• Grace Burkhart

Meet the Dynamic Executive Director of Certified Native CDFI Chi Ishobak


Grace: I'm excited today to be talking with Sean Winters, CEO of Michigan-based CDFI Chi Ishobak. Sean, can you start by sharing how you ended up working with Chi Ishobak?


Sean: I’m the executive director of Chi Ishobak, we are a Certified Native Community Development Financial Institution. We championed and developed the idea back in mid 2000s for our tribe, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, when we knew that gaming was going to be a reality for us. We wanted to do a couple of different things to make sure we're putting our profits to good use. We’ve incorporated an economic development corporation (Mno Bmadsen), with Chi Ishobak for the individual side of things to provide another resource for folks. As a tribal citizen myself, I thought it a great way to give back and provide support for folks that may have been financially irresponsible, whether it be their own doing or just life happening.


I don't really have a finance background - I was a PGA golf professional for 16 years. When I came into the community financing world, I owned a small business, a golf shop, but had never been involved with lending or anything like that. At that time, the original executive director recruited me and I just instantly fell in love with the mission. We do some fantastic things and see the benefit for individuals immediately. I joined in November of 2011 and haven't looked back - it's just a great place and it's the most rewarding work I've ever done.


What are a few things that make Chi Ishobak unique? What are some unique elements you all bring into the community?


Sean: What makes Chi Ishobak unique right now is our team's size and who we work with. We are (for the most part) strictly native.


Anytime we are looking at our growth or if we want to expand, we do a business canvas modeling rather than just doing strategic planning. We’ve kept our mission front and center. Basically - who are we doing this for? And does it truly benefit them? That has held center stage whenever we look at going in other directions. If we're getting our assets into the hands of the folks the right way, our return will come. We wanted to make sure that we don't become an organization that loses sight of what we're doing and why we're doing it, and most importantly who we're doing it for.


My mom was very instrumental in getting our tribe's affairs in order when we received federal recognition back in the 1990s. She was very well known throughout the tribal government, Tribal Council, and among tribal citizens. When I came in it was always, “Oh you're Sharon Winters kid.” It was a challenge for me to be able to establish my own identity as a tribal citizen, but more importantly as a member of Chi Ishobak.


Right now, our team is me, with Jenny and Trish. They both have incredible work ethics, as well as two completely different personalities (well, I think all three of us do). Everybody has a role here, and it's not just a job title, it's a role; we all have different things we're doing. We really have created a solid foundation amongst the three of us and we found our capacity - and we're nowhere near that! Everybody has each other’s back and we operate in an environment of respect first and foremost, for each other and the jobs that we do. With the size of the organization loan wise and financially, it's incredible what we're doing. It's a great effort by all three of us as a team to be where we're at. I've been around enough OFNs and other conferences where you see folks that are staffs of eight or nine and they're not at the level that we're at.


While I can't speak for Jenny or Trish, I like to think that we all take a lot of pride in what we do, how well we do it, and the effect that it has on our organization and how we're growing.


Are there other parts of being a member of a tribe yourself that have an influence on your organizational structure?


Sean: I'm a citizen, Trish is a tribal spouse (her husband has been on Tribal Council), and Jenny's twin sister is a tribal spouse. It's kind of nice that it’s not necessarily direct relations, but informal ones that come with a lot of interaction with the tribe. For me as a citizen, like with your family, you can be a little bit more direct, a little bit harsher to folks - I could talk to a client a little bit more sternly. I hold myself in a higher category of what I should be doing, and so I can start to let that go through when I'm having conversations with other tribal citizens. When you come through here, you're a citizen and there's certain obligations that come with that.


Thinking back over the past year or so, and specifically with the pandemic in mind, were there any things that you and the team had assumptions about - in terms of what the pandemic meant for your borrowers or for your organization that did or did not pan out?


Sean: There were two tribes that we were wanting to work with, and pre-pandemic all signs led to thumbs up. We were thinking this is going to help us with our organization, and at the end of the day really look good for Indian Country. Pandemic hit, and we don't have to repeat any of that because we all know what happened - things came to a screeching halt. We started to reach out again in the middle of 2020 letting them know we're still here, and we can do things to relieve some of the COVID effects. We were hoping they would they still be willing to continue forward even though that there's still a cloud of uncertainty.


Unfortunately, now we can't get folks to call us back. We had been thinking that we’ll create two new relationships and then during the pandemic we can really kickstart this because we can do things to help them during the pandemic. Both opportunities dissipated. What we thought was a layup as far as wanting to create those relationships and help build and grow our program are gone. I realize it’s a very stressful time for tribal governments and I don't take it personally. Things just get lost in the shuffle. But we're not going to stop the efforts; we'll be patient and we’ll still be doing the things that allow us to continue telling our story and building the strength and foundation of our program.


