A businesswoman, college professor and black belt in karate, Liz Ross brought her experience in rural economic development to the Small Business Development Center in 2015 as executive director.
After she retires at the end of July, she hopes the relationships she built with Native American tribes in Southwest Colorado will be maintained by the new executive director, who has not been selected.
“This is the first time ever that any small business development center has collaborated with a reservation,” Ross said.
An Alaskan Native from the village Unalakleet on the Bering Strait, she is comfortable in her traditional Native Alaskan dress, a kuspuk, and a Star of David. Her grandmother, a Russian Jew, was part of a fur trapping family that came to Alaska in the late 1800s. Later in life, Ross embraced Judiasim and learned Hebrew. She also speaks her Native Alaskan language, Inupiaq, and German, her father’s native tongue.
“I’m a life-long learner,” she said.
Ross was an independent business consultant for most of her career. She also was CEO of an Alaska Native Regional Corporation. Later in her career, she worked for universities and mentored students from rural Alaskan villages.
When she became director at the Small Business Development Center at Fort Lewis College, Ross made it a priority to mentor Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian Tribe members.
She started a satellite office in Ignacio and spent one day a week meeting with entrepreneurs in a space provided by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
For Ute Mountain Ute tribal members, she taught a class focused on finance, marketing, management and other business principals.
“This is an area that is rich in Native American culture, and also a number of Native Americans who are interested in business,” she said.
She mentored the founders of the Ring of Champions, a boxing gym in Ignacio, and helped a snack truck business in Towaoc get started.
Starting a business on reservation land is somewhat different than in other areas, she said. She recruited two volunteers from the center’s business advisory network who are willing to learn about tribal intricacies and help entrepreneurs in her absence. She plans to leave the center at the end of July.
For decades, there has rarely been a time when Ross wasn’t working several jobs, volunteering and training in martial arts.
At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, she was the MBA program director and was the business and karate instructor for Rural Alaska Honors Institute. She mentored the Native Alaskan Business Leaders, a student organization, and founded a martial arts class.
The six-week Rural Alaska Honors Institute, a summer program for high school students, was an opportunity for some of her students to adjust to life outside their villages.
“Some of them are shocked that you buy meat in a store in Fairbanks,” she said. Buying and eating caribou, moose and whale was the norm for some of her students.
The institute was set up to help students overcome homesickness that was leading many Alaskan Native students to drop out of college, sometimes just a few weeks after starting school.
The Alaska Federation of Natives set up the institute in part because in 1972, Congress organized Alaska Natives into 13 regional corporations. Instead of establishing reservations, the corporations were given lump sums of money to invest in business ventures, Ross said.
The federation wanted to encourage young Alaskan Natives to finish college so they could bring back new ideas to their villages and regional corporations to help sustain the businesses, she said.
She recalled telling her students: “This time here, you need to spend to learn, so you can grow, so you can go back and work in your village.”
Ross’ own education helped her give back as CEO and a board member of the 13th Regional Corporation. She worked for the corporation from 1993 until 2005 and helped it become involved in government contracting.
Ross’ mother attended boarding school until eighth grade, but she wasn’t allowed to continue, and that helped fuel Ross’ love for learning.
She earned four degrees, the most advanced a doctorate in business administration with a dual concentration in finance and management from Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
To pay for her first two years of college in the 1970s, she sold Sarah Coventry jewelry and later housewares as a home consultant.
“That’s when I found out I had a little bit of business savvy,” Ross said.
While studying in Florida, Ross discovered she loved martial arts. She attended a class that was offered for free because at the time, Ted Bundy, a convicted murderer, had been traveling the country killing women. After her first class, she continued training and earned black belts in GoJu Ryu and Shorin Ryu karate. She went on to be an instructor, and her four children earned black belts as well. She is listed with the Japanese ministry of education, an accomplishment that took 20 years because she was a woman.
In her retirement, she plans to spend time with her family in Alaska and Florida. She also plans to work with the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce, the National Center for Indian Economic Development, and the Small Business Development Center at the University of Central Florida.