GRAND RAPIDS — Deidra Mitchell, president and CEO of Waséyabek Development Co. LLC, was selected to guest lecture at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to promote best practices in tribal economic development.
Mitchell, who has led the non-gaming economic development arm of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi for seven years, on March 24 will discuss how Waséyabek has adopted business practices from the Harvard Project of American Indian Economic Development.
Known as the Harvard Project, the program helps tribes develop economic development practices based on tenets that “sovereignty matters, culture matters, leadership matters and institutions matter.”
“To be recognized for having followed (the Harvard Project) and made it work, then be invited to speak, is a huge honor,” Mitchell told MiBiz. “I’m a little geeked out about it.”
As well, the Harvard Project emphasizes the separation of tribal politics from business decisions and day-to-day management. Mitchell called the program “the book on how to do economic development in Indian Country.”
“One of the challenges in Indian Country is: How do you honor the culture, how do you work within sovereignty and how do you keep the tribal politics separated from good business decisions?” said Mitchell, Waséyabek’s first full-time CEO.
That separation is important because part of any tribal economic development company’s mission is to “provide career development and jobs for tribal members. But that often politically puts the cart before the horse,” Mitchell said.
“You can’t provide jobs unless you have healthy companies, so we have to make good business decisions first then we have a tribal hiring preference,” she said.
Recipe for success
During her talk, Mitchell will “tell Waséyabek’s story” of growing from an organization that lost revenue when she started nearly seven years ago to ending its last year with $75 million in revenue across a diversified portfolio of companies and real estate holdings.
Under Mitchell’s leadership since April 2016, Waséyabek has grown from three employees to a staff of about 20. Waséyabek’s business portfolio also has grown exponentially to include 29 business entities, including a real estate portfolio with eight properties, multiple West Michigan manufacturers, and a federal contracting company that provides facilities support and professional services. Those entities combined employ more than 400 people.
Waséyabek also has nearly $20 million in passive investments, including $3 million in Grand Rapids-based cancer treatment startup BAMF Health Inc., $6 million in Holland transportation firms Zip Xpress Inc. and Green Transportation Inc., and $10 million in an undisclosed food manufacturer, according to Mitchell.
“They seem to be growing like gangbusters, and the proof is in the pudding, going from $0 in revenue to $75 million in five or six years — that’s just awesome as a startup,” said Eric Henson, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard whose class will host Mitchell. “There’s something (Waséyabek) is doing right in terms of execution, and it’s not all solely” because of following the Harvard Project.
Henson credits the tribes whose economic development work in the 1980s and ’90s served as the basis for the Harvard Project.
“No one at Harvard created this recipe for success, it’s just a reflection of what’s happening out there,” Henson said of the best practices.
Waséyabek’s growth pipeline also “looks great,” Mitchell said, noting that executives recently finished a five-year strategic plan that starts in 2024 and aims to grow annual revenue from $80 million to $275 million through 2028.
“We have some very aggressive growth goals, accomplished through both acquisitions and organic growth of our companies,” Mitchell said, adding that one acquisition in the pipeline is in the due diligence phase and “several (others) are being looked at.”
Mitchell, who was named investor of the year in the 2022 MiBiz Deals & Dealmakers Awards, has guided several noteworthy projects, including the cross-tribe partnership with Gun Lake Investments, the non-gaming investment arm of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi, to co-invest in the purchase of McKay Tower in downtown Grand Rapids in early 2020.