Philana Kiely didn’t get the sense that she’d had it tough until she moved away from the Navajo reservation.
“I didn’t have an appreciation for the culture, and everything I had been through as a child until I left,” said Kiely. “I grew up seeing a lot of girls being victims of their surroundings and not having the power to do anything about it.”
Two years later, Kiely is changing the lives of Navajo girls with her entrepreneurial concept, the Shideezhi MBA Women International Program. This year, Kiely and the Shideezhi Program earned a grant from Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc, an Arizona mining company, to help continue and grow the MBA mentorship program.
During her second year of MBA studies at University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business, while serving as the University’s student chapter president for the MBA Women International, Kiely organized a trip to visit New Mexico Navajo reservations with some of her fellow female MBA candidates and MBA Women International chapter peers during spring break. Kiely, who graduated in 2009, now serves as the vice president of programs and chapter development at MBA Women International.
“We thought we were just going to spend some time talking to the girls about going to college, and thought maybe we’d make it an annual trip, but we didn’t know,” Kiely said.
For the inaugural trip in 2009, the five-person group made the 18-hour drive from Houston to two New Mexico high schools, and one middle school over five days. Kiely approached the national MBA Women International to help cover some of the expenses of the trip.
“These girls had no idea that careers existed in business,” said Kiely, who introduced topics like new product development and marketing to the adolescents.
The last and most remote high school the group visit of the three, made a significant impact on Kiely’s colleagues. They hadn’t seen such conditions, like poor electrical systems and plumbing, before, and didn’t think they still existed in the U.S.
Along with issues that come with living in remote areas, Navajo girls deal with higher rates of suicide, alcoholism, drop-out rates, and teen pregnancies.
“They didn’t understand why the girls’ parents just didn’t give them money from their bank accounts,” said Kiely. “But on a reservation, there are no banks. They have no idea what money management could be. People live welfare check to welfare check. It was a real eye-opener for those individuals. Since I have lived it, I never thought about it in those terms.”
Related: MBA Women International Offering Leadership Webinars | Database: Search, Sort, Compare Online MBA Programs | School Reports: Full Details on MBA Programs | Specialties: Research MBA Concentrations
“When I saw how it impacted the girls (from the reservations), I thought ‘We might have something here’. We could help two populations – the students on the reservations, but also give MBA students a better understanding of the world and cultural exchange.”
Kiely spent the 18-hour drive – and the next five months after her graduation from UH– transitioning the group’s experience from a once-a-year speaking tour to a few high schools to a mentoring program between struggling Navajo youth and MBA students and graduates.
Named, the Shideezhi (which translates to “Little Sister” in Navajo), mentors help guide students through the educational system. Kiely has established relationships with guidance counselors at Navajo area high schools, matching needy students with appropriate mentors. Both parties have to apply to be in the program. However, Kiely doesn’t edit the students’ applications, to help the mentor better grasp the communication level of her mentee.
“The range of communications skills is huge,” Kiely said.
The program begins with mentors traveling to the reservation. Kiely found this was a key part of establishing trust between the students and mentors. The pair then creates a communication calendar and sets milestones.
The next step for Kiely, with the help of the grant, will be to make the relationships last longer than high school graduation. She hopes to create “college preparation” as major milestone for the mentees and mentors, as well as adding a continuing education component to the program. Kiely also wants to establish a “give back committee” to the students served by the program, giving back to their community, and finally, she plans to create workshops for female students on more personal issues, such as hygiene and reproduction.
Kiely also plans to have girls in the program learn to build and maintain their own website, in order reach out to other tribes and become ambassadors of the program.
How Her MBA Education Helped Her
“In the beginning, I lived and breathed this,” said Kiely. “We have shareholders and my fear is that I’m going to let them down and that pushes me.”
Daniel Pinto, the program’s first male mentor, was so moved by his experience, he started a microfinance program for the Navajo nation.
“(In entrepreneurship) nothing is ever going to be easy and it’s always going to be an uphill battle,” said Kiely. “You have to have the stamina to keep going.
“At the entrepreneurial level, I’ve taken what I learned from my MBA, and broken it down to the base level, and applied it to the day-to-day. (Things like) putting together a marketing strategy, developing ROI on investments, the finances of a 501C3 – everything you learn in business school is integral,” she said.
The project is always looking for MBA or master’s level students or graduates to apply to become mentors to the Navajo youth. Interested persons can contact Kiely at email@example.com.
–Alanna Stage, @AlannaTweets