How a Mississippi Tribe is Inspiring Its Youth to Become Digital Entrepreneurs

Choctaw teens sold about $3,000 worth of merchandise at the Christmas Market and donated all proceeds to the tribe’s Boys & Girls Clubs.

Over the holidays, a group of young members from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians made a splash (and some cash) at the annual Christmas market selling t-shirts, hoodies, tumblers, earrings, ornaments, and door hangers that they fabricated using digital technology. This pop-up business enterprise was the result of a new tribal initiative focused on youth entrepreneurship.

“Entrepreneurship can lead to economic growth within the community, which can then lead to an improved quality of life,” says John Hendrix, director of the tribe’s Office of Economic Development (OED). Under his leadership, the tribe has supported adult entrepreneurs for more than 20 years. Now, it sees real value in inspiring its youth, as well. “If we can get our kids in high school to start thinking about charting their own path, they are more likely to have entrepreneurial thinking.”

The big idea behind this pilot small business program, the Youth Entrepreneurship & Digital Skills Development Project, was to lay the groundwork for a future makerspace, also known as a hackerspace or Fab Lab, where artists, tinkerers, and do-it-yourselfers collaborate to share, create, learn, and produce things together. Hendrix and his team were inspired by the success of the Super Fab Lab run by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Alaska that has motivated its Native youth to “bring ideas to life” and pursue further education in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM).

The Mississippi Choctaw tribe is developing a similar learning lab as part of a $7 million workforce training center to be completed in 2025. “This youth-focused project we kicked off over the holidays has allowed us to get a big head start on that makerspace so that we are not flat-footed when it finally opens within the new center next year,” explains Hendrix.

One of the 3D laser printers Choctaw teens used to create their Christmas Market products.

With a $25,000 Comcast NBCUniversal grant awarded by First Nations, the Choctaw OED purchased a “starter kit” for the proposed makerspace ― three 3D laser printers, a laser etcher, computerized CNC router, sublimation printer, vinyl cutter, and two heat presses. The students took this state-of-the-art digital equipment for a test drive to fabricate the goods they peddled at the Christmas market.

DeeSandra Ben, a small business coordinator who has worked with the OED for more than 27 years, handled all the logistics of the youth program. She believes this event offered more than just a quick sale for the young entrepreneurs. The program’s added value, according to Ben? “Kids learned that there are so many opportunities out there for them to make money by combining their creative abilities with technology.”

One of the participants, 16-year-old Kaydence Bell who lives on the Choctaw reservation, was most excited about the sublimation printer. She enjoyed adding designs and images to the hoodies and t-shirts. “Before this project, I never really worked with technology. I was kind of intimidated at first. But the more I worked with the machines, the more I caught on to it. It was really fun!”

Kaydence Bell. 16, preparing to put a hoodie in the heat press.

A partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs

To recruit other enthusiastic students like Bell for the entrepreneur program, the Choctaw Office of Economic Development partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs on the reservation, which boasts a membership of about 1,250 Native and non-Native kids spread out over its eight locations throughout Mississippi Choctaw territory. In the end, six Native students, ages 12 to 17, participated.

The youth class was a mini version of the tribe’s six-week adult entrepreneur program called Fast Start, which is also managed by Ben. “Students attended three two-hour classes to learn how to write a business plan and classes to research their products, learn social media, and create a marketing plan. Like what I do with adults,” she explains.

The First Nations grant paid for trainers to install the equipment and teach students how to use it. Engineering students from Mississippi State University also offered their valuable time to help teach the Choctaw youth the mechanics of 3D printing.

A dream come true for one Choctaw leader

For many years, H. Glen Billie, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, had been looking into creating Fab Labs for tribal youth, and this partnership with the economic development office allowed him to be part of this venture that he had long envisioned. “What is most exciting is that we are not just teaching kids how to run a business. We’re also teaching them how to flourish, and that’s something you cannot tie monetary value to. It’s just priceless,” says Billie, who has worked for the Boys & Girls Clubs since 2001.

H. Glen Billie, executive director of the tribe’s Boys & Girls Clubs, supervises Choctaw youth on using the new digital equipment.

A member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Billie shares this uplifting example: “We had one kid who was a bit introverted, not much of a social butterfly. But he was so excited about the 3D printer that he came out of his shell, his comfort zone, and started teaching other kids how to use it!”

Another “aha moment,” adds Billie, was when they sold out of hoodies early at the Christmas market. A few students stepped up and said to him, “Take us over to the print shop. We know what to do.” Within a very short time, they activated the computers, printed the sublimation sheet, and pressed it on to another round of hoodies that they brought back to the market to sell. “Wow!” says Billie. “I watched the students take ownership and have confidence in themselves to get the job done. Again, priceless.”

And it’s not just the high schoolers who are learning and growing. The Choctaw Native shares that he has developed some unexpected technological skills himself. “I didn’t know anything about how to operate all this digital equipment. I was a student from the lowest level up,” laughs Billie. But for him to mentor the young students, he had to be a quick study. “It’s been a learning experience for all of us.”

Total sales from the Christmas market came to about $3,000. However, instead of pocketing the money for themselves, the young entrepreneurs opted to donate all proceeds to the Boys & Girls Clubs to help fund ongoing activities and events.

What’s more, the students had so much fun with this business model that they fabricated more products and sold them at the high school’s Senior Night and on Valentine’s Day.

Choctaw youth who participated in the entrepreneur program pose for a photo in their makeshift makerspace.

Business development for the tribe is KEY!

The 11,100-member Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is the only federally recognized Native American tribe within the state of Mississippi. With its deep commitment to economic growth and workforce training, it is no wonder that the tribe has become one of the top employers in the state.

And encouraging tribal youth to develop technological skills and entrepreneurial thinking is an integral part of that overall mission. “Our goal is to keep running little experiments, like we did at the Christmas market, to see what works with the youth and keep making it better,” says OED Director Hendrix.

His office will continue to build partnerships with the Boys & Girls Clubs, and plans are underway to work with the tribe’s Chahta Alla Youth Council (CAYC) ― an older youth group that focuses on community cleanups and community involvement. The CAYC also relies on fundraising to pay for its projects, so having access to the makerspace equipment will help greatly with its efforts.

One of the designs created by students that they imprinted on the Christmas merchandise.

“I am ready to do it again!” Ben says enthusiastically about continuing the youth entrepreneur program. In her role as the small business coordinator, she will procure more equipment for the proposed makerspace, like sewing and embroidery machines for tribal members who make Choctaw dresses, blankets, and quilts. A direct-to-garment printer will also be purchased to offer state-of-the-art technology in design transfers.

“In the future, we would like to offer a program where tribal members can come to the makerspace and use the equipment any time they want, for a monthly fee that will help cover material costs.”

As for Bell’s future, the high school sophomore has her sights set on the Air Force. “I am following in my cousin’s footsteps, who is in the military. And I’ve always wanted to fly a plane!” Now that she has participated in the youth entrepreneur program, the normally shy teenager says she has a back-up plan. “This project made me a little more outgoing and now I might want to start my own t-shirt business someday. I’m still figuring it out.”