As a program manager and consultant who helps Indian businesses land federal contracts, Gwen Carr helped dramatically boost the numbers of Indians contracting with the state Department of Transportation on the Hwy. 41 project. Carr, who has won state awards for her public service and worked in the Clinton Administration, sat down with Insight Editor Margaret LeBrun to discuss her work with tribal businesses.
ONE OF THE THINGS I’M passionate about is being a bridge between the Indian and non-Indian world. In business, in policy, in a variety of instances I have had to be the ambassador for tribal concerns and non-tribal concerns.
I am the program manager for the Tribal Procurement Technical Assistance Center in Wisconsin. We have a seven-state region which includes Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, New York, Massachusetts and Maine. It’s a cooperative agreement between the federal government and a nonprofit, with support from the Oneida Nation, where our office is. Its purpose is to prepare American Indian and tribally-owned businesses to do government contracting.
The opportunities for tribes, because of their sovereign status, are huge. The tribes get to learn about the opportunities for them and other businesses and the government gets to learn how to work with the tribes.
Transportation is one of the most well-funded areas of the federal and state budget. Most of the Indian businesses historically have been in construction and trades. When you match those two – opportunity and preparation – together, you educate, you bring in the federal dollars with Indian businesses that are already in the construction and trades, and you have a recipe for success.
I started a consulting company called Innovations in Tribal Transportation (INTRANS) in 2009 because I had such a great team and saw so many opportunities working with tribes in the area of transportation in particular. There are departments of transportation in every state and tribes in just about every state. We can replicate what we have done here everywhere.
When I was asked to be the minority tribal- and woman-owned business director for the US 41 project in Winnebago and Brown counties, I moved to Appleton. We created 70 Indian businesses in less than eight months on the Hwy. 41 project. Those are measureable results.
My own personal story is a book. In a nutshell, I was adopted at birth by a wealthy Greek family in Chicago. My father was an extraordinarily successful and wealthy entrepreneur; he owned hotels and restaurants all over the world. I lived in Mexico, France and England and have traveled to almost every country in the world. I speak French, Portuguese and Italian.
I learned by example. My father was also very politically connected in Chicago. I didn’t like any of that stuff. I had been to embassy schools overseas and was able to graduate early. I left home at 16 and went to New York.
My life has been about transformation. I found out I was an American Indian when I was in my late 20s. I met my birth mother; she was a Cayuga living in Ithaca, N.Y. It was a life-changing experience for me. I started going to Indian events and learning the history of the American Indians. I went to Canada to talk to the traditional chiefs. They said “You were sent away by the Creator to learn the ways of power and the ways of the White world, and bring that back to your people and use it to their benefit.”
Indians do not come from recent entrepreneurial backgrounds. You’ve got people who have literally, in the past 50 years, gone from living a subsistence Third World experience here in Wisconsin to having a casino and trying to figure out how to do economic development and business development. You don’t have a lot of family members who can afford to help you out when you are starting a business.
There’s a lot of raw talent out there and there is a lot of opportunity. They just simply need to be prepared for it. And that’s what we help them do.