When Jo Ann Kauffman applied for one of her first business loans, a lender told her, “You have zero net worth.”
She was living on trust land on the Nez Perce Reservation, which she couldn’t use for collateral. Her vehicle had 300,000 miles, so she couldn’t pledge it against a loan, either.
“I felt about this big,” said the president and founder of Kauffman & Associates in Spokane.
Despite early challenges with financing, Kauffman went on to build an American Indian- and woman-owned management consulting firm with a national reputation.
Spokane-based Kauffman & Associates works with tribal and underserved communities, foundations and nonprofits. It provides an array services, including research, training and technical assistance, communication, management and grant support.
Federal contracts are a big part of Kauffman & Associate’s work.
Kauffman is a visionary, who “puts no restrictions” on thinking about what can be done to help people transform their lives, said Iris PrettyPaint, the company’s vice president of project management.
“She’s able to transcend her tribal affiliation to work with hundreds of indigenous groups,” PrettyPaint said.
In a recent interview, Kauffman talked about the early influences on her life and career, and the growth of Kauffman & Associates.
Q: Who were your role models when you where growing up?
A: I was fortunate that I got to spend a lot of time with my grandparents – Bill and Lizzie Moody – on the Nez Perce Reservation. They were not business owners, but they were two of the most entrepreneurial people I’ve ever known – always busy and productive, networking, bartering and trading, whether that was huckleberries, raspberries, watermelons or horses. They kept their word and took pride in their product.
Another big influence would be my brother (John Kauffman, an award-winning actor who died in 1990). He was the oldest of the seven siblings. He was also committed to the quality of whatever he was doing, whether that was bead work or theatrical productions.
Q: You have a master’s degree in public health. Tell me about your early career.
A: I worked with tribes and in the nonprofit sector. I worked on developing rural health clinics in northern Idaho. I also ran the Seattle Indian Health Board for nine years.
Q: Why did you start Kauffman & Associates?
A: I had relocated to Washington, D.C. I was working with Indian Health Services, doing research and convening roundtables to help form consensus around policy. They said, “We could do a lot more business with you if you were incorporated.” The light bulb went on. I said, “OK.”
Q: How did you end up headquartering the company in Spokane?
A: I had lived in Seattle and D.C., then I went to my own Nez Perce Reservation. When I was ready to move the company off the reservation in 2000, Seattle was getting too expensive.
Spokane is four hours from Seattle and three hours from Kamiah (on the reservation). This has been my home for 18 years.
Q: How do you describe the company’s work?
A: Kauffman & Associates is a management services and support company. That doesn’t sound nearly as fun as it is. We have incredibly talented people with a passion for doing work that matters.
Q: Describe one of the company’s contracts with the federal government.
A: We are responsible for outreach and education about the Affordable Care Act for American Indians and Alaska Natives all over the country. (This is through a contract with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.) We cover from the Aleutian Islands to the Florida Keys.
We’re getting the word out about insurance coverage options. We’re doing it in a way that considers tribal cultures, the unique health systems that serve those populations and their historic relationship with the federal government.
Q: What initial challenges did you face as a small-business owner?
A: Credit was a big barrier. Early on, when I was a sole proprietor, I went out and bought a computer, fax, copier and printer. I had clients in my office when two guys in suits showed up at the door. My credit had been denied and they were there to pick up the equipment.
I had just gotten a $3,000 check from another client. I asked those guys if they would take a check for the entire equipment cost. They said yes. I didn’t have to go through the humiliation of having the equipment removed while my clients were there. It’s those kinds of bumps that can make or break a business.
Confidence was a silent, little struggle. I remember looking at the letterhead I had ordered and being too afraid to send anything out with my name on it. You have to embrace that failure is not an option. Running a business isn’t something you can do as a hobby or secondary to your main calling. The company has to be your main calling.
Q: What challenges did you face as Kauffman & Associates grew?
A: Dealing with success. That’s another phase where I think a lot of companies struggle. When you’re not the sole proprietor anymore, how do you shift to being someone who manages other people?
One of the big anxieties for me was letting go of every project. That’s where all the systems come into place. Client relationships. Quality control. Hiring the right staff. Trusting that your values and commitments to quality are going to be embedded in the people you hire, and they’ll represent you and carry out your vision.
Q: What is your relationship like with your employees?
A: I’ve been fortunate to find wonderful employees. I’ve also lost some who’ve gone on to do incredible things with their lives. To me, it is a relationship. You hope you find someone who shares the vision and the passion, but I recognize that my employees have their own lives, children, families and mortgages.
This work can be personally draining. I encourage people to take care of themselves.
Q: Tell me about an accomplishment you are particularly proud of.
A: I don’t know if proud is the right word – it was jarring. In 2005, there was a horrible mass shooting at a tribal school in Minnesota. I got a call from the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration. (Part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)
They said, “We would like you to think about what has to happen in tribal communities most at risk to prevent this from happening.”
This was something bigger than me, bigger than the company. It was almost a sacred challenge. We continue to do work with Native American youth violence and suicide prevention.
The work we do goes back to honoring the knowledge and culture of each community. They have the answers. In sending people in who know that, and believe that, we help them find gems of resilience.
Q: What is next for you and for Kauffman & Associates?
A: I won’t tell you my age, but last year I signed up for Medicare. I thought I’d be thinking about retirement at age 65. I don’t have an urge to move in that direction, but this is the time to prepare other people to take over, whether that is within this company or other small businesses.
I mentor other business owners. Ten years ago, I might have seen that as competition; I don’t see it that way today. There aren’t enough other American Indian-owned businesses. I would love to help other companies grow.
This interview was edited for brevity.