Innovative small businesses in newer and emerging industry sectors will increasingly be the lifeblood of the economy in western North Carolina. That’s why Cherokee Preservation Foundation helped the Tribe’s community development corporation go through the rigorous process to become a community financial development institution (CDFI) that has received funding from the Foundation, the Tribal government and various agencies of the federal government. The CDFI is now known as Sequoyah Fund, Inc.
Sequoyah Fund, the Cherokee Enterprise Development Center and Cherokee Preservation Foundation are spearheading efforts to drive entrepreneurship on the Qualla Boundary and in the surrounding region.
The Foundation has provided over $5.2 million in grants to Sequoyah Fund so it can make low-interest loans to tribal members who want to start or expand businesses. To date, the Sequoyah Fund has lent over $12 million, and this resource has helped to create 919 jobs on the Qualla Boundary over the past decade.
Loans aren’t made until prospective borrowers with no prior experience running a business receive training from Sequoyah Fund and help from a Cherokee Enterprise Development Counselor, SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) business counselor, the Small Business & Technology Development Center at Western Carolina University, or a Small Business Center counselor at one of the area’s three community colleges. Sequoyah Fund utilizes the North Carolina REAL (Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning) training program, as well as the more academic, culturally relevant approach of the Indianpreneurship program developed by ONABEN as it trains new entrepreneurs.
The Foundation and Sequoyah Fund are also taking steps to teach entrepreneurial skills to college students at community colleges in the region and to children in the Cherokee school system. The REAL program is the cornerstone of entrepreneurship training at Haywood Community College, Southwestern Community College and Tri-County Community College. The colleges’ commitment to providing REAL to regional residents led Sequoyah Fund and Cherokee Preservation Foundation to sponsor an annual business plan competition that was open to students at the three colleges. This competition presented monetary awards to three small businesses that continue to grow, benefiting both the owners and the local economy.
Sequoyah Fund and the Foundation are collaborating with Cherokee Central Schools on integrating entrepreneurial concepts into the elementary, middle and high school curricula. Cherokee schools teachers have received North Carolina REAL training, and students participated in their first business plan competition during the 2011-12 school year. This collaboration is designed to instill entrepreneurial attitudes in our young people, shifting their thinking and their skills from becoming job seekers to becoming job creators.
While a student wouldn’t be old enough to qualify for a loan, Sequoyah Fund can work with their parents to help them get the start-up money they need. Young people on the Qualla Boundary with passion for their business concept and a sound business plan have an opportunity to grow a business that many other young people don’t have.
Sequoyah Fund’s newest focus is on supporting Cherokee artists located on the Qualla Boundary or in the seven far-western counties of North Carolina by opening new markets and new sales channels, freeing them to do what they do best: Create amazing art. Sequoyah Fund is leveraging its capabilities to help these artists locate products in stores dedicated to offering authentic hand-made goods, create and sell through a branded website, and offer their art through existing social media.
As Sequoyah Fund prepares for its second decade of service, providing capital to traditionally “unbankable” small businesses will continue to be the predominant focus. “The different people will notice most is our emphasis on entrepreneurial development and small business support,” says Executive Director, Russ Seagle. “Thanks to close partners and friends like Cherokee Preservation Foundation, we’re stepping into the gap for small businesses with funds, with consulting expertise, and with a vast array of resources to help them build, grow, survive, and thrive. Small businesses won’t find this level of help and service anywhere else in Western North Carolina.”