestic violence. I didn’t feel that I was a model candidate for this position. However, I was raised to find what you love to do, but that you are also of service – to your family, community, natural resources, and the future generations.

When I came on with Nimiipuu in December 2016, I was just trying to figure out up from down. How do I underwrite a loan? Or become a “banker” as our clients liked to say. My background included family advocacy, research, accounting, and leadership, which helped me in my new role. As a lifelong member of the community, I understood cycles of poverty, violence, addiction, and codependency – all of those things that are part of historical trauma. Everybody deserves a chance, right? As a mother and a tribal woman, I took all of that in and I wanted to nurture Nimiipuu so we can recreate and take control of our tribal economy.

NCN: As you know, there are more than 70 federally certified Native CDFIs across the country and many more “emerging” CDFIs following in their footsteps. Why did tribal nations and communities feel it necessary to create CDFIs, and what fundamental role do they play?

Yearout: We’re the only certified Native CDFI in Idaho. It’s an expression of sovereignty. It’s doing for your own and taking that risk to express how you will create your own economy. It’s also the importance of accessing credit for individuals, for businesses, for homeowners to get a loan on trust land. If you think about federal policy historically, our wealth was taken from us. Tribes are wanting to take that back, and a financial institution is part of the solution. How can we do this for ourselves?

Another important point is our industry works together. We provide one another a helping hand. There’s those established Native CDFIs that are willing to help out, like, “Here’s a copy of a memo. Here’s some sample policies, and this is how I did it.” Paying that forward is so valuable and that’s what I’ve done.

NCN: What do policymakers and the general public need to understand about Native CDFIs and the difference they make?

Yearout: It’s just the acronym, you know, the alphabet soup for “CDFI” or “community development financial institution.” We are a financial institution serving Native communities that have had resources and opportunity stripped from them. Are you able to walk or get into your car to drive to a bank? Our tribal members get the predatory loan letters every day. They come to their mailbox. There’s more than 20 predatory lenders in the nearest border town. That’s fast, easy capital, but risky. But you know what? We’re trying to take that back and provide the financial education, give our people the tools so they can build their financial capabilities. We provide safe and affordable capital that is not predatory. We are the same as our community members. We are from the community. So we want to see the betterment of that. We’re building from the individual to the family to the business owner to the homeowner. We’re building those things to help us thrive. Other tribes are following a similar path by developing their own Native CDFIs. Policymakers need to see the demand in Indian Country and throw more dollars into the Native initiatives at the U.S. Treasury and CDFI Fund. Native CDFIs have proven to be effective.

NCN: Tell us about the Nimiipuu Fund. What is its mission, and how does it work to foster prosperity in the communities it serves?

Yearout: Nimiipuu Fund was established in 2013 and we were federally certified in 2018. Our strategic vision is focused on enhancing the personal entrepreneurial capacity of the Nez Perce Reservation and surrounding communities. We promote economic growth while embracing our cultural values and traditions by providing tailored financial products and services. We tailor those products and services based on the needs of the community. So, on the consumer side, that means debt reduction, coaching, credit building loans – those sort of things – to get them ready if they want to buy a home or start a business. Our consumer loans are the largest part of our portfolio. But we are doing business lending and we’ve done a couple of participation loans, too. Soon we will start home improvement lending. We want to break the cycles of poverty. I started out as a person of one running this operation, and now we have four full-time employees based on the growth and the need. We’re growing and we’re keeping our finger on the pulse on the market. Again, it comes down to our vision of self-determination and sovereignty.

“We’re supporting the businesses that provide jobs and help people sustain themselves, because not everybody’s going to be working for the tribal government.”

NCN: You mentioned earlier that prior to CDFIs being created, wealth was just leaving the reservations largely because of federal policies. Can you talk about the role that CDFIs play in cultivating a private sector economy on reservations that helps keep the wealth local and re-establish what once were vibrant, thriving systems of local, tribal commerce? How is that unfolding at Nez Perce?

