Honoring Nations: Kristi Coker-Bias: The Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Former Executive Director Kristi Coker-Bias provides on overview of the Citizen Potowatomi Community Development Corporation and discusses how it is working to cultivate private sector development in her community, which she says is essential to Native nations' efforts to develop sustainable economies.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Coker-Bias, Kristi. "The Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Alfreda Mitre:

"Our next panelist is Kristi Coker. She is the Executive Director of the Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation, also a 2006 honoree."

Kristi Coker-Bias:

"All right. Well, thank you. Thank you for having me today. And I'm really excited to be here and excited to talk about what we're doing at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in regards to nation building, in my line of work, institution building with the Community Development Corporation, which has been really important to the economy of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation has a rich entrepreneurial history and the Community Development Corporation, which we formed in 2003, is the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit of the Potawatomi people. We have a focus on Native American entrepreneurs, we're focused on building a stronger tribal community, and we're focused on continuous learning for our Native-owned businesses and the increase of those businesses as far as their capacity and their capabilities to grow and expand their business, retain jobs in the tribal community, and expand jobs, and create new jobs. We're a really vital and critical institution as a building block and an economic development tool for the Potawatomi Nation.

Our focus is on private sector growth, which is an extremely important model that, I feel like, many tribal nations are ignoring. And I think that's a shame to not focus on private sector growth and development. When we think of Native American economic development in the Potawatomi Nation, it's not just about building tribal enterprises and growing new tribal businesses. It's about sustainable businesses development. And it's definitely not about creating job programs at tribes, because we all know that doesn't work.

One of the things we found out, to tell you a little bit -- you could read a little bit about what we do, but our main focus -- we're a Community Development Financial Institution [CDFI], which is a certification we received from the U.S. Department of Treasury. We focus on commercial lending to Potawatomis nationwide and all Native Americans in the State of Oklahoma. And the reason we were doing that, honestly, there was a market need and demand there. No other tribe was fitting that need in Oklahoma. And with 39 tribes, there was definitely [a lot] of aspiring entrepreneurs and great Native-owned businesses ripe for expansion, if they just had some access to capital. And as you all know, banks probably aren't fitting [those] needs in your community just like they were fitting the needs in our community.

So with a CDFI, we're able to come in -- receiving private-sector financing from foundations, from federal funding, from tribal funding, from a variety of sources -- and provide commercial loans. We provide consumer loans to the employees of the nation and we provide business-development services. And that's [a] lot of the way to tell the difference -- people ask, 'How is a CDFI different from a bank? You're a financial institution, how do you differ from a bank?' Well, we do lots of handholding and lots of one-on-one technical assistance. We're able to really provide the nurturing that small businesses need. And we have a goal of helping to create Native-owned business owners who are bankable. We want to teach them to be bankable. So that next time, as their business grows, hopefully they outgrow the need for the CDFI and they grow to need the bank, and that we can make them financially literate and business savvy.

So one of the things we found out when [we] started the Community Development Corporation -- if you would have asked me what your mission is and kind of what you're doing -- I would have told you we do loans and we provide business development assistance. And very quickly into it, I found out we have a drastic need for financial education. Not that I didn't know that, but I guess I just thought these business owners were going to come ready and prepared. And just as the rest of the citizens of the United States, there's a major credit crisis and a real need for financial education. There was not any one at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation doing any kind of financial education, there was no one doing any kind of credit counseling, and so that was one of the main barriers. They didn't have the credit worthiness to go to the bank and sometimes they didn't have the credit worthiness to even utilize our CDFI. So we had to step in, because we don't want to just say, 'Well, your credit's bad. Good luck. We can't help you.' So we created comprehensive financial education classes in partnership with First Nations Development [Institute] and in partnership with First Nations Oweesta [Corporation]. They have a great 'Building Native Communities' curriculum.

