Oweesta Corporation

Interview with Chrystel Cornelius, President and CEO of Oweesta

Ann Whittemore of Highlands SRI introduced me to Chrystel at Swift Foundation’s San Francisco office. Chrystel struck me right away. She was a fast talking woman with numbers. She had an ingenious approach to capitalizing a network of Native Community Development Finance Institutions with both money and technical assistance. Since then, she has doubled the capital raised for Oweesta’s fund.

Jen: Why did you start your fund?

Chrystel: Oweesta was created in 1999 under our parent company, First Nations Development Institute, the longest standing Native run and governed national philanthropic organization in the nation. Given the permeated history of Native communities and populations having a lack of access to capital, Oweesta was created to act as the capital arm for Indian Country with our intermediary status bridging various capital resources to our Tribal nations and populations across the Untied States, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Very fortuitously, the CDFI Fund was also created during this time period under the Clinton Administration in which Oweesta became the first certified Native CDFI intermediary in the nation specifically dedicated to serving a primary target market of Native communities. Our capitalization and capacity building efforts over the last two decades have enhanced tribal sovereignty, created a platforms for private sector and entrepreneurial development  and created homeownership opportunities; which in turn creates community and generational wealth for areas that have been devoid of safe and affordable capital opportunities since colonization began.

Jen: How are your investment funds catalytic in a way that is different from other funds?

Chrystel: I believe our very existence for over 20 years is catalytic. Our organization has spent thousands of hours in training and capacity building efforts in conjunction with our direct lending efforts to what is perceived as the riskiest market within the United States. With a deployment of over $90 million to Native communities within this timeframe and a zero percent delinquency rate, ultimately proves the strength and capability of our Native communities when given the chance to participate in a financial system geared to provide safe and affordable capital outlets. Our Native CDFIs have disrupted centuries of capital deprivation and offer platforms for upward financial mobility through the wide array of lending products offered at their respective organizations. Our ability to aggregate funds from a variety of sources and deploy that to our Native CDFIs to meet their local tribal market demand is transformational. When I look at other investments, our very existence as a Native intermediary CDFI, is in itself catalytic. We are generally the only and the first investors into Native communities that allow for private sector development, homeownership opportunities, as well as consumer financing products that are not predatory, and instead are safe and affordable.

Oweesta’s vision is to work ourselves out of a job, and I hope that we see that within our lifetime, whereas we’re seeing capital flow directly to Native communities without the need of an intermediary. Oweesta’s success is also unique in that throughout our 20 years, it has been our deeper relationships built on trust and faith with our Native communities and Native CDFIs that have allowed our organization to successfully act as a national intermediary.

2018 Capital Access Convening at Kauai Hawaiian Homestead Tour. Photo Credit: Oweesta.

Jen: How do you describe the kind of non-financial returns the fund offers?

Chrystel: Oweesta and our Native CDFIs literally change the economic landscape of our tribal communities, one training and one loan at a time. And while those activities sound purely transactional, the effects go far beyond financial returns.  Our communities have lived in financial deserts for generations and when you teach skills in a culturally appropriate manner and offer the opportunity to better your life and families life, we are creating general wealth and a transfer of assets for the first time in many families history. Our Native CDFIs efforts have spurred and propelled entrepreneurial mindsets and have created private sector economics within reservation communities; businesses owned by Native Americans.  The hope and change created within these measures goes far beyond the initial investment made.

Jen: Can you describe how you use integrated capital to do your work?

Chrystel: Oweesta is very fortunate to have a wide array of funders and investors from various capital systems that have supported our efforts on behalf of Indian Country. Our investment portfolio consists of social investors, religious organizations, foundations, conventional banks, and high wealth individuals. We’re able to utilize these various integrated capital sources to fund our revolving loan pool and associated loan products as well as to capitalize our dedicated Capital Pools for Native CDFIS who require longer term investments with a lower interest rates required to fund large development projects within their respective tribal communities.

