Native American Heritage Month 2023: Celebrating Indigenous Voices In Tech

Accenture’s Suzanne Randall, TICOM’s Madonna Peltier-Yawakie and IBM’s Brendan Kinkade share stories from their tech careers and advocacy for indigenous peoples.

Suzanne Randall wrote the business case 16 years ago that started Accenture’s Native American Employee Resource Group.

Madonna Peltier-Yawakie and her husband help tribal entities secure funding for broadband network designs, project implementation and operational support.

And Brendan Kinkade has leveraged positions with IBM, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and Los Angeles’ school district to bring technology education and skilling to indigenous youth.

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, CRN spoke with three indigenous executives in technology and business about their starts in the industry and efforts they view as helpful in bringing more Native Americans to vendors and solution providers.

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Native American Heritage Month 2023

Much work remains to increase the presence of Native Americans – 3 percent of the U.S. population and one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the country, according to Native News Online – in tech and business.

An October report from AISES and the Kapor Foundation found that only 59 percent of Native students attend a school offering computer science and only 20 percent of high schools located on reservations offer CS.

Of registered technical apprentices, 0.6 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native (AI/AN). Fewer are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (NH/PI). And despite a 10 percent enrollment increase in associate’s degrees in computing, the percent of those degrees granted to Native students is 1 percent for AI/AN and 0.4 percent for NH/PI students.

AI/AN students represent 0.4 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients and 0.1 percent of doctoral degree recipients, according to the report.

And of the six largest U.S.-based tech companies reporting data on Native employees, two have decreased Native representation since 2018.

Read on for the stories and efforts shared with CRN this Native American Heritage Month.

Accenture’s Randall Advocates For Native Americans

Suzanne Randall’s career in marketing and communications and advocacy for Native Americans is no surprise when you hear about her childhood.

The marketing and communications lead for Accenture’s U.S. local eminence team grew up in a small town in North Dakota. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians through her mother’s side of the family. Her late father was a member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia.

She was raised with stories of her ancestors’ experiences. She displayed a knack for good marketing early on with an uncanny ability to memorize commercials for Dolly Madison snacks and Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific shampoo.

“I’m a storyteller, which definitely aligns to my Native American identity,” Randall told CRN in an interview. “I was raised in a family of storytellers – with rich oral history from generation upon generation.”

Randall started at Andersen Consulting in 1996 as an intern. In 2001, Andersen became Accenture – No. 1 on CRN’s 2023 Solution Provider 500.

In 2007, Randall wrote the business case for Accenture’s Native American Employee Resource Group, she said. The group has grown from about eight members to more than 500.

Randall and her colleagues have worked to recognize the accomplishments of Native American employees at Accenture, to recruit more indigenous people to the solution provider and to commemorate cultural traditions.

“We have a very substantial number of Accenture people who gather with this common ground of indigenous peoples, races and cultures,” she said. “It’s just been so rewarding.”

Accenture started its Native American Scholarship Fund 18 years ago, she said. To date, the firm has given more than $1.3 million to nearly 150 Native American students.

Efforts including Native American Heritage Month are great opportunities for indigenous people and allies to come together and learn more about the various cultures, Randall said.

“People are just so curious and fascinated because there is so much about our history that is truly unknown,” she said. “And so we have an opportunity to share stories, bring modern day lived experiences to the forefront.”

Last year, Randall got the opportunity to bring her family’s stories to a wider audience by participating in the popular public speaking event series TEDx. She told the audience about her grandparents’ resilience in the face of the U.S. government’s Native child removal policies. She also spoke of the importance of honoring one’s heritage and true self.

Today, work on behalf of indigenous people is a family effort for the Randalls. Her niece, a student at Stanford, helps to produce an annual powwow at the university.

Randall’s sister, Juliet Randall, is vice president of global account-based marketing strategy at Salesforce and an active member of the vendor’s WINDforce Native American and Indigenous ERG. Their mother, JuniKae Randall, has produced, hosted and created music for a 13-part PBS series called “Indian Pride.” And her son, Matthew, a high school junior, wants to pursue film school and build understanding of Native Americans through storytelling in movies and TV.

