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First Innovations connects American Indian sustainability with entrepreneurship

October 07, 2011

A groundbreaking initiative at Arizona State University takes American Indian students beyond the classroom to put entrepreneurial skills into practice.

First Innovations is collaboration between the American Indian Policy Institute and American Indian Studies that combines an intensive internship with classes focused on developing innovation and entrepreneurial skills for American Indian sustainability. The initiative received the ASU 2011 Presidential Award for Innovation for its original approach and growing national recognition.

“What’s unique about the First Innovations Initiative is it’s focused in a tribal context,” said Fonda Walters, American Indian Policy Institute senior research analyst.

Many tribal leaders express the need for true sustainability, where tribes practice innovation and sustainable development in a manner that is a cultural match to their traditions and values, according to a First Innovations course description.

“Tribes are up against significant issues of their own economically, socially, politically and culturally. Although sustainability is typically a word that is used to describe the environment, sustainability also points to the need to be culturally sustaining in a tribal context,” Walters said. “That is critical for tribes, to balance moving forward and remaining who you are as a tribal nation. They have to consider the well-being of the people.”

Ariia Pike experienced the inaugural First Innovations internship this summer when she spent her days at the Native American Community Service Center in Phoenix. The center houses programs that serve Native Americans and she spent four intensive weeks developing ideas to improve the center among other assignments focused on entrepreneurial themes.

Classroom sessions held at the beginning of the internship focused on sustainability and marketability from a variety of academic disciplines.

“They guided us and encouraged us to step outside the box. I had a certain way of thinking about what sustainability was. They turned my box into a circle,” said Pike, ASU sociology major and member of the Chickasaw Nation. 

Pike observed operations at different agencies within the center and took notes. After brainstorming 75 ideas on how the center might potentially seize on innovative opportunities, she and her student partner, Brittany Harper, decided that an information kiosk that described all of the organizations and where they are located in the building was a realistic goal within the scope of the internship.

“The summer program is really critical. The students’ ideas provided real life relevance to the Native American Community Service Center,” Walters said. “The field internship is a critical complement to the classroom experience.”

Students gain experience in problem-solving during the internships while they work on ideas and opportunities for the host organizations. They gain skills in understanding the environment and values of the people who they interact with and balance those with sustainable, innovative ventures to meet challenges that the organizations face.

Ideas that have germinated in First Innovations include creating a non-profit center to provide a place and an organizational structure to support urban and other Navajo young women and their families to conduct a coming of age ceremony. Student teams also have developed a plan for a media network focusing on indigenous topics similar to a Public Broadcasting Corporation station.

“They come up with fantastic ideas. They also get real-life feedback from Native American and non-Native entrepreneurs,” Walters said.

Feedback received about the initiative thus far has been extremely positive. Students enjoy learning the processes to develop a venture, working on exercises to hone an idea and enhancing their skill sets in report writing.   

Pike is enjoying taking "Innovation in Entrepreneurship" this semester and expanding on ideas developed during the summer. During the second course, students continue the development of their product or service while simultaneously developing a sustainable business model and implementation plan in a tribal context. Pike is exploring ideas beyond those that she was only able to touch on during the summer such as bringing Native American entrepreneurs to reservations.

“We’re looking at how we can do research and find sustainable ideas that can be implemented in Indian country,” Pike said.

The class is off to a good start with brainstorming ideas thus far focusing on ideas such as public transportation on the expansive Navajo reservation, wind power and geo-thermal power, restaurant ideas and a place to service cars.

“It’s really helped me form more of a vision of what I want to do,” Pike said.