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Bringing Economic Prosperity Home

Diné Development Corporation CEO empowers Navajo Nations’ economic growth.

Astin Tsosie feels deeply rewarded each time he presents a check to the Navajo Nation. Tsosie worked his way up to become CEO of Diné Development Corporation, a for-profit holding company founded in 2004 by the Navajo Nation to help generate economic prosperity through a number of subsidiaries. A Navajo himself, Tsosie takes great pride in DDC’s mission.

A big part of Tsosie’s own mission as CEO has been to provide consistent and sustainably increasing dividends to the Navajo Nation. When Tsosie first took over, the company brought $165,000 in dividends to the nation. By spring 2020, the Arizona-based company grew the figure to $4.1 million and celebrated with a $500,000 dividend presentation during the DDC-sponsored Navajo Nation Fair. Also, DDC has provided over $14.1 million in additional programs.

Many Navajos at the fair are often shocked to learn their nation has a company doing business outside the reservation. But it’s become common for tribal entities to set up for-profit business arms. The Small Business Administration provides financial, contracting and educational opportunities to these companies, as it did for DDC.

“I tell the people back home on the reservation that my job is to gather as much money off the reservation and bring it home for economic development,” Tsosie says. But the biggest dividend DDC provides, as Tsosie sees it, isn’t the money — it’s the hope DDC inspires in the people of the Navajo Nation, especially the children.

“These are our future employees,” Tsosie says. “We bring money home and use it to inspire the next generation.”

Tsosie (second from right) presents Navajo Nation representatives with a $500,000 dividend during the 75th Annual Navajo Nation Fair Rodeo last September.
MANY LEVELS OF SUPPORT

“To give more,” Tsosie says, “DDC must grow bigger.”

DDC’s portfolio currently includes eight companies specializing in areas including IT services, environmental services, and research and development, contracted by both the government and commercial entities. By the end of 2023, Tsosie says the company plans to have 11 companies in its portfolio expanding DDC’s service offerings and $110 million in annual revenue.

“We’re definitely expanding,” Tsosie says. “We’ve basically doubled in size in the past four years.”

Sixty percent of the growing dividends support the Navajo government, including maintaining law enforcement, building new roads and funding public works. The other 40% goes to the Navajo Nation’s Office of Economic Development to provide grants, training and assistance for small businesses within the nation.

DDC also partners with Navajo and tribally owned businesses to advance its mission, and sponsors events and celebrations within the Navajo Nation, including an annual economic summit, veteran events and donations to celebrate the achievements of Navajo students.

One of Tsosie’s favorite stories of giving back was when a small reservation basketball team won the girls Arizona state basketball title. The first year they won state, DDC bought the team letterman jackets and took them out to eat. When they won again the next year, DDC sponsored the team’s trip to Disneyland.

By giving back, Tsosie says DDC can recruit and retain talented employees. DDC cannot match a company like Google in pay, but many people want their work to go toward something meaningful. By giving back to the Navajo Nation, DDC provides that purpose.

“To be able to support the Navajo Nation on many different levels is definitely inspiring,” Tsosie says.

AUSTIN TSOSIE
CEO, Diné Development Corporation
‘WHY NOT A NAVAJO IN SPACE?’

Tsosie says he barely understood the basics of being a CEO when he was first promoted. He learned on the job but also learned a great deal from the other executives in his Vistage group.

“When I was handed the CEO title, we were struggling,” Tsosie says. “After joining Vistage, our people and processes started falling in place. I pruned my staff, and we eventually got back to our enterprise mission and core values. Now, across the organization, we’re focused on growth. Vistage has been a core pillar in helping make the DDC a success.”

In its growth, Tsosie believes that DDC can provide even more in the long-term, bringing more jobs and services back home.

Currently, only about a dozen Navajo employees of DDC’s 550+ employees partake in the company’s unique mentor-protégé program. Recruiting and retaining Navajo employees presents certain challenges, Tsosie says, often linked to factors like their connection to the reservation and experiencing culture shock when away from their support systems. Recently, one Navajo employee hitchhiked back from a work site at Fort Bragg in California, driven by a longing to be home.

But Tsosie hopes that expanding into different industries and regions can help DDC recruit and hire even more Navajo members across the country. “There are over 400,000 registered Navajos [in the U.S.], so I could go to any state, any city and find a relative,” Tsosie says. “One market we’re targeting is the new Space Force. Why not a Navajo in space? That’s a new federal market that’s untapped. We’re looking at getting competitive there.”

At home, Tsosie’s long-term goal is to clean up the 523 abandoned uranium mines across the Navajo Nation. Mined in the early 1900s, these sites have negatively affected the Navajo people for decades, with many deaths being linked to uranium poisoning.

“It’s important we not only focus on revenue flow but also on federal contracting,” Tsosie says. “There are avenues we can use to bring federal contractors to remediate our own lands, even bring awareness to the issue.”

Creating awareness is key to DDC’s service to the Navajo Nation. With each Navajo partnership, charitable commitment, Navajo hire and dividend check Tsosie presents, more Navajos know there’s a company out there looking to bring prosperity back home.

“We want to give the Navajo people a major integration point into Western world practices and compete in the federal market space,” Tsosie says. “We’re coming to the forefront, as far as Indian (Native American) Country goes. There are a lot of competitors out there, but DDC is just getting started.”

Don’t be afraid of change.
Especially in the first few years of your role as CEO, you’ll find you have to make adjustments to the team. Thoughtful processes and balancing the needs of the company will help you get the right people in the right seats.
Over-communicate.
Clarify your message again and again so that no one loses track of the company vision. In DDC’s case, the mission that cannot be communicated enough is the company’s mission to help the Navajo Nation.
Be yourself.
Don’t model yourself after the prior CEO or chairman or anyone else. Find the very best parts of yourself and maximize those while managing the rest. Get help from other people if you need it.
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