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What Is It Like Working for a Tribe?

As you earn an advanced degree in business administration and prepare to enter the workforce, you have many different career paths you could follow. Some MBA graduates start their own business and build an organization from the ground up, while many join an existing organization, bringing fresh perspectives and skills to the company. A wide variety of organizations, ranging from small community outfits and nonprofits to large religious organizations and tribal communities, are looking for business-savvy individuals who can help them be more efficient, effective and profitable. While these organizations may share some commonalities, they all have features that make them unique.

Native American tribes, for instance, may appear to collectively constitute a single entity; however, each tribal nation has its own distinct heritage, culture and familial underpinnings, which makes for a wide range of individuals, ideas and ideologies. These aspects of the tribal nation can lead to a multitude of viewpoints on how the nation should conduct itself, both culturally and from a business perspective. Individuals seeking to work with a tribal nation must understand the underlying cultural heritage that propels decision-making and long-term planning. These defining factors can vary from one tribe to another.

Tribal identity is critical to the overall cohesion of the community, and individuals who seek to work in business administration with tribal nations must learn these distinctions of identity.

Community Driven

Employees within successful businesses sometimes say that working for their company is like working with a large, extended family, and in the case of a tribal nation, that is actually the case. As tribal nations are autonomous collectives of indigenous peoples, their heritage is indelibly chartered by tribal identity and, in most cases, direct familial connections. The preservation and enrichment of the “family” is hardwired into the community’s operations.

Working with a tribe is, in fact, working with a community, and the efforts of the organization are driven more by the needs of the community than by the profit-based motives of stakeholders. This community shapes the direction of the organization, and it is vital for an MBA graduate who seeks to build a lasting relationship with a tribal organization to understand the community’s goals.

One Nation

Tribal nations are, essentially, sovereign nations existing within other national and cultural boundaries. As such, the regulations, laws and standard business practices of the broader nation may or may not apply in the same way — if at all — to the tribal nation’s people as they do to other citizens and individuals. Tribal sovereignty is a critical part of a tribal nation’s business model, and it is imperative to know how sovereignty affects a tribe’s ability to do business within its broader national location. While tribal nations may seem self-contained, they are also part of the larger national framework. Knowing how to navigate this dual identity of the tribe is a vital part of being useful and effective within a tribal organization.

Connectivity Within and Without

Many tribal nations arose from small communities of families, and the cultural identities formed within these small communities persist today. Elders within these communities still seek to instill these cultural identities into younger generations. This moral and cultural framework enables the younger set to retain the core values of their cultural heritage even as they integrate into broader society. As you work with a tribal nation, you will have opportunities to apply these values to the work you do for the tribe, thereby embedding their cultural identity into the framework of the business model.

SOSU MBA grad Ahmad El-Katib, who currently works as Director of Operational Excellence for the Choctaw Nation in Durant, Oklahoma, brings the values he learned growing up in Jordan to his work.

“I never worked with their tribe [the Choctaw Nation] before. I had a pretty good understanding of their culture because of my background coming from overseas and being of Middle Eastern origin. There are a lot of similarities there,” El-Katib said.

His previous roles with the Choctaw Nation include Development Fund Manager and Small Business Development Specialist. His focus in the latter role was to help tribal members start and expand their small businesses within the Choctaw Nation boundary.

“All three programs within the Choctaw Development Fund are focused on providing incentives and funding for communities and small business owners within the boundaries. That’s our biggest focus: to stimulate the economy within the boundaries of the Nation.”

Helping the tribe instill and promote its core values can enrich and sustain the tribe’s cultural identity. This identity will lead to greater engagement from tribe members who take pride in the tribe and show interest in the tribe’s overall success and survival. This circular transmission of values can result in a more tightly knit community that will, in turn, provide better support for whatever business model the tribal nation is seeking to implement.

Alumni Spotlight

Working With a Tribal Nation: Sense of Family Strong, Says SOSU Grad Julia Boyd

Online MBA graduation - Julia Boyd

Julia Boyd graduated from SOSU’s online MBA program in 2015. She serves as Director of HR Operations for the Choctaw Nation in Durant, Oklahoma and is currently working on her Master of Science in Native American Leadership, also at SOSU. Boyd, who is one-quarter Choctaw, talks about her work.

What are some of the unique aspects of working for a tribe?

In my case, working for my tribe has given me a greater sense of ownership in the policies, processes and overall success. Not only do I feel as if I’m contributing to the bottom line of the business, I also have a strong sense of being able to help the Choctaw people. What we (collectively) do every day helps support programs that benefit our tribal members. When I see tribal members get storm shelters, communities get fire departments, the elderly get help with bills, etc., I feel very proud to be part of an organization that is making such a huge difference.

How is working for a tribe different from working for other companies or organizations?

The sense of family is strong within the Choctaw Nation and presumably the same in other tribes, so associates feel more connected and have a more personal view of their employment. They tend to feel less like a number and more like part of a team that is working in concert to make the Choctaw Nation better. Additionally, another major difference is our freedom to pray at work. As a Christian, I am comforted by the fact that we are able to freely worship without fear of retribution.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about working for a tribal nation?

I would highly recommend that someone considering employment with a tribe perform due diligence to learn about the culture (tribal and organizational) and to also know the core values that exist within the tribe. Cultural fit, on both sides, is extremely important. I would say that most tribes typically operate from both humanistic and corporate processes, so an individual must be able to strike a balance between the two as well.

What do you like about working with the Choctaw Nation?

I love everything about it. The sense of family is probably one of the main things. My immediate family is large — four siblings — and we have always been very close. To also have a family-type bond with my coworkers where trust and respect are priorities provides a sense of safety and a comfort level that I don’t think are present in many organizations. I have forged some lifelong friendships during my tenure at the Choctaw Nation, and I am so thankful for that. Additionally, we have leaders who are humble and down to earth and encourage an open-door policy, even with them, so that further demonstrates how deeply steeped in core values the Choctaw Nation is. I can honestly say that in the 14+ years that I’ve been employed with the Nation, I have always enjoyed coming to work every day. That’s not to say things don’t go awry, because they do — but that hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for being a part of the Choctaw Nation as an employee and a tribal member.

What have you learned working there?

I have been blessed with great mentors who have taught me patience, grace, mercy [and] tact, and have demonstrated love, respect and kindness to everyone, regardless of whether they deserved it or not. I feel as if I’ve grown tremendously in the area of emotional maturity and how to love my fellow man regardless of differing views or opinions. With the success of our tribe, I have also learned the importance of giving back. “To whom much is given, much is required,” is so true of [my motivation to work with] the Choctaw Nation. The more successful we become, the more we do for others, and that is an example that we all need to set.

Learn more about the SOSU online MBA program with an emphasis in Native American Leadership.

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