What Makes First Nations Enterprises Successful? Lessons from the Harvard Project


Stephen Cornell. 2006. “What Makes First Nations Enterprises Successful? Lessons from the Harvard Project.” Joint Occasional Papers on Native Affairs, 2006-01. View Report (PDF)


Indigenous economic development takes multiple forms. One of the most common ways that indigenous peoples attempt to meet needs for revenue, employment, and services is through nation-owned enterprises. These are hugely diverse, ranging from timber companies and gaming operations to telecommunications enterprises and convenience stores. The record of such efforts is mixed: as with businesses everywhere, some succeed and others don't. This paper examines how the actions of Native nations themselves can either undermine or strengthen their own enterprises, drawing on extensive research carried out by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard University and the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy at the University of Arizona. Of course many of the things that determine business outcomes lie beyond the control of the nations that own the businesses. The paper focuses on five factors that indigenous nations can control but that sometimes are ignored in the effort to build successful, nation-owned businesses: clarity about enterprise goals; effective management of the politics-business connection; the purpose, power, and composition of enterprise boards of directors; independent and reliable resolution of disputes; and the need to educate the community about enterprise goals and activity. Using real-world cases, the paper explores how the actions by indigenous nations in each of these areas can have a significant impact on business performance.

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