In an effort to expand our impact and visibility, Oweesta is also a member of a newly formed partnership called the Partners for Rural Transformation, that work in the deepest pockets of poverty in the United States, also known as persistent poverty areas (20% of your population is in poverty for 30 years or more). This partnership is working at increasing capital, promoting policy public engagement, changing poverty narratives, and increasing capacity within the regions of the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, Native American communities, the Deep South, the Rio Grande Valley and regions in the Rural West.

Jen: What is transformational about the businesses that you invest in?

Chrystel: What is truly transformational about our direct investments to our Native CDFIs is the absolute capital demand we witness daily. Our Native communities and tribal members are building their own self-sufficiency and resiliency with the outlets of capital available to them for consumers, small business and home ownership loan opportunities provided to them by their local Native CDFIs.  We have thousands of first time account holders who are now utilizing the financial system in beneficial measures, we have a Native youth driven financial education curriculum that has assisted thousands of families and students to prepare for college, many the first in their family to attain a secondary education, and those are just a few examples. What’s transformational in our work, I believe, comes naturally in our very mission as a Native governed and led organization- where you honor the culture and people first and give them the tools to succeed by whatever they deem as their own personal financial success.

Jen: How do you address racial justice, income inequality, and/or gender justice through your products and services?

Chrystel: Oweesta mission and tenure in our industry for over 20 years in directly investing in Native communities address racial justice, income inequality and a host of other disenfranchised barriers to capital access by our very existence. We have 69 certified Native CDFIs operating from Maine to Hawaii, serving their tribal communities and acting as a financial pillar and economic engine in some of the rural and remotest locations in the United States, in viewing our activities in those terms racial justice is met every single day though our missions and associated operational activities.

Financial Coaching Training. Photo credit Daniel Sauve.

Jen: What does a foundation or investor need to understand in order to invest in transformational businesses?

Chrystel: Transformational business requires looking at risk and impact differently, and while not stating that to give the perception of greater risk, but looking at the dynamics of how you evaluate the strength and capacity of the said organization with a different lens. Western society tends to have a very transactional and patronizing view and rulebook in which they initiate their capital decisions. Relationships are rarely forged other than various conference calls, reporting and investments payments communications.

When I look at a lot of endeavors that haven’t necessarily worked, they’ve been prescriptive, in regard to the federal government and philanthropy and conventional sources of capital. They often assume they understand what marginalized communities need, rather than directly meeting and working with – as opposed to working on behalf of – these communities.

The relationship begins with an unbalanced power dynamic with-‘I want to do this and this for you,’ Native communities don’t necessarily need that. They need partners that are willing to stand, hand-in-hand, step-by-step, with them. Listen to your communities, understand their knowledge. They already have the innate solutions to their barriers, but typically don’t have access the resources to realize long-term systemic change within their communities. Transactions do not necessarily always work, but relationships do; you need to build those.

Also, I think it’s important that investors be willing to take a lower financial return in terms of interest rates on investments in order to build and realize generational social impact that initial investment helped spur within the local community providing upwards ladders of mobility to populations that largely have been invisible, as Natives have been invisible for generations.

Jen: What do you tell people who think your fund is risky?

Chrystel: Oweesta has deployed over $90 million in our organizational history to native communities with one partial loan default in 20 years. The narrative we have to combat that Indian Country is inherently risky has been derived from outside sources and institutions who hold power to continue the false narrative, but our data and portfolios over the decades show a very different perspective. Native CDFIs historically outperform conventional banks with lower default rates, loan write-off and late payments. When capital is afforded to any marginalized community in conjunction with the technical and capacity building support the end loan clients require for success, the results have been nothing but extraordinary.



Investment Thesis/What is your rationale for your approach to investing? We believe that when armed with the appropriate resources, Native peoples hold the capacity and ingenuity to ensure the sustainable, economic, spiritual and cultural well-being of their communities.

Geography: Nationwide

Year Founded: 1999

# of Investments: 136

# of Investors: 65

Funds Raised: $20,000,000


What’s on Chrystel’s Mind?

Book: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in north America by Thomas King

Song: Northern Cree Intertribal 

Podcast/Film: Slums: Cities of Tomorrow (I love how they speak about poverty, housing and squatters- their narratives were so refreshing to me.)