Fostering Native American success

Swarvoski Little and Kent Curtis
Swarvoski Little (left) and Kent Curtis of First Southwest Bank are trying to boost opportunities for local Native American entrepreneurs. Photo by Jeremy Wade Shockley

First Southwest Bank, a community development financial institution, is forging links with its Native American neighbors by offering opportunities for career and economic development.

By Judith Sears

Name: First Southwest Bank
Assets: $380 million
Location: Alamosa, Colo.

While growing up as a member of the Navajo Nation in Montezuma Creek, Utah, Swarvoski Little lived more than an hour away from the closest bank and found banks intimidating. Today, Little is a universal banker with First Southwest Bank (FSWB) in Alamosa, Colo. He is also helping the $380 million-asset community bank mount major outreach efforts to Native Americans.

Kent Curtis, CEO of FSWB, has made several trips with Little to the Navajo Nation, located about an hour south of FSWB’s Durango, Colo., branch. “I told him he needed to educate me,” Curtis recalls. “He’s opening doors for us to have a better understanding.”

“We wanted to show students different individual stories—where different people started from, the obstacles they overcame and the advice they would give.”
—Swarvoski Little, First Southwest Bank

In January 2020, FSWB partnered with Fort Lewis College in Durango to sponsor an event called “Success for Native America.” The event featured an interactive panel, moderated by Little, of four Native American professionals discussing the challenges of combining their heritage with the expectations and experiences of their careers.

“Growing up in a very small town, I didn’t have an image of Native American success,” Little explains. “We wanted to show students different individual stories—where different people started from, the obstacles they overcame and the advice they would give.”

Quick stat


The loan amounts going to Acoma, Isleta and Pueblo de Cochiti entrepreneurs via the Native American Entrepreneur Loan Fund

The panel, which included a business school professor, an attorney, a program director at Utah Navajo Health Systems and the founder/CEO of a cosmetics company, were all members of the Navajo Nation. They spoke in both English and Diné, the Navajo language. The panelists explained how they navigated their careers using their cultural values, such as discipline, the value of planning, thanking those who help you and holding yourself responsible for your success.

Held at Fort Lewis College, Success for Native America was livestreamed and individuals from other college campuses tuned in.

“It was a huge hit, a really great event,” says Roxanne DeMarco Rickert, community development director and FSWB assistant vice president, who provided logistical support. “You were able to see people who had taken a variety of paths while still maintaining links to their heritage.” Rickert adds that the community bank hopes to replicate the event in the future.

Financial support for Native people

FSWB’s partner nonprofit, the First Southwest Community Fund (FSWCF), is another tool the community bank is using to connect with the Native population. It has created a pilot loan program dubbed the Native American Entrepreneur Loan Fund.

The Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) has provided matching funds to the Native American Entrepreneur Loan Fund and also facilitates outreach to Native American entrepreneurs through their Native American Business Leader
programs. In preparation for the RCAC–FSWCF partnership, Cass Walker Harvey, executive director of FSWCF, attended the 2019 graduation ceremony for the RCAC entrepreneurs and was impressed with the quality and diversity of business ideas. “There is everything from construction to car repair and maintenance to food trucks and artisanal [offerings], such as jewelry,” she says.

The Native American Entrepreneur Loan Fund has started by offering $10,000 loans to Acoma, Isleta and Pueblo de Cochiti entrepreneurs. “We’re treating it as a pilot, and if all goes well, we’ll hopefully be able to expand the fund to
other RCAC cohorts in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah,” Harvey says.

Harvey and her staff are currently reviewing loan applications and have already funded their first loan. Because many Native Americans may have had limited opportunities to build credit, some credit criteria have been modified. However, Harvey says the fund is carefully screening applications for those that demonstrate a resilient business model.

A program with depth

Rickert observes that FSWB’s outreach to Native Americans is more complex than simply rolling out a traditional small business loan program. “This is a different population, and to ensure success, we have to create the relationship first and be a source of trust for the Native American Nations,” she says.

The community bank has spent significant time and resources forming relationships with local Native American organizations. “We’re at a grassroots level, working on understanding what the infrastructure is for the kind of work we do,” Curtis says.

Swarvoski Little says First Southwest Bank’s efforts to foster economic development are connected to its institutional values.

In 2019, he attended the Navajo Nation Economic Summit, an annual event held in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he met with JT Willie, the executive director of the division of economic development of the Navajo Nation. The two are exploring ways to collaborate, which will begin with FSWB providing financial education to elementary schools throughout the Navajo Nation.

Representatives from the community bank also attended “Pitch Day” at Change Labs, a Navajo Nation small business accelerator in Tuba City, Ariz. “It was good to see the different kinds of businesses they’re supporting, such as recyclers, fashion designers and photographers in the Navajo and Hopi nations,” Little says.

Several years ago, Curtis steered FSWB to CDFI certification, a U.S. Treasury designation of banks that provide, in part, access to working capital for underserved communities, and he believes the current outreach exemplifies this mission. “We do lots of community development projects, and I encourage our staff to become familiar with issues within our community,” he says.

Little adds that FSWB’s institutional values have contributed to the success of its outreach. “The bank has three values: people and culture first, fresh ideas, and make a difference,” he says. “I feel happy and thankful that I’m able to help make these connections and build these bridges of trust. It’s great that the FSWB team has been open to learning about the Navajo nation.”

Judith Sears is a writer in Colorado.