Mika Leonard, NAFSA’s New COO: Reaching Full Potential in the Tribal Financial Services Sector

As the new chief operating officer for the Native American Financial Services Association (NAFSA), Mika Leonard describes her position as “doing anything and everything” to get the message out about how the organization can advocate for tribes—specifically tribal sovereignty and lending for economic development in Indian Country.

Leonard joined Washington, D.C.-based NAFSA in April as Director of Business Development and received a promotion in July. As COO, she handles day-to-day operations, manages member relations and coordinates new opportunities for growth. A member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the granddaughter of the late Chief Floyd Leonard, Leonard hails from Oxford, Ohio, the ancestral homelands of her tribe.

Prior to joining NAFSA in April, Leonard oversaw sales and marketing at Native American Bank in Denver, Colorado. Her resume also boasts work for various federal contractors, including for her tribe, as the the Director of Business Development for Miami Technology Solutions, LLC.

Leonard graduated from Miami University in Oxford with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics in 2006, and subsequently held positions with the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development at the U.S. Department of the Interior, including Program Specialist/Legislative Liaison and Management Analyst.

Leonard recently spoke with Native Business™ about her new position, background and providing better economic opportunity in Indian Country.

What do you see as the most important focuses of your new position?

My role is to keep tribes aware of the opportunities available to them financially in an ever-changing market and world. What I do changes every day, but mainly I get the word out by face-to-face meetings to let people know what our mission is and how we can help. We do networking and attend conferences and are planning marketing campaigns. We do social media and have our website for information. There is lots of wonderful work being done out there that other tribes can learn from, so I help with that. I’ve seen a real surge in the skill set of the financial sector that young people are learning either in classes with a financial degree or on the job training. This helps tribes understand financial services, loan underwriting, compliance and how to cross-tie business with others. This is really needed in Indian Country to take things to a better level; young people need to get in early when and where they can. New technology can create instant jobs that didn’t exist the day or week before.

What are some challenges you face at NAFSA?

The main challenge is all the negative stories being put out. We are plagued with it whether it’s about drug and alcohol abuse or domestic violence. I need people to see the other side and that there are many businesses large and small within the various tribes and many success stories. I present a lot of case studies as examples. Some people may not have a bank within 75 miles of them, so we need to get financial information to them in an easier way. Another misconception is that we finance loans. We do not, but we can help tribes understand the complexities involved in getting them and the ways to grow when they do. The financial services sector is complicated and highly regulated with many compliances. Even for people opening new accounts there is often a lack of services and products. Then, within sovereign nations, there can be other issues to learn and understand.

How are you leveraging your previous professional experience to help tribes achieve full potential?

I previously worked in Indian Country right out of college with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Economic Development and for the Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs in Oklahoma. It really opened my eyes to the breadth of Indian Country and what the issues and needs were. I saw a lot of need for jobs and training and information about how to build business. Until you work in it, you can’t see how complex it all is, but my mission is to continue to advocate for tribal sovereignty in financial services.