Red Cloud Indian School Launches the Economic Development Initiative To Support Native-Owned Businesses

posted on November 6, 2013

The vast beauty of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota has been pockmarked by extreme poverty for generations. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 89 percent of tribal members on the reservation are unemployed. Without the infrastructure to support economic growth, jobs are few and opportunity has been scarce in Lakota communities here.

But at Red Cloud Indian School, nestled in the hills just outside the town of Pine Ridge, a new initiative is working to ensure that poverty does not become destiny on the reservation. The 125-year old nonprofit organization recently launched the Economic Development Initiative (EDI) to provide Pine Ridge communities with the resources to launch and grow independent, Native-owned businesses. By combining high-quality business education with practical, on-the-ground training, the Initiative supports entrepreneurs through the process of turning business ideas into viable enterprises. 

The ultimate goal of the Economic Development Initiative, says Red Cloud President Fr. George Winzenburg, SJ, is to increase economic opportunity, job creation and financial security on the reservation.

“Red Cloud has a long history of providing a high-quality education that empowers Lakota students to pursue a college education and realize their dreams. And our Economic Development Initiative is the necessary next step in that work,” explains Winzenburg.

“Our focus is on transforming the economic landscape on Pine Ridge—by providing our students, alumni and community members with the tools they need to establish new Native-owned enterprises right here on the reservation,” continues Winzenburg.  “Becoming business owners will not only increase their personal earning potential but will create new jobs and expand economic opportunity exponentially.”

Through the Initiative, Red Cloud students have access to a rigorous business curriculum, including courses in economics and entrepreneurship. According to Business Instructor Red Dawn Foster, who earned her Masters in Business Administration at Notre Dame, Red Cloud students are gaining the foundational knowledge necessary to turn business plans into action.

“It’s been amazing to see how excited our students are about developing sustainable business models—and how much they want to use their new business knowledge to create positive change and reshape economic realities in their communities,” says Foster.

Red Cloud students who begin to create real business plans in Foster’s classes can then apply to the Initiative’s innovative business incubator—the 7 Gen Business Center. Through the Center, Red Cloud students, alumni and community members can access the resources, training and support it takes to launch a new business.

Once accepted into the 7 Gen Center, participants receive intensive, real world training through an entrepreneurial “boot camp” as well as mentoring from business, accounting and marketing experts across the country. Those businesses that show promise and progress receive a start-up grant to build and launch their company.

“The 7 Gen Center is the real cornerstone of the Economic Development Initiative because it packages training, support, mentoring and capital investment—all the elements that are critical for launching a new enterprise,” says EDI Executive Director Mitchell Bennett.

“There’s no doubt this program can help expand participants’ earning power. But our real focus is supporting Native-owned businesses that will strengthen and support communities here on Pine Ridge for generations to come. Our model isn’t just about profit; it’s about community stability, sustainability and empowerment.”

Situated on Red Cloud’s main campus, the 7 Gen Business Center’s space is filled with all the resources new businesses need—cubicles set up with independent phone lines, computers with high-speed Internet access and workspace for planning and strategy sessions. But what can’t be seen, says 7 Gen participant Sharice Davids, is the strong support and encouragement the Center provides.

Davids launched Hoka! Coffee Company, LLC this fall through the support of the 7 Gen Business Center. The first enterprise to be accepted into the incubator program, Hoka! is currently operating as a private label wholesale and retail coffee company. Right now, the company sells organic beans roasted by a larger company in Boulder, Colorado that supports fair-trade practices and community building. But Davids’ ultimate goal is to create a roasting facility right on Pine Ridge that would create jobs in Lakota communities and support indigenous coffee growers worldwide.

“We say Hoka! is all about being ‘indigenous from the ground to the cup.’ And as a Native-owned business, I want to do everything I can to create jobs in Native communities, starting right here on Pine Ridge,” says Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation who studied law at Cornell University.

After just a few months of operating, Hoka! is already growing. The company sells ground and whole beans, t-shirts and mugs through local coffee shops and retailers and at community events. And while Davids says the challenges of starting a new business can be daunting, she is confident about Hoka!’s future.

“I’m really thrilled about taking our next big steps to expand. And without the 7 Gen Center at Red Cloud, none of that would be possible,” Davids explains.

Bennett says it’s been a joy to watch the excitement around the Initiative building—and to watch new enterprises like Hoka! get off the ground. But he explains there is much more work to be done.

“Although we’ve had some tremendous successes so far, I’d say we’re just getting started. We’re actively looking for Pine Ridge community members who have business plans they’d like to work on in the 7 Gen Center—and we’re always looking for new mentors to share their wisdom and experience with our entrepreneurs,” says Bennett.

“There are so many ways the community can be involved in this effort, and so many ways we can work together to build a strong, sustainable community here. If we can keep moving forward, we can increase economic security for future generations.”

For more information on Red Cloud’s Economic Development Initiative, visit


All Content ©Red Cloud Indian School, 2013