Adventure Capital 

Giving entrepreneurs a boost on Montana’s reservations

Gary Gobert Jr. says if it wasn’t for the Montana-based Four Times Foundation, he’d never be in business.

Gobert, a Blackfeet musician and singer who owns the Two Medicine Signs shop in Browning, says he discovered the foundation while searching for start-up capital. He filed an application with the group, which is headquartered in Red Lodge, and was given a $10,000 grant in 1998.

“That’s the only thing we started with,” he says. Gobert, a Browning native, says the cash enabled him and his wife, Janet, to purchase a used mobile home they converted into a workshop, a variety of specialized equipment, and enough supplies to get the business going. Today, the couple makes signs, banners and bumper stickers for all kinds of businesses and events. They also design and produce letterheads, business cards, flyers and brochures from a desktop publishing system. Gobert, 43, learned the sign trade while working for a private company in Kalispell. He says starting up his own business looked like the only ticket home when he decided to return to the reservation.

After quitting school in the 10th grade, Gobert says he hit the road to play music. While he hasn’t given up singing and playing electric guitar, most of his days are now spent running his business, which is located next door to his home.

Jael Kampfe, the foundation’s executive director, says Two Medicine Signs is an excellent example of what the nonprofit group is trying to accomplish—spurring economic development on reservations by helping individual entrepreneurs with their financial and technical needs.

“Four Times doesn’t invest in businesses, it invests in individuals,” she says.

The foundation’s unusual name, Kampfe explains, comes from a Lakota belief that if someone is given a gift from the heart, they’ll give it back four times.

“A Lakota understands that you give what you have freely, knowing in time it will come back to you four times over,” adds Albert White Hat, a native language instructor at South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University and president of the group’s board of directors. “And when you receive a gift, you know you need to return the gift four times what was given to you.”

Kampfe says the foundation was established in 1998 after several folks involved in reservation development projects studied the reasons many Indian-owned businesses can’t get off the ground.

“A critical obstacle is poverty,” she says, “so we decided to focus on economic development.” Poverty, she notes, was primarily an obstacle for individuals, because many of them lacked equity and were thus unable to obtain start-up loans. Individuals, rather than organizations, were also most likely to be ineligible for grants and other funding, she notes.

“There’s white businesses on reservations, but not many Indian businesses,” she observes, usually because of a lack of capital.

Kampfe says the group brainstormed about reservation funding problems for about four years before approaching New York venture capitalist Ed Cohen, founder of the Echoing Green Foundation, which helps entrepreneurs start nonprofit groups that will promote social change.

Cohen, among other backers, agreed to join the project and the new organization was on its way. “We started by addressing values,” Kampfe says of the early-day organizing efforts. The founders went to various reservation communities, asked residents what was important, and melded their findings into a set of guiding policies. In the foundation’s first year, six individuals from the Blackfeet Reservation, South Dakota’s Rosebud Reservation, and the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico received $10,000 fellowships from the organization. Last year, seven Indian entrepreneurs received grants, including Browning residents Cheryl Gobert, who started the Piegan Tackle Shop; Craig Iron Pipe, owner of the Iron Pipe Bed & Breakfast; and Raymond and Tammi Harwood, who established the Grizzly Bear Crossing store in Babb.

The foundation also serves Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation, as well as Montana’s Northern Cheyenne Reservation, which was added this year. Kampfe, who holds a religious studies degree from Yale University and has worked with White Hat to produce a Lakota language textbook, says the group has limited the number of areas it serves so a solid track record can be established before branching out further.

“We wanted to start small and test the model,” she explains, adding that the group is currently able to fund up to 10 ventures a year. The foundation has a two-pronged approach in deciding who receives fellowships.

“Half of it is the person, and half of it is the venture,” Kampfe says. “We’re looking for a particular kind of person who will be part of this growing family. The fellowship program is actually an endeavor to help mentor others and build community. For some people, that’s not a match.”

After three years of testing the model, some fine tuning must be done, she says. In particular, there’s a need to provide funding for larger ventures, as well as offer more technical assistance to businesses that have opened their doors, but are having trouble reaching their potential.

For example, she says, Two Medicine Signs, among others, needs help developing better marketing strategies. Gobert says he’s also looking at diversifying further and perhaps moving his shop to a more prominent location. “One of our learning curves has to do with [discovering how] to add the most value,” Kampfe says. “Anybody can start a business. What’s hard is maintaining one.”

As the foundation expands, she adds, so will the economic status of reservations.

“I see us as a bridge,” Kampfe says. “We’re connecting reservations with each other, as well as Indians and non-Indians. Our goal is having Indian businesses the norm, rather than the exception.”

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