Yearout: With federal programs and the reliance on programs, you’re relying on that system that has failed you from cradle to grave. With my parents as former tribal politicians, it’s a puzzle they all try to solve and they want to look generations ahead where things are going to be sustainable for our people, resources, and lands. Our tribal economy is not something that’s new. We’ve been here, based on the archeological record, for 17,000 years or more. We had our own economic systems, we had trade routes, we had fishing, we had bartering. Nimiipuu’s logo is based on the dentalium shell, a form of money. So that’s not foreign to us. So what we’re doing is getting that capital and then we’re hustling. I say that as single moms, we can hustle. So I’m going to hustle, right? And we’re going to tell our story. We’re going to get these funds. We’re going to help these people. And guess what? Those funds, they just they revolve back and that’s what we tell our clients. When you pay it back, it’s going to go out to somebody else. We’re taking the power back. We’re supporting the businesses that provide jobs and help people sustain themselves, because not everybody’s going to be working for the tribal government. They’re doing something they’re passionate about. They’re artists, weavers, fishermen, they raise cattle. They’re providing for their families that way.

The Nimiipuu Fund’s 2021 Holiday Native Artist Popup Shop. Pictured is Wetalu “Lulu” Henry, owner of Nchi.wana. (Courtesy: Nimiipuu Fund)

NCN: With the Nez Perce Tribe’s creation of Nimiipuu, there was a long-term plan for establishing the Fund, letting it get its legs under it, growing its capacity, growing its know-how, and then allowing it to walk on its own and gain a greater measure of independence. What is the plan for growing Nimiipuu and its ability to positively impact the community?

Yearout: We developed a strategic plan in early 2020, and this was right before the pandemic hit and everything shut down. The thing about it is we found that demand increased during the pandemic because people were scrambling and trying to figure out what to do. It really demonstrated the need for a CDFI in the community for helping people and helping small businesses. It did grow that awareness. It’s really the word on the street in how you talk to people and treat people.

In the work that we do, we are showing we’re needed and we’re viable. We will continue to grow our staff, add loan products, respond to our community’s needs, create more success stories, and promote sovereignty.

NCN: Your CDFI supports tribal citizens from all walks of life in various ways. Can you share with us an inspiring success story of an individual client you work or have worked with?

Yearout: My sister went through addiction and recovery and graduated from a center in Portland and she was moving home. A lot of people when they go through that addiction and recovery, there’s no community resource to really welcome them back. She brought back a curriculum called “Wellbriety” by White Bison. In discussion with her and some of the participants of her group that are facing addiction, they are going through those steps of recovery and making amends to their families, to those that they’ve hurt. They’re coming back to the circle, they’re coming back to the tribe. With the CDFI, there’s also the financial wellness component of that. They have court fees, they have debt, they’re separated from their children. They have all these different barriers to get back to a normal life. Some people have thousands of dollars of court fees. So we were working with one client and my sister convinced her to come talk to us. We did a piggybank event with the local head start and she brought her kids. She talked to me about her situation and found she had long distrusted money. As we got to talk more, she gave us permission to work with her advocate and different tribal programs. As part of addressing her barriers, we were able to do the coaching and some of the financial education components. She then became eligible for one of our consumer credit builder loans. We were able to work with our tribal housing to get her a home. She then graduated to other loan products. In continuing her financial education, we do check-ins with her. That’s just a story of someone re-emerging and re-entering the community and trying to make amends. And she’s thriving. These are the impacts we are realizing – it fuels us to continue doing our work.

NCN: Last question: From your perspective, what do Native CDFIs like yours need to realize their full potential? What support do they need to achieve their missions and maximize their impact?

Yearout: It’s a labor of love. Our team members and board know that. They work long hours to get our clients loan ready. It’s a lot of work that you put into an organization to help your community because you have the heart for the community. Native CDFIs are a very small but also a very mighty sector of the financial industry. It’s really understanding those financial markets and the need to raise capital. There was a time where it took the Tribe a lot of convincing to provide us grant capital to get that certification. Graduating from that, it’s having to prove ourselves through grant applications and with investors. A lot of it is about networking and relationship building. When potential investors ask how they can support us, we talk about low-cost capital and general operating support because the volume and number of loan requests we receive is far beyond what’s available. All of us Native CDFIs have so much room and reason to grow. Invest in us in some way or form.

To learn more about Nimiipuu Fund, please click here.

 

Interview #3 Russ Seagle | CEO of The Sequoyah Fund, Inc.

Interview #3 Russ Seagle | CEO of The Sequoyah Fund, Inc.

Interview #3

RUSS SEAGLE | The Sequoyah Fund, Inc.

 

The Native CDFI Network (NCN) developed the “Native CDFIs: Difference Makers for Indian Country” interview series to cast a much-needed spotlight on the many positive benefits that Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs) create for tribal communities and the leaders who help make Native CDFIs the transformational success stories they are.

