By Shaheer Naveed – Dow Jones Intern, Albuquerque Business First
Jul 18, 2023
In 1988, Vernelle Chase entered the Land of Enchantment as a qualifier for the Indian National Finals Rodeo.
Thirty-five years later, she finds herself at the forefront of business development for Native Americans in New Mexico.
Chase is an enrolled member of the Gros-Ventre Tribe from Fort Belknap, Montana, with Assiniboine and Mandan descent. For the last 29 years, she has worked as tribal relations manager for Flintco Construction, which was one of the largest Native American-owned contractors in the U.S. up until 2013 when it was acquired by Alberici Corporation.
After moving to New Mexico permanently in 2010, Chase said she’s made it her mission to “provide a seat at the table” for Native Americans in the business and infrastructure development of Indian Country.
She is the current chair of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico (AICCNM) and the inaugural board chair for Native Women Lead, a nonprofit organization that focuses on empowering Native women’s businesses.
Albuquerque Business First sat down with Chase to discuss her projects and plans for Native Women Lead and Flintco, and the challenges that face the Native American business community today.
The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Albuquerque Business First: What current and future projects are you working on at Flintco?
Vernelle Chase: I continue to focus on Indian health care service work for Flintco. There’s $2 billion in Indian health service work scheduled for the Southwest in the next seven years. Right now, I am in pursuit of a large design-build health care center. Flintco has a renewable energy division that I’m working to penetrate and see its best value for tribes in terms of how we can help install components depending on the source. I hope to help our tribal members and our businesses have an understanding of what it takes to install, operate and maintain systems over a large period of time. I want to see how many opportunities are available for tribes and tribal members through the different renewable energy sources and ensure that we’re able to take care of those sources on our own.
How have you met tribal members’ needs as tribal relations manager at Flintco? As you can imagine, it’s a challenge. Indian business owners often struggle to release some of their duties to others. It seems like an easy enough concept, but it’s really challenging to get individuals to do that, especially if they are the head of households. The approach has to be strategic and long term. We sit down and work with the client so that they understand 360 degrees of what they’re asking for. And if they say ‘yes’ to the plan, then we go ahead. We are no longer working with the tribes like, respectfully, the government did. We were at the receiving end of the ‘here’s what you’re gonna get,’ ‘how you’re gonna get it,’ and ‘when you’re gonna get it.’ That time is no longer. Our tribes are gaining business acumen, they’re able to get the funds, write grants and supplement government projects. And when they do that, they’re able to have their voice at the table now.
What are your plans as AICCNM chair? Mainly, identify opportunities, contract opportunities, for our members with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, Bureau of Reclamation and more. New Mexico is a very government-funded state. The Bureau of Reclamation has $1.5 billion worth of water settlement work. We want to get our members and our clients to the table for those opportunities. We want to get some of our up-and-coming businesses more well-rounded in areas that they may not have experience in and really promote partnerships with firms. We have the resources and the network to keep them operational and sustainable for what their goals are.
What are you working on as the inaugural board chair at Native Women Lead? Right now, we’re putting together the policies and procedures for the organization, which include human resource and finance policies, among others. We are currently hiring after submitting for our nonprofit status. We are currently waiting for approval on that. We are also looking to bring together our founders, [New Mexico Community Capital], co-directors, and our board to have a strategy session. Right now, our focus, I feel, needs to be to build a strong foundation to be sustainable and maintain core values through the unknowns for when we’re no longer the new organization in town and funding becomes harder.