So we were able to utilize that program and then really quick we got – and we found out we're big about partnerships. We don't want to reinvent the wheel and we want to keep a very small staff and be flexible and nimble at the Potawatomi Nation. That's kind of our mantra, for those of you that know our chairman. And we decided credit counseling services, consumer credit counseling, they're all over. So we created a partnership with Consumer Credit Counseling of Central Oklahoma, that was in Oklahoma City, and got some grant funding, and now we have a credit counselor in our office three days a week providing services, one-on-one individualized credit counseling, budgeting  -- you name it -- to Native Americans throughout the state. And we also are doing something we call Lunch and Learn, which are small, one-hour financial education credit counseling type educational opportunities for Native Americans.

One of the things we found out and a big part of our growing mission is asset building, wealth creation. More than ever, our people are needing more than a paycheck to get to where they're wanting to go to achieve financial security. They need the capacity to acquire assets and to maintain those assets. And so we feel like, and my board of directors feels like, that's the real pathway to self-sufficiency. And ultimately that's the goal: self-sufficient tribal members, self-sufficient Native Americans. And so we're really excited to be meeting those needs.

Amy [Besaw Medford] asked me to talk a little bit about what's been going on since the 2006 Honoring Nations Honoree awardees. And we've expanded financial education. We're doing those now twice a month. We're doing some specific to casino employees, helping them. So we offer our service to Native Americans, and then we also offer it to employees of the Potawatomi Nation. Being the largest employer in the county it's pretty critical that we provide those services. We also started an IDA, which is an Individual Development Account program, a match savings program. We got that kicked off in October of 2006. And in two weeks, we'll be graduating our first class; we have 23 graduates. And it's a matched savings program; for every dollar they save, we match that 2 to 1. And we wanted to stay with our mission, so the two things they could save for was to build their credit and repair their credit, and the other side was business development, and we're really excited to do that. I think we, along with Umatilla, are the first ones to use credit repair and credit building as an opportunity for an IDA. It's been really great and we're really excited about that.

Also, we have a new partnership with [the] Federal Highway [Administration] and the Department of Interior. We received a contract to have a National Native American Business Opportunity Workforce Development Center, which -- what that means, in that long title, is that I help Native American and Alaska Native federal highway contractors get jobs. I help them learn how to bid properly. As a disadvantaged business enterprise, we're helping them land those contracts and even market to the prime contractors, the big large prime contractors. So we're doing that on a nationwide basis in Alaska, Washington and in Oklahoma right now. And that's a pilot program, and we've had great support from the Office of Energy and Economic Development, and can't say enough about their great things.

And then something that happened exciting yesterday, and I was frantically emailing and faxing around is, we became the first BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]-certified lender as a CDFI. In the past, you had to be a traditional financial institution to utilize the program. And some legislation came out last year allowing certified -- U.S. Department of Treasury certified -- CDFIs to utilize this program. And so we've been very excited about the opportunity, obviously, to get our loans guaranteed and our loan insurance, because we actually have a lower loan loss than banks, than even our own tribally owned bank, which we're very, very proud of, and I like to talk about at length. But [I] can't say enough great things about that, and we're thrilled with that and thrilled for the outreach from the Office of Energy and Economic Development. It's exciting.

Another thing and I think something that's really exciting is, Honoring Nations talks about being a family and talks about the sharing in all of that, and some of the most rewarding professional growth I've received, probably in the last year, has been my experience sharing, kind of what we're doing and where we're going, and how to help others get there. And we've done that. We've done that with the Salt River [Pima-Maricopa Indian Community] in Arizona, we've done that with the Colville tribe, we've done that with three or four tribes in Oklahoma. And actually now in Oklahoma, we've set up an Oklahoma Native Assets Coalition, which right now is made up of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Chickasaw Nation; I think the Osage Nation is involved, and the Muscogee Creek. So obviously we are thrilled to death about that. There hasn't been a lot of intertribal councils and meetings. And we haven't worked together as great as maybe tribes in Arizona have worked together, and New Mexico, and some of those great coalitions. We haven't had that in the past.

And so just being able to come together and looking at asset building, looking at private sector economic development growth, looking at building entrepreneurs, letting our youth know that, 'Hey, you could own a business, too! You don't just have to work for the man.' So we're really excited about that and excited about where we're going. I think that's all I have. Thanks."

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