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CEOs, educators, venture capitalists expected at Mississippi Choctaw Technology Forum

MBCI, MTA partner to draw tech firms

CHOCTAW RESERVATION — To position itself as a state leader in high-tech and science-based economic development partnerships and alliances, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) is hosting the first-annual Mississippi Choctaw Technology Forum April 15-16 at the Pearl River Resort.

More than 1,000 business leaders from around the country — educators, CEOs of science or technology-based companies and venture capitalists — are expected at the two-day event, co-sponsored by the Mississippi Technology Alliance. Attendees will tour the reservation, learn how to do business with the Choctaws, view presentations by companies currently considering partnerships with the Tribe and discuss the future of the “Choctaw Knowledge Economy.”

“For quite some time, Chief (Philip) Martin has been recruiting technology-based businesses to the reservation and had run into a brick wall,” said Ivy Owen, MBCI community development coordinator. “Last fall, when MTA launched an effort to mobilize all technology-based businesses in Mississippi and keep them located here, it coincided with the idea that Chief Martin has had for some time: to promote technology-based businesses on the reservation so that we can increase our standard of living. The annual forum will provide a venue to bring together technology-based businesses in the state and venture capitalists from the area and to help showcase them as well as the capabilities of the Tribe.”

Stephen Johnston, vice president of Jackson-based SmartSynch, who will make a presentation on behalf of the company, said the desire of the Choctaws “is to expand beyond gaming jobs.”

“They want to expand into manufacturing and technology and there is a unique opportunity for SmartSynch to form a partnership,” Johnston said. “We’re evaluating that partnership and I think it’s something that could benefit both SmartSynch and the Choctaws.”

Other companies that will make presentations include SkyHawke Technology of Ridgeland, AutoNurse of Vicksburg, Tempico of Madisonville, La., Open-South Development Group of Oxford, Emagex of Corinth, Dixie-Net Communications of Ripley, Southern Diversified Products of Hattiesburg and WraSer Pharmaceuticals of Ridgeland.

CEOs from Choctaw partnerships will be on hand to share their experiences, said Creda Stewart, tribal spokesperson.

“They will let everyone know what the Tribe is looking for and what we’re capable of providing,” she said.

Seeking technology companies that fit the Tribe’s existing manufacturing enterprise will be a top priority, said Owen.

“We don’t provide venture capital,” he said. “We provide marketing and manufacturing expertise and we have some resources that others don’t. Venture capital is a problem that has existed since day one. There’s not that much available in the state and that’s one reason we are pulling together venture capitalists at this forum.”

Because there are numerous variations of doing business with the Choctaws, a specific part of the Tribe’s presentation at the forum will address that issue, Owen said.

“The primary way we like to do business is in a joint venture,” he said. “The majority of our enterprises are with the Tribe owning 51% of the business.”

Until MBCI opened Silver Star Resort & Casino in the early 1990s, the Tribe’s economic base was largely manufacturing. Cash flow from gaming revenues allowed tribal leaders to make infrastructure improvements and to invest in tourism magnets, such as Dancing Rabbit Golf Club, one of the nation’s top 100 courses according to Golf Digest.

Other, larger investments followed: In 2000, the Tribe kicked off a $750-million master planned development, including commercial, retail, residential and recreational facilities. In February, the Tribe “topped off the moon” for its second casino, Golden Moon, a $177-million project that should be completed later this year.

Several years ago, a college scholarship program was initiated for the Tribe’s children, which comprise roughly one-third of the population. High school graduates at least 50% Choctaw and that live in Mississippi are eligible for a free four-year college education to any university in the world. Qualifying graduates are also equipped with laptop computers. About 400 college students are taking advantage of the scholarship program. The only hitch: some students might not return to Mississippi or the reservation because of a lack of career opportunities.

“That’s another piece in the puzzle,” said Owen. “The Chief saw where we were providing this education but in many instances, there were no jobs for the students when they finished. As a result, they are scattered from California to Massachusetts. With this forum, we’re trying to funnel them into an area of expertise that can provide them jobs in their general area when they graduate if they want to come back to the reservation.”

The forum will include a round table discussion between deans of Mississippi universities and 75 of Choctaw Central High School’s brightest students.

“The Choctaws are facing the same problem that’s going on throughout Mississippi,” said Matt Thornton, vice president of business development for MTA. “The core competencies and disciplines at the universities are not matching up to business sectors with industries and jobs. For example, Mississippi State University has one of the best aeronautical engineering programs in the country, but there are no aeronautical engineering jobs in the state.”

Dr. Wayne Bennett, dean of the school of engineering at MSU, said the discussion will “build awareness.”

“This forum will give us an opportunity to provide a clearer vision of the big picture,” said Bennett.

Other participating academic leaders include Dr. Willie Brown, vice president for information technology at Jackson State University, Dr. Marcelo Eduardo, dean of the school of business administration at Mississippi College, Dr. Mike Harvey, dean of the school of business at the University of Mississippi, Dr. Lessa Phillips, chair of family medicine at University Medical Center, and Dr. Shelby Thames, distinguished professor of polymer science at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“If, at the end of the two-day forum, we have been able to identify potential partnership opportunities and build awareness within the state of Mississippi and the southeast region of our assets and innovativeness of the Tribe, we will have been successful,” said Owen.

For more information on the Mississippi Choctaw Technology Forum, call (601) 650-1693.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

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