karlene_headshotThe Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is the eighth-largest reservation in the United States, larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. It is also located in a food desert in one of the poorest counties in the country. Forty-four percent of the adult population has Type 2 diabetes, and economic opportunities are virtually non-existent.

Enter Karlene Hunter, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe with more than twenty-five years of experience promoting education and economic development on the reservation.   Speaking at the Strong Women, Strong Nations Conference at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Hunter described her frustration with trying to find businesses willing to invest in the reservation.  So, she decided to take matters into her own hands.

tanka_bar_traditionalTogether with her business partner, Mark Tilsen, Hunter founded Native American Natural Foods in 2007. You may have seen their most successful product, the Tanka Bar, on the shelves of REI or Whole Foods.

The Tanka Bar is a real food alternative to processed energy bars. It is based on a traditional dried buffalo recipe called wasna and is naturally gluten free — perfect for athletes who need sustainable energy. They are also served as snacks at Head Start programs around the country, and to diabetes patients undergoing dialysis.

But that is not the only reason for its awesomeness!

From the beginning, Native American Natural Foods had a triple bottom line mission:

  1. spurring development and providing economic opportunity on the Pine Ridge reservation,
  2. promoting healthier eating habits for residents of the reservation, and
  3. restoring the connection between the Oglala Sioux, the land, and the sacred buffalo.

tanka_funds_buffalo_restoration_plan_-_courtesy_tankafund.org_The company has created eighteen career path jobs — from social media director to distribution and fulfillment managers — and is still growing. They have created a nonprofit, the Tanka Fund, to help Native Americans get into buffalo producing, which is good for the environment as well as for the economy. They are taking steps to make the company employee-owned.

With all of these accomplishments, it is easy to see why I have chosen Karlene Hunter for my first Daredevils, Angels, and Do-Gooders profile.

Daredevils, Angels, and Do-Gooders are people who live with passion, power and purpose. They use their gifts in service to a higher good, and leave the world a better place than they found it. Karlene Hunter personifies this vision through her commitment to uplifting the Oglala Lakota Nation.

Karlene Hunter —

  • For having the courage to start a business at Pine Ridge when other investors were afraid to take the risk, you are a Daredevil!
  • For caring about the health of the elderly, young children, and patients with diabetes on the Pine Ridge reservation and around the country, you are an Angel!
  • For providing economic opportunity and restoring sustainable buffalo grazing to reservation lands, you are a Do-Gooder!

Ms. Hunter has received numerous awards for her leadership, including the 2012 Vision Leadership Award from the Specialty Food Association, the 2011 Social Venture Network Innovation Award, the Natural Foods Industry’s prestigious 2010 Cliff Adler “Heart in Business Award, and the 2007  SBA Small Business Woman of the Year for South Dakota.  I was honored and moved to hear her speak about her passions at the Strong Women, Strong Nations Conference, where she was joined by other innovative entrepreneurs who contribute billions to tribal, local, state, and national economies. I hope that her story will inspire other leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs to “dream big” and create a lasting impact.

I am always looking for new inspiration. Do you know a Daredevil, Angel, or Do-Gooder you think should be profiled in this blog?  Leave me a comment with the person’s name and description, or a link to their website, and I will be glad to take a look.