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Native American students learn entrepreneurial skills at YES Academy

high-school students
July 20, 2011

Jose Martinez wants to give back to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community where he was raised.

Martinez, 17, is making education a primary goal in his life, reaching beyond high school and learning business and leadership skills by participating in the YES Academy at ASU. He was one of approximately 20 high school students and members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community who came to ASU in July to attend the academy and learn entrepreneurship skills.

Providing the opportunity for high school students from the community to come to ASU introduces them to the university, making the concept of attending college that much closer to fruition.

“I actually plan on coming to ASU and majoring in law with a minor in political science,” Martinez said. His goal is to specialize in American Indian law so he can fulfill his desire to give back to his community by serving on the community council.

This is the third year that the YES Academy has been held at ASU. The intensive four-day program is hosted by the American Indian Policy Institute and funded by Salt River Financial Services Institution, with contributions from the Salt River Childrens Charity Foundation. Salt River Financial Services Institution is a tribal community development finance organization that provides services for the Community such as small business loans and financial education.

Students attending the academy work on generating ideas and solutions, understanding and addressing challenges and opportunities and developing business plans that support the long-term sustainability of their community, said Fonda Walters, senior management research analyst for the American Indian Policy Institute. Topics covered include giving an elevator speech, identifying customers, working on income statements and storyboarding a concept. 

This is Martinez’s second time attending the YES Academy, where he worked with a team the first year on plans for a sustainable restaurant on the reservation that would serve healthy American Indian and Mexican fare with power coming from solar panels.

“I learned a lot about sustainability,” he said. “I also learned how to pitch a business (to investors).”

This year his team worked on plans for a bank on the reservation, so members wouldn’t have to travel into town to take advantage of full banking services.

“Because it is located within the community and is operated by community members, they would understand your financial needs,” Martinez said.

Besides business basics, students learn the importance of planning and teamwork.

“They learn how to work in a team and begin to understand that you need to plan to develop a specific idea. These are real life skills that entrepreneurs have to accomplish,” Walters said.

Students develop ideas that benefit their community, giving them not only a project that could lead to financial success, but also help tribal members in the process.

“Then they run with it,” Walters said.

Projects developed by the students oftentimes preserve tribal culture and improve the environment.

One project this year centers on preserving Native languages. Maleena Deer, 16, is working on a team that is planning to teach Native languages on DVDs, online and in classrooms.

“We feel you have a right to know your own language,” Deer said. “There are a lot of cultures that are fading because they don’t know their own languages.”

Deer enjoys coming to ASU because it is a place where sustainability is emphasized. “You don’t really find colleges that are based on that,” she said.

Dan O’Neill, College of Technology and Innovation lecturer and leader of the new Technology Entrepreneurship and Management program, is lead instructor for the program. Speakers from Salt River Financial Services Institution and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community contribute to the program.

“I love teaching YES Academy every summer," O'Neill said. "The kids are creative and smart, and they come up with great ideas during the workshop. Their final presentations are impressive and they do it all while having a lot of fun. They are definitely on their way to becoming the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. It’s an honor to be able to work with them.”

A final event with parents in attendance gives students the opportunity to present their business plans to a panel of Native American entrepreneurs.

“They pitch their idea to a panel of entrepreneurs who then share their thoughts and provide feedback. In this way, they get an idea of what the whole process is like from beginning to end,” Walters said.

Students stayed in Barrett, The Honors College, residential housing this year with current ASU students who serve as counselors for the high-school participants.

“The majority (of counselors) are Native students in a variety of majors. They spend the entire four days with these students and share their experience of being a college student,” Walters said.

During the hours when they are not working on their projects, YES Academy participants take part in activities such as touring the ASU Mars exhibit, playing interactive games and watching movies.

The program continues to grow each year as more community members hear about it.

“We actually had a waiting list this year,” said Joan Theisen, Salt River Financial Services Institution business services manager.