Spotlight on a Tribal Business: Waséyabek Development Company and CEO Deidra Mitchell
In our continuing series of spotlighting Native and tribally-owned businesses, we talked to Deidra Mitchell, who is the CEO of Waséyabek Development Company, LLC, (WDC), a wholly-owned entity of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi that’s based in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. With Deidra at the helm, WDC has grown quickly over the last few years through a diversified portfolio and business acquisitions. Still, Deidra uses her wealth of knowledge and experience to mentor and guide other new companies because she believes collaboration in Indian Country is key to success for everyone. We hope you are inspired by Deidra and her firm’s success!
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your business.
Currently, I serve as the President & CEO of WDC, which is a 100% Tribally-owned economic development entity of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (NHBP). The firm is located in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the heart of the business district.
The purpose of our efforts at WDC is to foster the development of a stable, diversified economy for the members of NHBP and contribute to their long-term sustainability and self-sufficiency while managing risk and creating quality employment opportunities for tribal members. WDC manages a sovereign wealth fund that has deployed $34.3 million dollars over the last 24 months and will deploy more over the next five years. The firm’s focus is on creating a diversified portfolio of investment real estate, conventional commercial operating businesses, and companies operating in the federal sector. WDC acquired and transitioned two commercial entities to its portfolio in 2018: DWH, LLC and Baker Engineering, LLC. Our real estate subsidiary, Terrapin Properties, LLC, has over a quarter million square feet of leasable commercial real estate with a portfolio value of $28.5 million – all acquired since November of 2016.
Our federal contracting subsidiary, Waséyabek Federal Services, LLC (WFS), received 8(a) certification in September 2018. WFS currently holds a subcontract at the White House and performs construction management services at that location. WFS also entered into a Mentor-Protégé and subsequent Joint Venture (JV) with a large firm supplying engineering, operations, maintenance, environmental, administrative, safety, and technical capabilities to government, prime contractors and private sector clients. That JV was awarded its first multiple award, prime contract in November 2018 to provide facilities support services to GSA properties along the eastern seaboard.
2. How long have you been in operation?
NHBP formed WDC in 2011. The company sat its first Board of Directors in 2014 and hired me as the first full-time CEO in April 2016. Since joining WDC, I have aligned resources and gained consensus from stakeholders, and orchestrated the acquisition of four income properties, one consulting firm, and a manufacturing company for the WDC business portfolio. My efforts have resulted in a stronger internal and external business infrastructure, increased revenue, heightened WDC brand recognition, and produced a 375% increase in assets under management.
3. What did you do before starting your business?
I started my career in the environmental cleanup industry and worked my way up from field technician to President. As a result, I have 25 years of start-up, federal contracting, and progressively responsible leadership experience in business strategy, growth, development, and operations; project planning and implementation; and technology advancement – all obtained during assignments in diverse industries such as federal contracting, e-commerce, consulting, manufacturing, environmental, demolition, construction, IT, and communication.
I have started ten businesses and held executive level positions in Indian Country, including Executive VP of Business Development and CEO. The companies I started have been for myself, private corporations, and Native Corporations. Examples of these companies include a national demolition and environmental division for a large corporation in Seattle, a private California corporation that was offering a new technology in the environmental clean-up industry, and a company that imported handicrafts from Bali. Additional examples were an Alaska Native IT and communications company that performed government projects requiring a Top Secret clearance, and a construction division for a large engineering firm in Alaska.
Although my time is fully dedicated to building the WDC portfolio of businesses these days, I still try to find time to help new companies. For example, I am currently helping a company prepare for sale. These activities are fully supported by the WDC Board of Directors as a way to continue to grow my skills and network and allow me to give back and assist other small businesses in the process.
4. How has the National Center helped you and WDC?
The National Center has not only helped me expand my network but it has also helped broadcast WDC’s message to Indian Country and provided an essential platform in which tribal leaders can collaborate. I learn the most amazing lessons by listening to others’ journeys. Every single business venture is different but has common building blocks. WDC has a strong desire to help other Native American economic development companies realize their potential, and because of the assistance the National Center has provided us over the last year, we have been able to get that message out to more firms than we could have on our own merit.
5. What aspect of your business gives you the most pride?
Working for the members of the NHBP is a fantastic privilege. I am thankful each day that our Tribal Council, the WDC Board, and the NHBP’s tribal membership support and entrust us with their economic development mission and remain committed to deliver the stability and consistent long-range vision that is imperative to the success of any business development activity.
I am also grateful to work with a dedicated, like-minded, and hard-working team every day. We continue to build an amazing staff at WDC. 50% of our management team is tribal members. All of our current employees are high-achievers that continue to develop professional skills and remain committed to our mission. I thank them for their dedication, for always going the extra mile, and for exemplifying that great things are accomplished through remarkable people.
6. Do you have advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
If you work hard and dedicate yourself to your aspirations, you can accomplish great things. Focus on one or two big goals at a time and try not to let the minutia pull you down. While I enjoy what I do for a living, I think it is imperative to pursue a balanced life. Be sure to spend time with your loved ones, enjoy nature, cultivate your hobbies, and read a good book.
To quote civil rights pioneer W.E.B Dubois’s letter to his daughter after she arrived at school in England: “Don’t shrink from new experiences and customs. Take the cold bath bravely. Enjoy what is and not pine for what is not. Read some good, heavy, serious books just for discipline: Take yourself in hand and master yourself. Make yourself do unpleasant things, so as to gain the upper hand of your soul. Above all remember: your father loves you and believes in you and expects you to be a wonderful woman.”
Pretty powerful stuff for entrepreneurs and those embarking on a new adventure, right? Indian Country must believe unequivocally in its citizens and the talent waiting to be released!
7. Tell us why you’re excited about attending RES next year.
RES is an excellent time to network with other Native American tribes to learn what economic development opportunities are working and not working. I believe we can learn a tremendous amount by collaborating and helping each other grow our firms, which in turn will make Indian Country stronger and healthier. I enjoy RES because it is so well attended by my colleagues and I get a chance to catch up with many people I would not otherwise have the opportunity to see throughout the year.
8. Anything else you want to add or share?
In 2019, working in collaboration with NHBP, WDC will begin an entrepreneurial training program for its tribal citizens interested in becoming business owners. We felt there was a need for a very personal, tribal-centric approach to learning the basics of business that many of our members are more comfortable learning in-house. Through DWH – our established business consulting subsidiary that has been tribally-owned by WDC since 2018 – we have the real-life experience to provide these tools but also the local connections for mentors, financing, grants, etc. It is our hope that those graduating from the program will gain the confidence to expand their networks and exposure. We will highly recommend the National Center for that task!