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Inside AIBL's big year
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Inside AIBL's big year

Emerging stronger than ever following the COVID-19 pandemic, Fort Lewis College's American Indian Business Leaders chapter had a huge year of wins on and off campus.

In April, the chapter netted three first-place wins in the university-track division at the 2023 National American Indigenous Business Leaders Leadership Conference in Las Vegas. The team won the Business Plan and Chapter of the Year competitions, and Michael Valdez, professor of Management, was recognized as the Faculty Advisor of the Year.

The wins further highlight FLC's prominence as a Native American-Serving, Nontribal Institution and align with AIBL's larger mission of empowering and supporting Indigenous individuals in business.

“When you look at FLC’s mission as a NASNTI, any program like AIBL that develops and facilitates leadership in our Indigenous students is extremely important,” said Steven Elias, dean of the School of Business Administration. “I think it helps Indigenous students develop business and leadership skills, and watching them go through their studies at FLC and be a part of AIBL— it changes lives.”

AIBL fosters leadership skills, provides educational resources, and creates networking opportunities for its members to promote economic development, entrepreneurship, and sustainable business practices within Indigenous communities across the United States.

“FLC’s AIBL chapter is amazing,” Valdez said. “[In Vegas], it was incredible to see how they interacted with the leadership, how they interacted with the stakeholders, how they took advantage of all the workshops, and how they supported the other AIBL chapters.”

Because of their strong showing and leadership, FLC’s AIBL chapter easily clinched the first-place spot in the Chapter of the Year Competition. It was due, in no small part, to the leadership of Wraygen Shouldis, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and senior studying Business Administration. Shouldis, the current president of the chapter, helped rebuild FLC’s AIBL chapter after a period of inactivity following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had to restart the chapter my sophomore year because it had essentially gone dormant,” Shouldis said. “There are a bunch of opportunities that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t in the chapter… In Vegas, we got to show everybody what we've done, the events we've held, our community outreach, and how we incorporate being Indigenous into all those things.”

This year, the team marshaled around Wakȟályapí Coffee for the Business Plan Competition. Started in 2021, the company was founded by Devyn Valandra, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a junior studying Entrepreneurship & Small Business. Valandra joined AIBL this year after finding success at campus events and in the microgrant pitch competitions at the FLC Center for Innovation. The conference presented opportunities for him and the rest of AIBL to showcase an Indigenous approach to coffee.

“Wakȟályapí means ‘to heat something up’ in Lakota,” Valandra said. “I used it for my LLC because I was trying to ‘heat up’ ideas for business ventures. My coffee is infused with sage from the Black Hills [in South Dakota], and it’s meant to provide health benefits. It’s an Indigenous outlook on coffee.”

Valandra was supported by the AIBL team, who helped him draft a written business plan for the competition and make financial projections. With support from his team, Valandra wowed the judges and took home the first-place spot.

The experience he gained from the AIBL conference in Vegas allowed him to refine his business plan further for the 8th annual Hawk Tank competition, where he again won first place and $10,000. With almost $15,000 in combined winnings, Valandra plans to buy a commercial coffee grinder and expand his business further, and he hopes to manage a fully-operational warehouse by 2027.

“We’re along for the ride to provide guidance and mentorship. We want to see these students excel, learn, and ultimately achieve the goal of being career-ready. And they will go out in their communities and make a difference.”

Professor Michael Valdez

Both Valandra and Shouldis appreciated AIBL’s faculty advisors for their continued mentorship. The chapter has two advisors: Valdez and Carma Claw, assistant professor of Management and the first Diné professor of business with a doctoral degree in the country. Valdez became an advisor in 2015, and the chapter asked Claw to step on as co-advisor in 2021.

“As advisors, we have a mutual commitment to the chapter,” Valdez said. “We’re there to provide support and strategic planning if they need experts to draw from. But the chapter is really successful because of the members it’s had in the past few years, like Wraygen, Joshua Emerson, and Michael Watchman.”

Valdez, who won Faculty Advisor of the Year at the conference, shared his philosophy on mentoring students.

“We’re along for the ride to provide guidance and mentorship,” he said. “ We want to see these students excel, learn, and ultimately achieve the goal of being career-ready. And they will go out in their communities and make a difference.”

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