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Jessica Saucedo, co-op tech for Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance, holds up a Buy Native T-shirt on Thursday at Rail River Folk School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance helps American Indian entrepreneurs

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Sherry Lee’s husband, Douglas, used to leave a tray of her cupcakes in the break room at his construction job.

Doug’s co-workers started to leave cash in the empty tray, and, from that came the germ for SimpLee Sweets, the couple’s bakery business. Douglas, whose knees were starting to falter, left the job and went back to school as he and Sherry worked to get the business off the ground.

“I got to thinking what am I gonna do later to provide for my family?” Douglas, a 39-year-old member of White Earth Nation, said. “What if I'm 40, 50 trying to do labor work, still, and my body can't take it?”

Now, the Lee’s business has a semi-permanent home near Ogema, Minn., and they’re on the verge of selling individually packaged cupcakes at casinos in the White Earth area and beyond. Their chocolate peanut butter cupcakes are particularly popular, Sherry said.

And they’re doing it with some help from a St. Paul-based nonprofit that hopes to boost American Indian business ventures across the state, including the Bemidji area, which is surrounded by three of the largest and most populous Ojibwe communities.

The Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance does pro bono marketing work for established or fledgling businesses owned by a member of any federally recognized tribe in the United States, tries to set them up with business help, and offers relatively small grants to help businesses put together a marketing plan, place ads, produce signs, and more.

For the Lees, that’s meant a mini-grant for branded merchandise they raffled off at a New Year’s Eve party to promote their business, plus help putting together a website and online ordering system.

The alliance also features on its website a glossy video and photo spread about the Lees and SimpLee Sweets.

The alliance also runs a “Buy Native” marketing campaign that pushes consumers, particularly nonprofits and tribal governments, to patronize American Indian-owned businesses when they can. It’s modeled after “buy local” campaigns, but has a statewide scope because tribal communities are smaller and spread farther, Pamela Standing, the alliance’s executive director, said.

The alliance hopes to diversify and strengthen tribal economies, out of which money often flows -- “leaks” -- to larger corporations that aren’t based on or near those economies.

“The more different types of industry that you have in your community, it provides varying types of jobs. It creates opportunities for strategic workforce development,” Standing, a member of Cherokee Nation, explained. “And the more money that turns around in any economy, the stronger that economy is and the more jobs it creates.”