Russ Seagle

In this latest edition of “Difference Makers,” NCN sits down with Russ Seagle, who has served since 2013 as CEO of The Sequoyah Fund, Inc., a Native CDFI serving the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and surrounding rural communities in Western North Carolina. The Sequoyah Fund provides small business start-up and expansion capital, housing rehab loans, credit builder loans, and training and consulting services to small businesses, nonprofits, and tribal departments.

Prior to joining The Sequoyah Fund, Russ owned several businesses. He has been a small business consultant, trainer, and professional speaker since 1999.

In this wide-ranging conversation with NCN, Russ provides an overview of Sequoyah Fund’s comprehensive development of a small business sector across the Eastern Band of Cherokee community, and how the CDFI helped its clients withstand and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

NCN: Let’s start with you: Why do you what you do? How did you come to lead Sequoyah Fund?

Seagle: I was doing some programming with the local community college on behalf of Sequoyah Fund. One day my predecessor said, “Wouldn’t it just be easier if you were working for us?” I thought she was kidding and said, “Well, make me an offer I can’t refuse.” At our next meeting, she made me an offer that was pretty unrefusable. I don’t know that anybody in their childhood says, “I want to grow up to lead a CDFI someday,” but we know what we’re good at. We know when we’re good at helping people and we know when we find a good match for that skill set. I did. It’s been a great place to surround myself with people as committed to helping small businesses grow as I am.

NCN: As you know, there are roughly 70 federally certified Native CDFIs across the country, and many more “emerging” Native CDFIs following in their footsteps. From your perspective, why are Native CDFIs necessary, and what fundamental role do they play?

Seagle: All anybody needs to do is look around at Native communities. You don’t see banks popping up or traditional capital flowing into these areas. Native CDFIs fill a vital role. I think about that John Muir quote, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” Well, here in Cherokee, the mountains are calling, and there’s a sense of place that holds us here, draws people back here. People who stay or move back to Cherokee want the same opportunities they otherwise would have to go elsewhere to find. CDFIs are the fuel for that. We make it possible for people to stay near and take care of their families, build businesses, do what they love, and improve their own financial conditions and those of the people around them.

“We make it possible for people to stay near and take care of their families, build businesses, do what they love, and improve their own financial conditions and those of the people around them.”

NCN: What do policymakers and the general public need to understand about Native CDFIs and the difference they make?

Seagle: I think policymakers in general don’t fully understand what value we bring to the community. We’re a very small fish in a very big pond when it comes to pumping government money into communities. We as an industry were not supposed to last forever. We were just supposed to be the mechanism that brings capital into these communities and then attracts banks and other capital. But what we do works really, really well, and that’s why we’re still around.

If I had a roomful of policymakers, I would tell them that in addition to the value we bring our communities, we have to work doubly hard to bring that value. Other programs that are certified by the government don’t have to write a grant to be able to do what they do. We’re certified by the U.S. Treasury. We go through an arduous annual recertification process. We also go through a very rigorous reporting process every year. On top of that, we have to write a grant to ask for the money. Treasury and the CDFI Fund should consider moving Native CDFIs to a block-grant approach and take the grant-writing process off our shoulders. If they don’t like the way we’re reporting, they can always claw that money back or have other repercussions for us. But to make us go through that expensive and time-consuming process with very small, understaffed organizations – where a lot of times we’re having to farm that work out because we don’t have that [grant-writing] expertise – and then have to turn around and report on that same money, it seems like a double whammy. Small organizations have a hard time getting past that. It would be so much easier to be able to focus on the work if we knew every year that certified organizations have certain assets, that are going to get X amount of money. “These are the different ways you can spend that money. Now, go do good things and then report back to us.” It would be cheaper for the federal government as well. They don’t have to go through that process of evaluating the grant. You have a lot of great organizations out there worthy of the money that don’t get the money. Often, the grants they write just don’t pass muster. Well, that hurts that community. You can say, “Well, they should have stepped up their game.” But is that really the business we’re in? We’re not in the grant-writing business. We’re in the community capital business.

NCN: Let’s talk about small business lending because that’s where Sequoyah Fund focuses a lot of its energy and effort. Can you talk about the imprint Sequoyah Fund has made on the small business sector at Eastern Band of Cherokee?