Next year, Randall said, she hopes to visit Virginia to visit the tribe to which her father – who died in 2016 – belonged. This summer, she visited North Dakota to spend time with her family and to pay respects to her grandparents and father.

“With life and the kids at this age and work and everything, it’s difficult to get back to North Dakota,” she said. “But it’s very important that we take the time to do that because that is what connects us.”

TICOM Builds More Connectivity In Tribal Lands

Madonna Peltier-Yawakie learned early in her career that Native Americans need to create opportunities where none exist.

Working for an incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) that served 120 tribal nations in a 14-state area, she found an opportunity to create the role of tribal nation marketing manager.

“I quickly realized that some of the services that we were marketing weren’t available on tribal lands because the infrastructure … wasn’t able to provide the more modern types of services,” Peltier-Yawakie told CRN in an interview. “I, systematically, could see that this wasn’t just relevant for one tribe. It was relevant for many tribes that I was able to visit.”

In 2001, Peltier-Yawakie and her husband, Mel Yawakie, saw an opportunity to start Turtle Island Communications (TICOM), a Brooklyn Park, Minn.-based engineering and technical consulting services firm focused on helping Native American tribes and tribal-owned broadband companies design, implement and support systems that met Federal Communications Commission (FCC) funding requirements for long-term sustainability.

The Yawakies met during college. Mel Yawakie received an electrical engineer degree and acts as TICOM’s vice president and project engineer. Peltier-Yawakie has degrees in business administration and community and regional planning.

Seeking education and community service were values Peltier-Yawakie’s family taught when she was growing up on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Her father and brothers served in the tribal council. Her mother worked as a cook for 26 years with the U.S. Head Start early childhood services program.

“When you grow up on a reservation or in a tribal community, the people are very community-oriented,” she said. “A foundation of our beliefs is that you want to contribute something good to your community. And so that’s something that was really reinforced in my family.”

She credits AISES for helping the couple throughout their education and career by connecting them with fellow indigenous people in STEM.

Her adult sons continue the family tradition of community service, she said. One has a nonprofit dedicated to food sovereignty and security and an organization focused on increasing voter turnout. The other works on water compacts between tribes and the state of Montana.

“We hope that we’ve instilled – and I believe we have instilled – those same values that were instilled in us,” she said.

Over the years, Peltier-Yawakie has seen indigenous people who park outside tribal government buildings for internet access and indigenous youth who get internet access in casino lobbies.

Despite coming face-to-face with these inequities, Peltier-Yawakie describes herself as an optimist. She said she is glad for the newfound attention on connectivity issues.

“Early on there was such a concern about the digital divide,” she said. “I saw a digital opportunity where tribes could look at this and say, ‘You know what, it’s time that we started to do this ourselves.’”

The global pandemic drew attention to the importance of adding connectivity to rural parts of the U.S. – including tribal lands.

TICOM has been busy lately thanks to more federal funding and more data collection requirements to show improved connectivity in rural areas.

Peltier-Yawakie even authored a recent paper commissioned by the Minnesota indigenous Business Alliance that discusses federal broadband regulations and their relevance to tribal broadband development and long-term sustainability of those systems.

“The time for action really is now,” she said. “As human beings, what we do is we want to make the world better – places that we care about better.”

IBM’s Kinkade Brings Resources To Indigenous Youth

Within arm’s reach of Brendan Kinkade’s desk in his home office are two reed baskets his sons wove as children at a Choctaw tribal gathering.

Kinkade, IBM’s vice president of independent software vendor (ISV) go-to-market and strategic technology and hybrid cloud partnerships, told CRN in an interview that he viewed bringing his son and daughter to those gatherings to play stickball and meet chiefs as essential to their upbringing.

“I thought it was important that they knew where they came from – they knew where I came from and our ancestors came from,” he said. “But also that they got exposure to the culture, the food, some of the past times, some of the language.”

