“Some of the best jobs are the ones you’re not looking for — they come looking for you!” says Shane Jett. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Jett obtained his current role as CEO of the Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation, one of Native America’s largest community development financial institutions, or CDFIs, through serendipity — not to mention the ability to work across the political aisle and experience working with foreign countries.
After a career that included military service — he’s currently serving in the U.S. Navy Reserve — working for international business organizations and as an Oklahoma state representative from 2004 to 2010, Jett possessed a depth of business and public sector expertise.
“We founded the Native American Caucus in the legislature when we discovered there were 17 of us Natives on the House floor,” says Jett. “The Caucus visited 38 states talking about economic development.”
One of the messages the caucus offered: diversify Tribal economies beyond gaming to take advantage of the resources while gaming revenues continued rolling in. He also worked to bring economic development initiatives to Tribes.
However, Jett didn’t know much about banking or how CDFIs work to support building Tribal economies or strengthening Tribal communities.
But Jett says his experience reaching across the aisle when serving in the state Legislature led to his current role. Jett, a Republican, reached out regularly to constituents, especially Tribal constituents, no matter their political views. “I didn’t just pay lip service to Tribes,” Jett says; “when Tribes needed me, I was there.”
One of those Tribal communities was the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
In October 2011, Jett received a call that would change his career direction. “I had just been interviewed by a manufacturing company that wanted me to open a plant in Brazil, where I had worked before.” Click To Tweet
“But I got a call the next morning from Rocky Barrett, the chairman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. He said, ‘I have a business proposal for you. Where are you right now?’”
“I’m at the university.” (That would be Saint Gregory’s University in Shawnee, where Jett was teaching world geography and culture, and U.S. government classes at the time.)
“I’ll be there in 20 minutes,” Barrett said.
Jett says, “He asked me if I wanted to run his community development corporation. I asked, ‘What is that?’”
Barrett replied, “It’s a community development financial institution.”
“What is that?” Jett asked.
Barrett explained the purpose of the CDFI, which is to supply financing for Native American businesses all over Oklahoma.
Jett, who says he represented about 90 percent of the Potawatomi’s trust land during his term in the Legislature, said, “This is the best economic development tool I’ve ever seen for Native American economic development. Why have I never heard about this before?”
“I don’t know,” said Barrett, “but do you want to run it?”
Jett was intrigued, and Barrett asked him to start that day. However, Jett had to teach his class, so he went to the office that Friday, and was promptly established in his office.
Jett had to jump right in and straighten out an embezzlement scandal. “They needed somebody with credibility and experience with the federal and state governments,” he says. “My job was, clean up that mess and grow the organization.”
So Jett set to work. “I’m a boots on the ground person,” he says.
“I learned that a lot of what I learned in international business applies to Tribes,” Jett says. “Languages, cultures and histories are all different in the international realm,” he says. “And so are Tribal nations.”
And, the CDFI has grown and prospered ever since. The corporation has grown from a $14 million portfolio when Jett started to nearly $80 million in revolving loans, he says. The Potawatomi’s CDFI has supported the creation or retention of almost 1,600 jobs through more than 400 commercial loans to Native-owned firms. More than 9,200 Tribal citizens have received business or financial training.
In fact, Jett says the Citizen Potawatomi CDC is now far and away the largest of its kind in Native America.
The CDFI supports building and growing Tribal economies by providing financing for a variety of projects, Jett says. “The denial of access to capital prevents families from building wealth,” Jett says. “It’s like paying rent for a home, which is like paying 100 percent interest and building no equity,” he says. But, “When we can go to a Tribal CDFI or a Tribal bank to fund our project, we can begin creating wealth to bring our young people back home,” he says. “We’re investing wisely in our own communities.”
In fact, Jett believes that, by building a strong economy, he’s also helping support Tribal sovereignty as well as giving Tribal citizens the opportunity to preserve their cultures. “The only way we can sustain our languages, cultures and people is through our economy,” he says.
But there’s more to this story: Jett and the Citizen Potawatomi CDC continue to innovate as they develop new ways to serve their community. Jett says that he’s received support, and great ideas, from Tribal leaders. In addition to Barrett, Citizen Potawatomi Vice-Chairman Linda Capps has worked with Jett to develop some initiatives to make life easier and more prosperous for Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s families.
“Mrs. Capps noticed that some Tribal employees were getting their wages garnished by payday lenders, who charge up to 400 percent interest,” Jett says.
“’Why can’t we lend to our employees?’” she asked Jett.
To deal with the issue, Jett and his staff developed employee loan programs that include financial literacy training, so staffers can learn to better manage their money.
Absenteeism was also an issue. “Some employees were having a hard time getting to work because they lacked reliable transportation,” says Jett. “So, we created the Jump Start Program, which enables employees to purchase new vehicles with a payroll deduction.”
These and other such programs, such as the “credit building loan,” which helps raise credit scores before a home purchase, are responding to the community’s needs, Jett says.
Jett’s work to support economic development throughout Indian Country continues to be recognized. His CDC was the first to obtain New Market Tax Credits. In September 2017, he was elected as chairman of the CDFI advisory board—the first Native person to be so selected. And in April 2018, Jett was honored with an “Executive of the Year” award from the Native American Finance Officers Association. He’s also been profiled in several business publications as an inspiring business leader.
But, Jett’s most cherished accomplishment is his family. He met wife Ana while living and working in Brazil. The couple are the proud parents of daughters Raquel, 14, Esther, 9 and 3-year-old Sarah.
And, Jett’s not done building one of Indian Country’s strongest economies yet: “Within two years we expect to open a credit union,” he says. “Then the Tribe will have a bank, a CDFI and a credit union.”