Seagle: We have tracked business growth, employment growth, and we can tell that we’ve helped directly or indirectly create close to 1,900 jobs over the years. Every day, we have people who come in and say, “I want to be able to employ my family. I want to be able to employ my people. I want to be able to benefit my community.” For them, it is not so much about wanting to maximize profits. They’re not after world domination. They want to improve their financial condition and that of people around them. We can drive down the road and see businesses that took advantage of an old facade grant program that we ran in our early days to help spruce up storefronts. We see businesses that have new signage, new parking lots. They’ve done great things with the interior of their buildings. They’re reaching new markets. Just in the last year or two, there’s been an explosion of food trucks because Cherokee has done a good job making places for those food trucks without regulating them out of existence like a lot of municipalities have. We drive down the road and say, “Okay, we funded that one and that one and that one.” Just very visible anecdotal signs. We’ve tracked the numbers, but really the proof is in driving through the community and seeing that we’ve got a shopping center and every business in the shopping center has our fingerprints on it because they came to us at some point for capital, training, or consultation. We’ve got one business in there that has never taken a dime of loan money from us, but they call us on a regular basis to ask for advice and counsel, and that’s every bit as important to our community as the money that we deploy.

NCN: How else does The Sequoyah Fund support the Eastern Band of Cherokee community?

Seagle: In lending money to small businesses, we found there were other opportunities to assist the community. One is that tribal members’ housing was pretty deficient. In 2009, we got $470,000 from the CDFI Fund to start a small housing rehab loan program for enrolled members. We revolved that money over three times, and then got some more CDFI Fund funding to do that. The number of tribal members’ houses that have been improved is phenomenal. We’ve got people out there who joke that we ought to pay them a commission because they’re sending friends, family, and neighbors to us for loans. We lend up to $35,000 at four percent over five years, which is a great deal.

Along the way, we found that transportation was an issue. If you don’t have decent transportation, it’s hard to start a small business. So recently we started an auto lending program for used cars. In the process, we never thought about refinancing cars for people, but we started getting people coming in and saying, “You know, I’m paying 29 percent interest on my car loan. I will never get out from under this car.” And we said, “We’ve got to do this.” We started refinancing some of those higher interest rate loans where, again, we’re putting people in a better condition.

We have a small credit builder loan program. Folks come in and take a course and meet with our credit counselor on a regular basis. They get a small loan that we help them parse out to make sure that bills get paid that will have the highest impact on their credit score. We didn’t spend a lot of money on that program, but we saw huge results in people’s credit scores and in their financial condition.

We also have educational programs. We focus heavily on youth entrepreneurship. We developed our own proprietary entrepreneurship education curriculum, which is now in 43 states and 12 foreign countries. Kids come to our summer camps or learn about entrepreneurship at school through our programs, and they go home and talk to their parents. Before you know it, their parents are starting to see self-employment as a career option. So rather than going out and getting a job, they can go out and create a job.

Indigenous Boutique & Spa photo

Co-owners Jade Blankenship (L) and Jensen Peone (R) of
Indigenous Boutique & Spa, a Sequoyah Fund client. (Courtesy: The Sequoyah Fund, Inc.)

NCN: As you’ve shared, Sequoyah Fund supports tribal members in various ways. Can you share with us an inspiring success story of an individual client you’ve worked with?

Seagle: I’d love to tell you about John. John has a fish hatchery up on a mountainside with stair-stepped fish runs. The cost of food for those trout was getting high. John had this great idea. He invented a feeding system – a solar array that powered a series of bug catchers mounted above the fish runs. He went to USDA for help and USDA said it could provide part of the funds, but it couldn’t cover the whole thing. We jumped in and used that USDA grant as the equity for his loan and got him a huge solar array. On a timer, every now and then you hear a beep, and those fish feeders open and dump the dead bug carcasses into the water. The fish love it. So John was able to grow his business by cutting his cost of food to basically zero, and the excess solar electricity powers about 50 percent of his electrical needs for his residence.

NCN: NCN recently published a report documenting the extraordinary difference Native CDFIs have made in helping Indian Country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. How has The Sequoyah Fund helped its community through the pandemic?

Seagle: We started by figuring out how to help the people who were already part of our portfolio to survive. We came up with a traffic light model with red, green, and yellow. The red businesses were probably in deep financial trouble before the pandemic, and this was just enough to push them over the edge. We decided not to pursue those. We said, “We’re going to leave you alone. If you can pay, great, if you can’t, we understand. We’ll have a hard conversation when all this is over. But right now, we’re not going to take any action against you.” That gave them a lot of relief. The businesses in the green – primarily service and tech businesses – were unaffected by COVID. But in that bell curve, there were a lot of businesses in the yellow, so we created some programming for those businesses. They kept telling us, “We need more customers. Our businesses closed or our businesses are limited in terms of how many people we can let in.” We created a program called TACTIX to help them get more customers. It’s an advanced online accelerator focusing on digital marketing, online sales, and social media marketing. We’re rolling this out to other Native CDFIs this year, and the results we’re getting from businesses has just been remarkable.

