Impact Profile: Oweesta Corporation

Oweesta Corporation is a Native community development financial institution (CDFI) that plays an essential role in catalyzing the flow of capital to Native communities across the United States. As part of Clean Yield’s diversity, equity, and inclusion work, in 2022 we set out to identify investment vehicles for our clients to invest in that are focused on directing capital to BIPOC communities. While there are dozens of grassroots CDFIs that serve specific Native communities, most lack the scale and administrative resources to accept investments from individual investors. Oweesta Corporation aggregates investor funds and then makes loans to these CDFIs, relieving the grassroots CDFIs of the burden of attracting capital and managing investor relationships. In addition, Oweesta offers key training and technical assistance to small, new, and emerging Native CDFI’s to increase their capacity and become strong, permanent institutions.

Oweesta is the longest-standing certified Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) intermediary offering financial products and development services exclusively to Native CDFIs and Native communities. Oweesta was created as a division of First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) in 1986 to address the lack of capital and financial infrastructure that was holding back economic development in Native communities. Oweesta, whose name was derived from the Mohawk word for “money,” was launched as a separate legal entity in 1999. In June 2020, Oweesta became fully independent with a separate and self-perpetuating board of directors.

Oweesta serves Indigenous peoples living in some of the most rural locations in the United States, including Native American reservations, traditional Native lands, Hawaiian homelands, and Alaska Native villages, as well Native American populations in several urban areas. Native CDFIs provide affordable loan products and development services (financial education, entrepreneurship training, homeownership counseling, etc.) not easily accessible to the populations they serve.

Oweesta provides financial capital and technical assistance to Native CDFIs that is used for business, housing, commercial and agriculture loans. Over the last 24 years, Oweesta has disbursed over $271 million to 42 Native CDFI borrowers in collaboration with more than 200 distinct investors.

Environmental and social profile

Native American communities have been historically targeted by predatory lending practices. Oweesta’s mission is to provide opportunities for Native people to develop financial assets and create wealth by assisting in the establishment of strong, permanent institutions and programs contributing to economic independence and strengthening sovereignty for all Native communities. The company argues that, when armed with the appropriate resources and financial literacy training, Native people will have the capacity and ingenuity to ensure the sustainable, economic, spiritual, and cultural well-being of their communities. Its asset-building tools stimulate reservation economies by providing tribal members the opportunity to acquire financial management skills and build and accumulate assets through small-business creation, homeownership, education, and much more.

Oweesta has a six-member board of directors, most of whom are Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian. The board consists of two women and four men and has a diverse representation from Native communities, including different tribes, geographic areas, community and Native leaders, and business and professional representatives.

Borrower highlight

Eels have been a traditional food source of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine for centuries, and more than half of community members harvest baby eels, called elvers, each spring. However, the community has faced financial exploitation over their harvests, and they faced challenges in integrating themselves in the eel value chain despite centuries of expertise. The Indian Township Enterprise saw an opportunity to buy equity in American Unagi, a local company and the only eel aquaculture center in the U.S. As equity stakeholders, the Tribe aims to gain more value for the eels its members catch and raise. Oweesta borrower NDN Fund provided seed funding for the investment.