Tribal Business News Features WIBA

Alliance of Wisconsin Native CDFIs Takes Aim at Strengthening Tribal Economies

By Joe Boomgaard, Tribal Business News

September 20, 2021

For the first time in the six-year history of the Wisconsin Indian Business Alliance, the coalition of four Native community development financial institutions will have a new chair.

Pamela Boivin, executive director of Keshena, Wis.-based NiiJii Capital Partners Inc., was elected to serve as chair of the board of directors at WIBA, a unique collaborative of the four Native CDFIs in the state of Wisconsin. In addition to NiiJii Capital, the members of the alliance include Lac du Flambeau-based Wisconsin Native Loan Fund, Black River Falls-based First Nations Community Financial and Hales Corners-based First American Capital Corporation.

Boivin replaces founding member Fern Orie, a board member and founding CEO at Wisconsin Native Loan Fund who last week was appointed chief programs officer and executive vice president of advocacy and strategic partnerships at Longmont, Colo.-based Oweesta Corp., an intermediary for Native CDFIs.

A member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Boivin expects WIBA to continue on without missing a beat, particularly given the high level of participation among all four member organizations. She spoke with Tribal Business News about the role Native CDFIs play in helping tribal economies recover from the pandemic, as well as why she thinks now is “absolutely” a good time for Native Americans to embrace entrepreneurship.

As you step into the role of chair of WIBA, how do you assess the effectiveness of the alliance?

We’re all equally contributing members, we all strive for the same mission. It’s been a long-standing group. Our establishment as the Wisconsin Indian Business Alliance was formalized in early 2015, but this group of people had been collaborating for long before that — it started in 2009. So we have a good history, and we have a good knowledge of our individual organizations. It’s bringing our best strengths together and lifting where we need to be lifted and empowering the strengths and (addressing) weaknesses. Building the best collaboration has always been the motivating force behind us all.

Talk about the work Fern Orie has put in as chair since WIBA’s inception in 2015.

Fern is such a strong and down-to-earth leader. There’s so many elements about her that her leadership elevated WIBA to where we are today, with everybody’s individual contributions. Fern really is one of those Level 5 leaders who established the culture of our alliance. That made this a nice-oiled machine. Going forward, we still take that same motivation and continue those missions and objectives that we’ve been working on since our inception as a group.

Bringing together four separate organizations with their individual boards and missions has to come with its share of challenges. What has made the alliance successful over the years?

Back in 2009 when we were kind of working in our own little silos and deploying our loans products and doing our technical assistance, we started to see that there was some overlap. Since a lot of us cover similar target markets, we were realizing, ‘Oh, hey, we were just offering this type of training. How did yours go? What is something that we could do different to better serve our clients?’ It started with those tiny reach outs.

The more we started reaching out, the more we realized this one organization, for instance, does really well at delivering the best (technical assistance) around this specific topic. Let’s bring them in so that we can get this particular business or this particular client the most efficient services. We started piecing those together, and it built off of those collaborations into, ‘Let’s combine and do a workshop together.’ And then the workshops evolved into collaborating on combined efforts and seeking additional resources that we wouldn’t necessarily be eligible for or consider as an individual organization.

It blossomed from those small pieces, those small steps. The ultimate goal was always: How do we better serve our clients and our target markets? Weighing in off of those strengths and identifying where some of the weaknesses are in our individual organizations kind of pulled us all together.

What’s your philosophy in chairing the alliance?

One of the beautiful things I love about the alliance is that it’s not particularly a single person driven organization. Each member contributes a ton and a wealth of information to the alliance itself. As a new leader, I definitely want to keep the ‘we’ in the team. With the shifts that are going to occur coming out of the pandemic and what that looks like for our clients, I think we’re all going to need to be on our toes. Collaboration is going to be needed now more than ever.

It seems like the forces are aligning to recognize the roles that CDFIs play in reaching underserved communities. How do you see this playing out?

CDFIs were recognized as these beacons of light in the pandemic. Conventional banks weren’t able to reach the populations or the markets that we were able to reach, and that’s where a lot of the relief needed to be. It was very evident in the pandemic that CDFIs are important, more so now, so that we can get these communities and businesses the assistance they need and work on rebuilding our tribal economies.

With historic levels of federal investment in Indian Country, are WIBA’s needs purely financial or do you need additional resources for training and education?

Training is crucial. That’s the driving force of our loans and our products that we deploy to our target markets. Most of our organizations in the alliance really put a heavy weight on the pre-technical assistance, and that’s a time crunch right there when you’re dealing with a client. It’s making sure we have an established client or business in order to take on the financing and set them up for success, rather than just deploying these funds. It’s very heavy on technical assistance, pre-loan. It’s the financial literacy pieces.

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