The biggest thing we did during COVID didn’t have anything to do with our normal operations. During the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act rollouts, the tribe got a big bucket of money for small businesses and said, “We don’t know what to do with this.” So tribal council passed a resolution to give this money to Sequoyah Fund and have it pump the funding into the community. Within 48 hours, we created an online application system. We did a training session for our business community. There were many businesses that just needed a small infusion of cash. Fill out the application, walk in the door, we’re going to hand you a $5,000 check. We’re also going to give you $5,000 if you’ll take TACTIX because we know it works. We had facility grants to help people bring their facilities up to what customers were demanding. We had a new market grant, an innovation grant. The tribe trusted us to do this work, to deploy these funds quickly and in a very efficient way. The results have been huge and very visible.

NCN: From your perspective, what do Native CDFIs like Sequoyah Fund need to realize their full potential and maximize their impact?

Seagle: Ultimately, we need people who care about their community. At Sequoyah Fund, our staff are true believers in what we do. Native CDFIs have to be able to attract those people. We don’t compete with small nonprofits for talent. We compete with banks, financial institutions, and the tribe. If somebody graduates with an accounting degree, they can land a secure job with the tribe. I might need that person, so I’ve got to offer pay and work environment just as attractive with sound management practices and good leadership. If we get the right people on the bus and keep them happy, the rest will take care of itself. Grant funders like to give us money for programs, but they don’t like to give us money for the people who see those programs through. I would love to see more unrestricted dollars for staffing because the better our staff, the better our results.

To learn more about The Sequoyah Fund, please click here.

 

NCN to Host Webinar Featuring Russ Seagle

TACTIX: An Online Learning Community for Native Entrepreneurs

 

PRESENTER:

Russ Seagle

Executive Director, The Sequoyah Fund, Inc.

Russ Seagle is the Executive Director of The Sequoyah Fund, Inc., located in Cherokee, NC. The Sequoyah Fund offers commercial loans, training, consulting, and coaching to small businesses located on the Qualla Boundary and the seven westernmost counties of North Carolina.

In addition to lending and training, The Sequoyah Fund provides support services for Cherokee artists, fundraising programs for nonprofits and youth organizations, shared office space to local businesses, a savings program and financial literacy education for local children, and youth entrepreneurship education and summer camp.

Russ also oversees Sequoyah Fund’s REAL Entrepreneurship program that provides entrepreneurship education training and certification to public and private schools, community colleges, universities, community organizations, economic development agencies, associations, and other organizations in 43 states and 9 foreign countries.

Webinar Topic

Tactix is a mobile app and online learning community that offers a space for small business owners to access real-world business education and expand their network in their local community and across the country. Learn more about this innovative training tool and how Native CDFIs can support the business owners they serve through this platform.

U.S. Treasury Department Extends SSBCI Application Deadlines

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of the Treasury is extending the deadline for Tribal governments to initiate and submit their complete SSBCI Capital Program application to September 1, 2022, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) and the deadline to submit an application for the SSBCI Technical Assistance (TA) Grant Program to September 1, 2022, at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Only Tribal governments that submit or are part of a Tribal joint application that submits a Capital Program application are eligible to submit or be part of a Tribal joint application that submits an application for the TA Grant Program.

To participate in the SSBCI program, Tribal governments were required to submit a Notice of Intent (NOI) to Treasury by December 11, 2021. A list of Tribal governments that submitted an NOI by this deadline can be found on Treasury’s website.

Treasury seeks to support all Tribal governments that are interested in participating in SSBCI. Treasury will provide information and technical assistance on capital applications to Tribal governments that submit questions to SSBCI_Information@treasury.gov.

PLEASE NOTE: NCN has conducted a series of webinars on the SSBCI program. All of the webinars are available on our web site. The most recent webinar was conducted April 13 and includes practical advice from Native attorney Pilar Thomas and Bay Bank President and CEO Jeff Bowman for CDFIs and Tribal governments interested in participating in SSBCI. A video archive of the webinar is available here.