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We see far in the future. We have a long memory and we know about things— the earth...

Onondaga Nation applies traditional values to high tech investments

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The Onondaga are among only a handful of Native American nations who refuse money from the US Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. They do so to preserve their independence. They've also refused to open a casino.

But the Onondaga are reaching out--applying their traditional values and consensus-based decision-making--in a new series of business partnerships with clean tech companies. Emma Jacobs brings us this report from the Innovation Trail.

Support for the Innovation Trail comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between five upstate public media outlets, reporting about New York's innovation economy.

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Jake Edwards is a leader of the Onondaga Nation, who likes to tell jokes like, "Do you know why the Easter bunny hides his eggs?

“Because the Easter bunny doesn’t want all the other bunnies to know he’s married to a chicken.”
But when he talks about the Nation's latest investment decision, he's very serious about their goals:
“We know we’re helping contribute to someone getting their building or their house clean and still not contaminating the earth.”

Edwards may not talk dollars and cents like a typical investor in cutting edge green tech; but he has been at the forefront of a new endeavor for the Onondaga. The Nation now owns close to ten percent of a Brooklyn startup called EcoLogic that makes green cleaning products.

The Onondaga are unusual venture capitalists in another way. They’ve stuck with their traditional, methodical decision-making process. The tribal council has to reach consensus on all its decisions. That means everyone has to agree; and that can take a long time.

“Yesterday we had a discussion on the summer youth program, and we started meeting at 11, and we got out of here at ten after six,” recalls Edwards. "It was a good outcome but it had to be thoroughly looked at and understood by all.”

It took eight hours to make a decisions about the summer program, but it took three years for the Nation to decide to support EcoLogic. That’s not exactly the normal pace of the tech industry.

“It doesn’t matter if some young business entrepreneur is like, ‘hey, I need to know by tomorrow,’” says the head of EcoLogic, Anselm Doering. “They have their process in doing things.”

Doering says it was completely different task to pitch his company in the Onondaga’s longhouse than to venture capitalists in a corporate boardroom

“But the upside value for me supersedes any of those dime a dozen institutional funders. If you get Onondaga nation with their reputation to become a strategic partner and invest, it gives us a more genuine reputation in what we do,” he notes.

The Onondaga have a global reputation for their fierce environmental advocacy. The nation’s best known spokesman, Oren Lyons, addressed a climate change symposium at the Smithsonian in Washington DC in 2008: “We’re family. We’re one, and it’s up to us. Jarga, we say, try hard.”

Lyons has championed the Onondaga’s other outside venture. The nation own an 85% stake in a Swedish company called Plantagon. If EcoLogic is a more mainstream startup, Plantagon is a little more pie in the sky, literally. Plantagon has a design for vertical farms for cities. The farms are big, and shaped like space-age domes, and they’re expensive.

Lyons says the risk of investing in ventures like Plantagon pales in comparison to inaction in the face of global climate change.

“We see far in the future. We have a long memory and we know about things -the earth - and we see you can’t do what you’re doing, damage coming,” says Lyons.

Onondaga council member, Jake Edwards starts towards the nation’s smoke shop after our interview, saying, “I’m off to support my economy.”

For now that smoke shop is the nation’s economy. Cigarette sales are based on one of the nation’s competitive advantages —  they don’t charge New York State sales tax. The nation’s cigarette sales have  paid for the entire network of social services the Onondaga have created in recent years. About five years ago, they paid to bring running water to every house on the Nation.

The clean tech companies will be a much bigger risk. And the Onondaga don’t have a lot of money to play with, so that risk matters.

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