His respect for indigenous culture and history carries over to his current home and a different group of people. His home in the western edge of California’s San Fernando Valley looks out over a former trading point for the Chumash and other indigenous groups, he said. The trails he hikes and bikes on run past caves with Native petroglyphs.

“In Native American culture, typically there are ties to the land,” he said. “That’s why indigenous intelligence is particularly important. As the population continues to grow, we continue to be faced with challenges around resources and weather and other things. So that kind of indigenous knowledge around being tied to the land, tied to the seasons, having an understanding and a respect for that, really starts to become – I would say – more important as we’re faced with those things as a society.”

Kinkade was born in Oklahoma. His mother, Melinda McClanahan, is a trailblazer among indigenous women. She received a doctorate in radiation biology, served as a board member of AISES and held the position of chief information officer (CIO) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Agricultural Research Service.

“One of the things that she was involved with was at the EPA, she was responsible for some of the research grants,” he said. “It was interesting coming from a community that’s centered around the land and place – to having responsibility for awarding funding for things that are related to that – I think is pretty cool.”

He started out in a career in media and entertainment before joining a data storage startup to help with promotion. He eventually took an interest in cloud computing and worked with VMware for more than three years.

He joined IBM in 2016 as a director for IBM’s strategic partnership with VMware and worked his way up to his current role, which includes interacting with IBM system integrator partners, he said. IBM has about 55,000 channel partners worldwide and 12,000 in North America, according to CRN’s 2023 Channel Chiefs.

Kinkade co-chairs IBM’s group for Native Americans and indigenous people.

“In that capacity, I get to work with the native and indigenous people within IBM and also our efforts to do outreach to help make them aware of IBM as a great place to work,” he said. “IBM really embraces diversity. My experience here has been fully walk the walk. It’s not just talk. There’s lots of support.”

During the global pandemic, Kinkade served as parent committee chairman for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Indian Education Program. He helped introduce IBM’s SkillsBuild free online training program to students, providing an early roadmap to “new-collar careers” in cybersecurity, application development, data science, cloud computing and AI.

“That was a really great way to expose kids to technology, to expose the students, give them an idea of what’s out there in terms of careers in STEM,” he said. “A lot of it is getting exposure and understanding, ‘Hey, there are people that are doing this. If they can do it, I can do it, too.’”

Kinkade also sits on AISES’ board of directors. The organization has provided him opportunities to educate indigenous professionals on the new age of artificial intelligence (AI) and the issues around ethics, responsibility, intellectual property and transparency in AI models that IBM and other vendors are working on.

Kinkade recently saw AISES’ programming in action when his son, a high school senior, attended the organization’s college and career fair. His son talked to representatives from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the U.S. Forest Service and other employers, as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University. Attendees also received help with writing resumes and interviewing skills.

When asked for his advice for other organizations seeking to start an affinity group, Kinkade said it’s important to understand the target community.

For example, in his experience, young people who grew up on reservations can tend to be shy and aren’t accustomed to public speaking. They may require engagement.

During his time with the LAUSD committee, he saw that some indigenous and native students wouldn’t readily self-identify and required outreach.

“In the case of the Native American community, there are some cultural behaviors that are common, that as a typical corporate employer, you may not understand those things,” he said. “If you give them (younger Native Americans) a safe space, they will share. And you can start to get them to open up to understand more about their interests, what they want to do. And so it’s really about creating that sense of safety and acceptance so that they can really open up.”

In the future, Kinkade said, he hopes to see more solution providers and resellers owned by Native Americans selling into their communities and vendors making a priority to purchase from diverse- and minority-owned businesses.

“That’s a great way to help all of this,” he said. “If you look at Native American or indigenous representation at the executive level across technology companies, you’re probably not going to find a large pool of Native American executives. … Part of it is that there needs to be this pipeline and supply of goods and services to the Indian communities through Indian-owned businesses or indigenous-owned businesses.”