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Mike Roberts’ early years in an Alaskan Native community taught him about hard work and entrepreneurship. The nonprofit organization he now heads supports economic development for American Indian groups across the country.

Success Breeds Success

By Mary Reed

Growing up in Ketchikan, Alaska, Michael Roberts developed his entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. He had a paper route at age 11, and worked in the summers cleaning dog kennels, at a grocery store and at the fish cannery. “If there was money to be made, I would try to figure out how to do it.”

Ketchikan was highly segregated, with most Native Americans living in “Indian Town” on the south side of Ketchikan Creek, and most white people living on the north side. A member of the Tlingit (pronounced clink-it) tribe, Roberts lived on the south side. Still, his family and neighbors were solidly middle class.

Dancers entertain at First Nations’ 2013 Leadership, Entrepreneurial, and Apprenticeship Development (L.E.A.D.) Institute conference, which trains Native nonprofit leaders.
Dancers entertain at First Nations’ 2013 Leadership, Entrepreneurial, and Apprenticeship Development (L.E.A.D.) Institute conference, which trains Native nonprofit leaders.

“I got to see, as a kid, the aspirational part of Indian middle class, which probably didn’t hurt when I came to First Nations,” Roberts says from his office in Longmont, which is decorated with a cigar-store Indian, Lego Eskimos and mini teepees. (“The image of Indians is so horrible, but I kind of like to embrace it a little bit, maybe to give me power over it.”) He is president of First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support economic development in American Indian communities.

Roberts, 52, first came to Boulder in 1983 to finish his undergraduate degree in environmental design/architecture. Needless to say, he worked his way through college. In the summers, he worked at the lumber mill in Ketchikan, where his father worked for 38 years. (His mother, who was Caucasian, also came from a family of loggers. Their interracial marriage was not met with acceptance from either side of the family.) In Boulder, he worked at Don’s Cheese and Sausage, where he met his future wife, Jennifer, the daughter of one of the owners, who was born and raised in Boulder.

Roberts later earned an MBA at the University of Washington in Seattle, and got his first job out of grad school at First Nations Development Institute, then based in Virginia. He left First Nations to pursue a Kauffman Fellowship that put him in the world of venture capital. He returned to Colorado to work for Meritage Funds, a Denver-based private equity firm, where he realized that success breeds success. “There weren’t too many companies coming in and saying, ‘We are the worst company in the world.’”

Combating ‘Poverty Porn’

When Roberts rejoined First Nations as president in 2003, one of his goals was to change the “poverty porn” narrative and instead try to breed success into more success.

[quote]There are so many folks who are raising money in the name of Indians based on how messed up we are. We’re alcoholic and we’re poor and we’re freezing in the winter. You might as well put flies on our face.”
—Michael Roberts, president, First Nations Development Institute[/quote]
Roberts’s own story and his experience growing up in a Native American community was the opposite: It was one of hard work and entrepreneurship. The work of First Nations has turned out to be a good fit. For example, it has spun off a separate organization, First Nations Oweesta Corporation, which develops community development financial institutions (CDFIs) in Indian communities, including banks and credit unions. “There’s a real need for access to credit in these communities,” Roberts says, “for entrepreneurs, or just for personal credit to buy a car or take out a short-term loan.”

Learn more about First Nations Development Institute, or to donate, visit www.firstnations.org.

 

Since Roberts returned to First Nations as president, the organization has increased its grantmaking to Native communities from about a half- a-million dollars a year to more than $1.5 million a year. First Nations itself is mostly funded by grants from the likes of the Ford and Kellogg foundations, and it also welcomes donations. Since First Nations began making grants in 1993, it has funded more than 900 projects to the tune of $21 million. These include projects in community economic development, financial education and literacy, and food systems and food security. Roberts says his biggest challenge is not being able to fund all of the good projects that come across his desk.

When he became president, part of the agreement was that First Nations would move west. Roberts says Colorado’s Front Range made sense because it is centrally located among its constituent Indian communities yet remains relatively neutral, since there are no reservations nearby.

And it didn’t hurt that Boulder County was home. Roberts and his wife had already purchased a house in Longmont where they are raising their daughters, now 13 and 10, who are enrolled Tlingit tribal members. “Boulder is a really great place,” he says. “Boulder County is a very affordable place to have a national organization. We’re close to infrastructure, we’re close to highly respected universities—and it has 320 sun days compared to 320 rain days where I grew up.”


Mary Reed is a freelance journalist based in Boulder. She is currently writing Best Easy Day Hikes Fort Collins (FalconGuides), which will be out in 2016. Learn more at maryreed.biz.