Chris James, a Harvard Extension student, has dedicated his career to promoting economic development in Native American communities. His work with the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development was recently featured on Harvard University’s Upward Immobility podcast. We spoke with James about his experiences as a certificate applicant at Harvard Extension School.
EXTENSION SCHOOL: Can you tell us a bit about your background and your journey to Harvard Extension School?
JAMES: I am originally from Cherokee, North Carolina. It is the homeland of the eastern band of the Cherokee Indians. I grew up there. My roots are there. My family has owned small businesses on the reserve for over 50 years. Western North Carolina is therefore my home and I have spent most of my life there.
Early in my career, I ran a community development financial institution for the Eastern Cherokee Indian Band. A friend suggested that I apply for a job in Washington, DC, overseeing the Native American program at the Treasury Department. I was very skeptical that they would be interested in hiring someone from Cherokee, NC to run a large office at the Treasury Department. But of course you never know unless you apply.
I started this work at the Treasury Department in January 2009, leading an Indigenous Initiative Program for the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. This role led me to an eight-year career in Washington, DC. I spent a little over two years at the Treasury. I was then appointed by President Obama to lead the Office of Native American Affairs of the Small Business Administration. [SBA]. I spent six and a half years at the SBA, including developing the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and leading the Office of Field Operations, which oversaw half of the SBA staff (60 offices across the United States) .
As a person appointed by the presidency, my term in the SBA ended in 2016 with the end of the Obama administration. Coincidentally, around this time, the 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, was looking for a president and CEO. So, I applied, and after many conversations, they chose me for the job.
EXTENSION SCHOOL: Why did you decide to start taking classes at Harvard Extension School?
JAMES: I have a very busy work schedule, and I normally work more than 50 hours, maybe more sometimes. I was looking for something that fits my work schedule. I also wanted a program that would both improve on what I’m already doing at the National Center and help me gain the edge in my career. So I really liked the Association Management Certificate.
When I researched which university was the best given my parameters, I chose Harvard Extension because of its flexibility. Most of the classes took place in the evening. I can take the classes while working a full day and doing it all. I usually only take one class per semester, and I took a semester off last March due to a big event we were having at the time, so it’s going to be a longer process for me. But I should have my certificate by December. I have one class left.
I feel like I’m in a unique situation. I am not a typical student because I am well advanced in my career. But I think everyone, no matter where they are in life or in their career, can always learn something new. I don’t necessarily take the lessons to progress; I take classes to improve the work I am already doing.
EXTENSION SCHOOL: What have you learned in your lessons that you can apply directly to your work?
JAMES: The principles and practice of fundraising have been incredibly useful to me. In fact, the courses that focused on fundraising were the most helpful, overall. I was able to use these classes to make a fundraising plan. Another class helped me create a communication campaign. These are things that I have already done at the National Center, but the classes have helped me polish my language and my approach. They helped me think outside the box, instead of using my standard approach.
The finance and accounting courses were also very useful, although my background was in economics. The specific focus on nonprofit funding has been helpful. I work with companies every day. I help my clients’ accounting and finance so they can take their business to the next level.
But nonprofit is a whole different ball game. I treat my non-profit organization, the National Center, like a business. And I think all the things I learned in the Extension School classes helped me develop this philosophy. I have more than 20 employees and ten additional subcontractors. I have to make an annual budget every year. If I don’t run this organization like a business, then the organization will not perform to the best of its ability. This is my philosophy, and nonprofit management courses have supported and encouraged this philosophy.
EXTENSION SCHOOL: Have you been able to find courses that fit your schedule and are relevant to your interests and needs?
JAMES: I had no problem finding the right courses. I think I have identified 12 to 15 classes that I think are great. I really focused on communication and fundraising classes, as well as leadership and management. But again, taking a course is a big business. It takes longer and when you are working, balancing work and class can be a challenge sometimes. Keeping your personal motivation in mind makes it a bit easier to find that balance.
EXTENSION SCHOOL: What initiatives or projects does the National Center have coming up that are really exciting to you?
JAMES: We are in a position to move forward with our annual economic summit on reservations this year (July 2021). Of course, during the pandemic, we had to readjust – like everyone else did – and re-examine how we handled training, technical support, conferences, etc. So we made the strategic decision, even in January of this year, to try to move forward. with a hybrid model, with face-to-face training as well as virtual training.
The Reservation Economic Summit is a three-day training event, with matchmaking sessions and guest speakers. The majority of the event is taking place in person this year, following all CDC, state and local guidelines related to COVID, but we also have a virtual option. We look forward to this conference. This is one of our biggest fundraisers of the year. As a non-profit organization, $ 0.86 of every dollar we raise is reinvested in our programs. So, for us, this conference means giving back money and creating businesses in all Native American communities.
We are also hosting our Native Edge Institutes again this year. These are typically one-day courses where participants can devote six hours to focused training. Many of these sessions focus on sourcing and accessing different supply chains. But we also had institutes on finance as well as on leadership. We are committed to expanding this program. We organize one of these institutes every month, in geographic locations close to our Native American communities. But we also plan to continue with a virtual option.
And finally, this year, we launched a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) called Native Edge Finance. We hope that by the end of the fall, we will actually facilitate lending to small businesses outside of CDFI. So it’s really exciting for me because we’ve been working on it for a long time. In fact, developing a financial institution and preparing to give loans is a big problem for us.
EXTENSION SCHOOL: What kinds of adjustments did the National Center have to make during the pandemic?
JAMES: In mid-March 2020, when the states really started to shut down, we immediately started working with our clients on diversification. We’ve tried to help them think about how to refocus their business without relying on customers coming through the doors. We worked with them to move to online meetings, change the way they communicate with financial institutions and how they could get additional resources.
We advocated very, very closely under the CARES Act to ensure that Native American businesses benefited from the relief programs that were being developed. We really wanted to make sure that Native American businesses were not excluded from any legislation, that tribes had access to federal resources.
In addition to defending the interests of our Indigenous communities, we have also worked directly with these communities to help them access these resources. Access to federal resources continues to be a challenge in rural American reserve communities. We worked with the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to conduct a large-scale investigation to identify the impact of COVID on Native American businesses, especially those in remote rural communities. With this information, we have developed strategies to support these businesses. Making sure our businesses know they have access to federal programs was a priority. Another was to help our Native American businesses build relationships with traditional funding institutions. One of the biggest challenges facing rural communities is, literally, the lack of access to banks and financial institutions.
Finally, we have spent a lot of time developing a COVID-19 response program specifically designed to help tribal communities access personal protective equipment (PPE). We have developed a comprehensive program around the supply of PPE. We have created guidelines and online resources designed to help our businesses in two ways. First, we wanted to make sure they avoided PPE scams. Second, we have helped them, in some cases, to change their business practices so that they can start making and selling PPE such as disinfectants or gowns.
EXTENSION SCHOOL: Does the economic recovery in Native American communities match the economic recovery we are seeing nationally?
JAMES: I would say the economic recovery has been a bit slower in rural America. When a business closes, it is difficult to reopen, especially if it is a restaurant or retail business. Even with all the support networks out there, it’s hard to reopen once you’ve taken that first shot.
And finding the workforce to reopen has also been difficult. We see it nationally, but it’s worse in rural America. Our booking communities already had a limited workforce. This therefore amplified the challenge for rural America and especially the reserve communities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.