Red Cloud Students Today, Pine Ridge's Entrepreneurs Tomorrow

posted on December 30, 2013

Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Red Cloud senior Genriel saw first hand how a severe shortage of affordable housing affected her community. She’s seen that large extended families often live together in homes that are far too small, simply because there aren’t other options.

But through a new class at Red Cloud examining the power of entrepreneurship, she’s learning how she can make a difference.  

Although she’s just 18 years old, Genriel is already in the process of mapping out a business plan to launch a new, ecofriendly construction firm to serve the reservation. It’s a major project in the entrepreneurship class, and Genriel says it’s helping her build confidence in her ability to actually start her own business someday.

“My plan is for a construction business. We’d work with housing on the tribal reservation, but also build connections outside, so that we’d have funding and more jobs and workers,” she explains. “We want to be able to make houses that are more affordable, so they’re better for the people here.”

The entrepreneurship class was introduced this fall as part of Red Cloud’s new Economic Development Initiative (EDI), an innovative project that provides students, alumni and community members with the tools to start community-based, Native owned enterprises. Through EDI, Red Cloud’s middle and high school students have access to a comprehensive business curriculum, which includes courses like economics, entrepreneurship and accounting.

Business teacher Red Dawn Foster, who arrived at Red Cloud this summer, says students are seeing that entrepreneurship is a tool they can use to alter the challenging economic realities on the reservation.  

“We’re focusing on the core concepts of entrepreneurship—from identifying opportunity and analyzing feasibility to examining the business environment and existing competition,” says Red Dawn. “We’re seeing amazing growth in the students. All of them have to develop their own business plan, and it’s really exciting to see the innovative ideas they are coming up with.”

Ryan, another entrepreneurship student and also a senior, is developing a number of business ideas to help ease the housing shortage on the reservation. He and Genriel have been working together on their business plans, identifying opportunities to create economic growth and improve living conditions.  

“Housing programs here are very slow, so I want to start an architectural design firm where people can go to make blueprints and design their own houses,” he explains. Ryan, who hopes to attend the University of Notre Dame or the University of Colorado at Boulder next year to study business management, is also exploring the idea of developing an apartment complex on Pine Ridge, to create more housing options for community members.

Red Dawn says other student’s business ideas are equally exciting.

One group of students is working to develop a technology company that creates online applications, including a Lakota language application that offers translation, games and more.

Another student who loves art is exploring a business that creates modern clothing with a traditional Lakota edge. She has a local seamstress who makes the clothing she designs—and then she adds her own quillwork and beadwork to embellish each piece.

Pedro, another Red Cloud senior, is working on a website that would help give high school athletes on the reservation exposure to recruiting colleges and universities. His hope is that, by promoting the success of athletes on the reservation, more Native students would receive scholars and grants to attend college. For him, learning about the ethics of starting a business has been the most inspiring part of the entrepreneurship class.

“We’re learning you shouldn’t build a business just to get money. You should start a business to solve a problem around your neighborhood, or to satisfy a need in the community.”

In the coming weeks and months, most students in the entrepreneurship class will be participating in business plan competitions across the region, and have to defend their ideas before panels of independent judges. Seven already competed at the Lakota Nation Invitational, which brought together more than 2,500 students from on and off the reservation.

Red Dawn used the final weeks of this academic term to help prepare her students for the competitions. Some of them are nervous—but she’s confident they’ll succeed.

“Our business students have such great ideas—and more importantly, they are passionate about their plans. Regardless of whether they win a competition, I have no doubt they all have very bright futures.”