Is there something that surprised you throughout the pandemic or the past year?


Sean: We have a couple of bankers on our loan committee and our board, and they're noting that looking at the industry as you get to your riskier demographics, they sense a pause or a slowdown coming. People are still borrowing money, but while a lot of people can return to normal, some people just can't. They're holding onto their financial lives with a life preserver because they don't know if their company going to stay afloat; are they going to get let go because of mandates? The last thing in their world is utilizing Chi Ishobak for some assistance.


We’ve got Mno Bmadsen (which again is the tribe’s economic development entity) and they're growing like crazy. People always talk about capturing tribal spend and keeping the money within our community. While it's talked about a lot, very rarely does it ever actually happen. I reached out to Mno Bmadsen’s CEO and said, “Hey you guys have debt service that you take on; if one of your organizations needs a line of credit, or startup funds, or purchases a large piece of equipment - would you at least consider us to be a candidate for that?” We ended up doing two projects this past summer with a couple of their subsidiaries: a line of credit and a construction loan. Similarly, we've got two more large purchases early first quarter 2022. Had we not knocked on the door, these wouldn't have happened. It’s been a nice positive just thing.


What is something your team has learned that you would want to pass on to another native financing organization?


Sean: The largest we've ever been a staff of four and we always just figure things out with a small staff. There are days when we’re busy, but we're never at the point where there's just not enough hours in the day. We're not near the point where we cannot keep up. We'll have a day or two where we’re hopping, but we get through that with support and increased communication amongst the three of us.


Moving forward, I want our office space to reflect ultimate positivity. When you’re here, I don't want you stressed. We're happy, we're going to laugh, and we're going to do good work together. We’ve increased flexibility to allow the team to come in a couple hours late if needed or work from home for a couple days. I want folks to be able to understand where we're at with the organization and where we're at with each other.


Something I'd want to share is really taking a hard look back in the mirror and truly being honest - you might like what you see, or sometimes it might not be the most efficient reflection coming back at you. If you've got eight people doing the jobs of three, there's a hard look but a necessary one because it's going to benefit your organization to make necessary changes. It's also going to benefit your target market first and foremost, which is what we’re supposed to be doing.


They always talk at conferences about your key performance metrics and your baselines, but they almost always say “don't worry about your self-sufficiency ratio.” The CDFI Fund generally promotes 40%, and for a long time we were in the teens and in the low twenties. This year we're at 79% - and we were 98% for the month of November, which is great. It's not an all-consuming metric, but it has become a priority goal partnered with the fact that we're still doing the things that we need to do the right way. Key recommendation for other organizations is to consistently take inventory of your capacity.


If you had to describe a quintessential Chi Ishobak borrower, someone that is a good representation of who you serve, what would that individual look like?


Sean: I always let everybody know first and foremost that it's so exciting to see fellow tribal citizens coming in and trying to increase their capacity honestly and responsibly. We’ll frequently have folks saying that they want to buy a house in three years but their credit's not going to let them do it today, but they’ve put a plan together and know they can do it – or they need an automobile first. Then we’ll see those people working through their plans and come in for a second loan. All of a sudden, you'll pull their credit report again and they’ve increased everything 60 points! Then they get to the point of wondering if we can compete with a bank loan, which we can’t, but our whole goal is not to have lifelong customers. Those are the consumer folks that we see. Those that are with us for a bit, and then say they couldn’t have done it without us but are able to move on.


We had a development services guy that came in and started from ground zero and went from spending $300 a month on credit cards to saving about $500 a month just by managing his finances. It changed his whole world around; his relationships with his wife and his kids got better, his work habits changed, his relationships with his parents got better. All these overlapping balances he found as he paid off $11,000 of debt in seven months. He didn't receive a raise, wasn't doing anything different except just watching what was going on rather than just reacting.


We sometimes have clients who need deferred payments, which we always try to work with them on - if they communicate with us! We can't work with you if we don't know that you need the help.


We're excited because we work with folks that are doing great things and have become role models for their families, but also our community. Like we talk about, you strengthen nations by having positive role models. You have folks that are doing things for the right reasons in the right ways. And these folks are doing that. Whether or not they get the recognition that they deserve, we put that information out there as much as we can.


Is there a podcast, book, newsletter, or some sort of resource that you would recommend to someone in the community financing industry as a whole or specifically in native financing?


Sean: A good start would be the native CDFI network, it's called NCN (https://nativecdfi.org/). That’s specifically for policy and capacity of native CDFIs; it'll show who all the native CDFIs are.

My other recommendation is individual contact you can make with other like-minded individuals, whether they be executive directors or loan officers, or even client service coordinators. Those conversations, those relationships are probably the most worthwhile.


To hear more from other industry leaders, check out our conversations recorded live here.