Innovation and Collaboration: Alicia Fulton’s Story with the Leading People And Investing To Build Sustainable Communities Program

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By: McKenna Green, Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior

Alicia Fulton (Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe) is the youngest nominated to the board of directors for Noo-Kayet Investments (NKI). NKI is a section 17 corporate charter for tribally owned enterprises and oversees most economic development for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe. This past summer, Fulton attended the Leading People And Investing To Build Sustainable Communities Program (LPIBSC) which was developed in collaboration with the Harvard Business School (HBS) Executive Education, NAFOA, and AFOA Canada. The program is designed to support Native finance professionals and leaders and equip them with tools to lead high-performing, innovative communities and organizations. Located on the Harvard Business School campus, the program runs four days where attendees are immersed in a collaborative learning environment. 

Fulton applied to the program to advance her understanding of tribal finance, saying it is important to “continue to grow, especially outside of what you know.’ Fulton had attended NAFOA conferences in the past, and learned of the program from a general session. The participants, Fulton says, “were finance folks that were passionate and excited to talk about economic development.” Coming from different backgrounds and varied ages, the attendees created an amazing collaborative environment, explains Fulton, “because, in Indian Country, there are a lot of older people who are staring at hiring pools of twenty-five-year-olds” which can lead to lack of communication and extend the gap in employment. “The facilities at Harvard are extremely conducive to group learning,” says Fulton and by incorporating a diverse participant group, the discussions from the program were informative and thoughtful. 

Fulton notes “the NAFOA community is so supportive,” and fosters an environment that makes it easy to build meaningful relationships. Even after programming had ended for the day, Fulton said their dorm group would gather in their conference area and continue the conversations about their communities, programs, and challenges. The relationships built in the LPIBSC were helpful in understanding current conditions in Indian Country, as Fulton explains, “it is difficult to collect market rate data because we are very private with how we handle information,” and having the opportunity to collaborate and share with other tribal finance professionals and leaders was valuable. 

Overall, Fulton explains that navigating the “perception that [tribal] corporations don’t care about community” can be difficult, stating that, “the divisive idea in the fact that we are a corporation and that we are meant for constant growth and consumption is a very corporate America mentality.” As a for-profit business, of course, revenue matters, says Fulton, “we exist as a corporation but we were chartered and founded for the well-being of our community.” According to Fulton, being able to reconcile profit with community-based goals and values is something NAFOA is excellent at balancing, saying, “the program taught how to operate financially” while “giving participants the tools to feel confident in the community space.”  Fulton recommends this program and encourages financial professionals and tribal leaders to apply, noting “A lot of people don’t understand what we are doing with economic development in Indian country, and to be at a place with the people driving it was a truly rewarding and enriching experience.”

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