16 Nov 2022

Investing in Indigenous Sovereignty

Harvard Business School Executive Education Program Partners with Native American and First Nations Organizations to Build Investment Expertise

by Shona Simkin

At a 2014 conference, Meagan Hill (AB 2011, MBA 2016), a member of the Mohawk Nation, stood proudly as her uncle received an achievement award for his work as treasurer of the Seneca Nation. Hosted by the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA), the annual conference convenes professionals from member tribes, each of which operate as independent governments with their own political structures and economies. Over the next few days, discussions with member nations echoed many of the cases she was studying in her Harvard Business School (HBS) classes and issues she had encountered in her two years working in investment finance. She returned to the HBS campus with a spark of an idea.

“Many sovereign indigenous nations have sizable endowments derived from increasingly diverse portfolios that include businesses like gaming, hospitality and tourism, and energy,” said Hill. “Many were exploring portfolio management while also balancing social goals and the spending and investment needs related to running a sovereign nation. Management is complex—and native nations don’t have as robust of networks or access to resources of similar institutions like university endowments. Having enjoyed my time at Harvard so much, as well as knowing the ins and outs of the University from the extra-curricular activities I’d been engaged in since my undergraduate days, I sensed an opportunity and thought ‘Let’s create an Executive Education program.’”

Four cohorts and 218 participants later, Leading People and Investing to Build Sustainable Communities has a waiting list of dozens, expanded from North America into New Zealand and Australia, is exploring bringing in tribal groups from South America, and is introducing a new course for tribal leaders in 2023.


Back at HBS and eager to learn more, Hill studied different tribal nations’ business ventures and approaches to raising capital as an independent study project with the support of Tom Nicholas, HBS’s William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration. She and Nicholas brought the research to one of her favorite College professors, David Ager, also a senior lecturer in HBS Executive Education, and pitched the idea of creating a custom program.

Ager saw its potential and took the concept to HBS administrators, with collaboration and inclusion as a top priority. There were several dedicated organizations at the University that he wanted to involve in both planning and execution: the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP), the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development (HPAIED), and Honoring Nations, as well as professors, staff, and students with tribal identities.

“We didn’t want it to be only an HBS initiative, I wanted the entire University to feel that they could be a part of it,” said Ager. “The Native Americans and people from native nations across the campus have much more knowledge than I. I wanted to make sure that everyone was aware and invited to participate and I tried to learn as much as I could from each person I met with as we built the program.”

"We want Indigenous communities to be more confident in those conversations—to know what to ask, to question the prospective advisors' claims"
-David Ager

Meanwhile, Hill asked leaders from larger tribal organizations, AFOA Canada and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), to partner with them to attract participants and build a curriculum.

HBS administrators were immediately on board, and offered to support the program to reduce participant costs and ensure affordability across all interested communities.

With guidance and advice from University colleagues and AFOA and NCAI, Ager, Nicholas, and Hill sketched the outlines of a program that could best meet the primary learning needs of these tribal communities in a four-day program. They landed on four main themes: investment governance, entrepreneurial finance, negotiations, and leadership and change management. Faculty from across the School and University crafted their class plans around relevant cases, executives from successful tribal business ventures signed on to lead discussions, and Indigenous citizens began registering.

In May of 2017, the first cohort of 61 participants from across the continent arrived on the HBS campus, well surpassing the initial goal of 40. The following year, with a new partnership with NAFOA, attendance grew to 84 participants, followed by 78 in 2019 and 74 in 2022 (the program was not offered in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID).

“We’re trying to support Indigenous leaders to be savvier when it comes to managing their sovereign wealth,” said Ager. “Indigenous communities get a lot of offers from organizations who want to manage their wealth, so we want them to be more confident in those conversations—to know what to ask, to question the prospective advisors’ claims. Governance also presents challenges—if you’re in a community that is economically disadvantaged and may not have access to potable water, for example, how do you meet the immediate needs of community members while also thinking about investing or allocating funds to opportunities that might generate wealth in the future?”


The four-day program combines elements of Executive Education classes—small residence-based group discussions and larger classroom case discussions—with social events that include Native Americans and Indigenous peoples from across the University, as well as interactive lectures with Native American and First Nations industry executives.

Program participants are welcomed by a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, ancestral owners of the land on which HBS sits. The elder burns sweet grass in a traditional smudge ceremony to wish the group an experience of learning and comfort. Inside the classroom, a representative from HUNAP introduces the history of Harvard’s commitment to Native Americans, including the Charter of 1650 that pledges to educate English and Indian youth; the graduation of the first Native American at Harvard, Class of 1665’s Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck of the Wampanoag Tribe; the Indian College building in Harvard Yard, currently the site of Matthews Hall; and the recent findings on the enslavement of Native Americans in the Harvard Report on the Legacy of Slavery.

