'Kitchen Table Work'

Bill Connelly '59 built trust while working with Native American business owners

Bill Connelly learned a lot about the value of community and helping others while growing up on a farm in Lanesboro, Minn. "My dad would come in and wake me up on Saturday morning to send me to our neighbors — immigrant Norwegians — to help them make hay or shock grain," Connelly recalled. "His final admonition always was, ‘Now don’t take any money from them; we might need them some day.’"

Maintaining a strong sense of community with a focus on personalized attention has been critical to Connelly’s success as an economic resource for Native Americans throughout the state. During the last 13 years, he has worked diligently to build a level of trust among those he has met on Minnesota’s 11 Indian reservations.

In 1955, Connelly left the plowed fields and gravel roads of the family farm to attend the College of St. Thomas. After graduating in May 1959, he received graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University, and returned to Minnesota to work for First Bank Systems. He served as president and CEO of four Minnesota branches, but it was his time in Babbitt, Minn., his first bank, that would really prepare him for the economic development work he would later pursue.

Given the remote location of the town in northeastern Minnesota, many of the miners in Babbitt would seek Connelly’s help in developing business plans and financial goals. The direct contact he made with the community was meaningful to both the citizens of Babbitt and to Connelly himself. And it became his preferred way of doing business. "Kitchen-table work," Connelly called it.

In 1986, after serving an 18-month term as deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development, Connelly wanted to pursue his interest in the Venture Capital Network, a program that matched entrepreneurs with investors. He approached St. Thomas to see if it would be interested in hosting the program.

"I felt a private institution could offer investors some of the privacy they were seeking," Connelly said. Of course it didn’t hurt that St. Thomas was just beginning to develop its own entrepreneurship programs. "I pitched the idea and was offered an office with no pay," Connelly remembers. "If I could get the program off the ground, great. If not, it wasn’t a huge financial risk for the college."

The program was successful. But after new tax laws began to dry up federal matching funds, Connelly turned to the Small Business Development Center at St. Thomas to continue working with local entrepreneurs. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to serve as the director of the center, a position he held from 1988 to 1991.

Nearly all of the steps in Connelly’s professional career prepared him for working with entrepreneurs and helping clients with little experience try to understand the intricacies of starting their own business. In 1990, Connelly was asked by the McKnight Foundation to do some research on how the foundation might most effectively support the Native American community in Minnesota. Connelly’s proposal — to have the foundation separate itself from direct liability by forming a nonprofit organization (a 501C3 corporation) run by a board comprised of members of the Indian community — was not immediately embraced.

After further deliberation though, the foundation agreed that the new arrangement could work and turned to the man who had come up with the idea. Connelly was offered the job to start the Minnesota Indian Economic Development Fund (MIEDF). He was conflicted, though, as he had come to appreciate the culture and support he received at St. Thomas. Connelly countered the offer by McKnight and asked if the program could be affiliated with the college. The foundation agreed, and Connelly served as the executive director of the fund from 1991 to 1999.

"I only intended to stay for five years," Connelly said, "but I loved going out to talk to entrepreneurs about their business ideas. I put 264,000 miles on my 1990 Oldsmobile visiting the reservations."

The time spent by Connelly behind the wheel in the ’90s has paid off. The fund, regulated and administered by an all-Indian board of directors from across the state, is thriving. The fund has awarded 32 low-interest loans totaling nearly $370,000 to Native American start-up businesses based on need and a successful business plan. Of the 32 loans awarded in the past 10 years, only two have failed. Half of the loans have been to women.

A particularly important sign that the loans are having the desired effect is that seven of the businesses employ second-generation family members. "I found that entrepreneurship in the Indian community, like other populations, runs in the family," Connelly said. "Each of the 32 loans went to first-generation entrepreneurs. Now their children are getting involved, which is critical to the future success of the business."

The success of the fund also made it easier for him to step aside as executive director in 1999 to work on other projects, which just happened to be good timing. Ten days after he left the fund, his 1990 Oldsmobile finally gave out.

It’s no surprise that the entrepreneurial spirit Connelly works so hard to foster in others runs deeply in him as well. From his office in the archdiocesan Office of Indian Ministry on Park Avenue in Minneapolis, Connelly has been involved in many other ventures helping to improve the economic and educational lives of the Indian community that surrounds him.

In an effort to cast an even wider net to improve the working conditions for all Indians in the Twin Cities, Connelly has been working with the Office of Indian Ministry to complete a communications guide for local businesses. The guide will help non-native employers and employees gain a better understanding of the customs, values and cultural principles of Native Americans in the work force.

Recently, Connelly has worked with John Solberg and the Crown Jewel Foundation to help inner-city children appreciate elements of their natural world. The foundation places grow labs in grade schools where students can sow seeds and study the growth of plants and trees in their classrooms. "Kids learn through tactile experience," Connelly said. "They want to be able to work with their hands and witness physical results." Connelly has helped to make the program available to two neighborhood schools, Risen Christ School and St. Joseph’s Home.

Despite efforts by Connelly, Solberg and others, retention rates for Native Americans are frighteningly low. Some studies report that out of the nearly 3,000 K-12 Indian students in the Minneapolis school district only 15 percent will graduate from high school. Connelly wanted to learn about programs across the country that have been successful in keeping their Native students in school. He recently completed his initial Citizen League research on retention programs, with an emphasis on states that had high Indian populations such as Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Arizona. A full report on his findings will be forthcoming.

Lastly, Connelly has helped the Office of Indian Ministry raise funds to purchase materials to construct wood caskets for Indian burials. The caskets often are used in conjunction with the Indian Ministry’s Miigeweyon program, which provides wake and burial services and transportation for deceased who had requested to be buried at their home reservation. The most recent casket was provided for Porky White, an elder and a medicine man buried in a traditional Indian funeral at the Leech Lake Reservation.

Part historian, part business consultant and planner, sociologist and botanist, Connelly has been invited to many kitchen tables during his career. He has earned the trust and respect of the Native American community, helping neighbors near and far, while asking for little in return. Who knows, some day he may call them to his table for help.

Note: As result of his work with the MIEDF and his service to St. Thomas, Connelly received the Humanitarian Award in 2000 from the St. Thomas Alumni Association.