For many Native entrepreneurs, there’s often a cliff in their future — and that’s if they’re successful.
That bit of sly insight comes from veteran finance and investment banking executive Valerie Red-Horse Mohl (Cherokee descendant). She’s talking about the wealth of support that’s available for Black and Brown small-business owners, and how it rarely results in actual wealth.
“Outside of gaming, when you think about Native founders and entrepreneurs, there is this sort of cliff that they fall off,” Red-Horse Mohl told Tribal Business News. “There's lots of support for (them as) small businesses, but they never make it to the sort of endgame of making it to public investment or acquisition.”
And that “endgame” is where a lot of wealth gets created in this country, Red-Horse Mohl said.
She is hoping to change that equation in her role as president of New York City-based Known Holdings. Founded in 2021 by four executives of color, the firm hopes to tackle the racial wealth gap by providing business and financial management support for owners and executives, with an emphasis on BIPOC.
The gap in question is immense: according to a November 2021 report from Tukwila, Washington-based credit union BECU, Native Americans have 8 cents of wealth for every dollar of wealth in the average white American household. Native poverty stands at a rate of 25.4 percent — the highest among any single ethnic group in the United States — according to estimates.
The gap shows itself in capital access as well, according to prior Tribal Business News reporting. Between a lack of banks on reservation lands, tensions between Native entrepreneurs and traditional investors, and oversubscribed demand on Native CDFIs, Native business owners face an uphill battle in getting started, much less scaling upward from there.
To that end, Red-Horse Mohl joined three other executives of color — CEO Jim Casselberry, Chief Strategy Officer Nathalie Molina Niño,, and Chief Technical and Financial Officer Ushir Shah — in founding Known.
“Known Holdings is a comprehensive and ambitious effort to ensure that people of conscience have a robust financial partner where they can grow their businesses—and their wealth,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “While making sure that capital, skills, connections and expertise are available to founders and investors of color, who are the global majority, and the new majority in the U.S.”
Casselberry, the firm’s CEO, said Known aims at mending long-term disparities in racial wealth.
“Like any good investor, Known’s approach centers on the growth of undervalued assets,” Casselberry said in a statement announcing Red-Horse Mohl’s appointment as president. “With Valerie’s exceptional leadership and track record, we’re uniquely positioned to provide powerful, long-term racial, social, environmental and economic impact for clients and founders interested in strong growth and meaningful legacies.”
Known’s strategy toward helping businesses led by entrepreneurs is three-pronged: asset management, investment banking, and “institutional knowledge in marketing and the C-Suite,” Red-Horse Mohl said.
Those services can help companies “complete a cycle of capital” that often gets stymied right at the point when they are best positioned to grow, Red-Horse Mohl said.
Red-Horse Mohl pointed to an example in her past work regarding capital for a tribal hospitality project. There, the financier helped the tribe secure a 7% interest rate on friendlier terms than a market-quoted 12% interest rate by seeking out “integrated capital,” or money from multiple sources such as grant awards and bonds.
“For many years, when I was an investment banker and working with tribes, I would be able to get rates much lower than what the market quote might have been for a single loan,” she said. “That’s what we intend to do at Known Holdings — help them find the optimal financing for their goals.”
As a company founded and run by executives of color, Known better positions itself to help clients find investment targets aligned with their values, such as helping Native investors and avoiding support of companies whose work damages the climate, Red-Horse Mohl said.
“Our asset management is centered around managing assets for large entities that have decided they no longer want their money managed in the traditional Wall Street ‘plug and play’ model, which involves investing in S&P index stocks for what they call a ‘balanced’ portfolio,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “Those include things that are really antithetical values in our communities of color. We have a track record of showing you can do well without that, so we’re taking the assets of our clients and investing them into managers whose values are aligned, and we’re mostly investing managers of color.”
The company’s other major “business line,” as Red-Horse Mohl describes it, is its investment banking services. Through that institution Known Holdings plans to help clients identify what kind of funding they need to continue growing and how best to secure it, i.e. by locating a Department of Agriculture loan or grant to help pay for part of a business extension, or securing bonds to pay for a hotel.
“We’re not only bringing that access to capital through asset management, we also have investment banking to help companies grow, and to provide that institutional knowledge on things like marketing and the C-suite,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “We help our clients take a look at their proper growth trajectory.”
For Red-Horse Mohl, Known represents the culmination of a long career in financial work. The financier says she founded the first Native-owned investment bank on Wall Street, Native Nations Securities, in 1998. In the years since, Red-Horse Mohl has worked to help tribes and other communities find the best financing they can get for their project.
That approach, Red-Horse Mohl says, is the best way to close long-term cycles of poverty afflicting communities across the country.
“It's such a passion of mine and it still is, but I kept seeing some of the same problems coming up. There are things we need to address on a sustainable long term scale. I really felt like I was on an island. It was daunting, and I moved into the philanthropy space to try to identify more sustainable solutions thinking I would bring back to my community,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “To me it's a culmination of all my work, all my years, and I’m thankful God saw fit to put me right in the paths of these other founders.”
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