"The importance of the earth factors into any tribal investment decisions"
-David Ager

“Harvard’s pledge to educate Indian youth has really gone unfulfilled and is reflected today in the critical need for resources and support for Native students and programs. Anytime there are Indigenous voices and perspectives on campus, no matter which campus it is, it’s important,” commented Megan Minoka Hill, director of the Honoring Nations program at Harvard, HPAIED program director, and member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.

Alumna Meagan Hill, who joins the program every year, finds the welcome and acknowledgement inspiring and says it sets the program off on the best foot. “Harvard can often feel like a mysterious place—extremely competitive and challenging to get into. When you learn about the charter, everyone gains a sense of belonging and excitement about being a part of the school’s early mission,” she said.

Similarly, the case method pedagogy helps to build community and a true give and take of knowledge. “Our faculty learn from hearing the different approaches and priorities that the program participants share during the discussion,” said Ager. “The importance of the earth factors into any tribal investment decisions: What is the impact on the earth, how are you giving back to the earth when the earth provides? In many ways Indigenous peoples are generations ahead when it comes to sustainability. Our faculty learn from that, and the program participants remind us that there’s not only one way to do business.”

"Indigenous peoples can come together from different countries and communities and have their perspectives heard in the classroom"
-Emily Martell

The most recent program in May of 2022 included a case discussion on different approaches to portfolio management (with Professor Adi Sunderam), on tribal governance foundations of economic and financial well-being (with HPAIED research director Miriam Jorgensen and her Nebraska Sioux Lean Beef case), effective negotiation (with Professor Jim Sebenius), leadership in turbulent times (with Professor Ryan Buell), and an interactive lecture about governance and multi-nation collaboration (with Margaret Kenequanash, CEO of Wataynikaneyap Power).

For Helen Bobiwash, FCPA, FCMA, CAFM, from the Thessalon First Nation in Northern Ontario, an independent accountant and fiscal negotiator for the Anishinabek Education System, the experience both reinvigorated her sense of purpose and brought a sense of expanded community.

“Having the opportunity to share what we’re doing with Indigenous peoples from across Canada, the US, and Australia, and to see the diversity of people—from very small communities to larger with multi-billion dollar assets, it was amazing to be able to learn from each other. I left feeling recharged and with a new energy to go back and apply what I’ve learned,” said Bobiwash.

Emily Martell, a member of the Waterhen Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, found the experience particularly valuable to her work with a local publicly funded school division. “Part of my role is making space for Indigenous participation and ensuring that Indigenous voices and perspectives are in all aspects of our division. In this program, Indigenous peoples can come together from different countries and communities and have their perspectives heard in the classroom where faculty are sharing their knowledge with us and we are sharing our knowledge with them. It’s a beginning place for that reconciliation,” said Martell.


In May, the program will celebrate its fifth year and welcome the first participants to a new program for tribal leaders. Ager hopes that both opportunities bring yet more voices from Maori and Australian Aboriginal peoples and that cases about and including Indigenous peoples continue to grow in the Executive Education and MBA curricula. He sees more leaders from the same communities attending, he says, which can expand its impact.

"American Indians constitute between one to two percent of the US population, so it’s even more important that we have allies who aren’t Indigenous"
-Meagan Hill

Terry Goodtrack, president and CEO of AFOA Canada and member of the Wood Mountain Lakota First Nation in Saskatchewan, concurs, adding that much of the program’s value is in the inspiration he sees in its graduates. “The biggest benefit of the course is that it raises the ceiling on what is possible,” said Goodtrack. “You see people coming out of the program and creating new ideas—I know some have taken other executive education programs, or another certificate program. As an example, one person started a growth fund based on a case he studied in the program. It is exciting to see people not only learn the concepts but also apply and share them with others.”

“This partnership between HBS, AFOA Canada, and NAFOA has helped to create a bridge to Indigenous people across the globe,” added Rico Frias, executive director of NAFOA and citizen of the Chihene Nde Nation. “I’ve made strong connections with colleagues in this community and farther across the water—a slightly longer canoe journey to Australia and Aotearoa. When Columbus landed, the diseases he brought traveled our trade routes and caused tremendous depopulation. We lost those routes, those connections, and this is helping us recreate them.”

HPAIED’s Hill sees potential in seeking further integration. “One of my hopes is that these programs become more regular, but also that there’s a mainstreaming of Indigenous peoples in all executive education programs so that they have opportunities at Harvard to meet and collaborate with colleagues from every sector and all be on the same platform,” Hill noted. “American Indians constitute between one to two percent of the US population, so it’s even more important that we have allies who aren’t Indigenous. Our non-Native neighbors need to understand what’s at stake, why all communities—Native and non-Native—benefit when tribal nations exercise their sovereignty and self-determination. In some ways our survival depends on our neighbors’ understanding.”

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