Birch bark texture.

Ahtna Kanas Spring 2016

Universities Offer Executive Leadership Programs

Portrait of Rhonda Oliver smiling at the camera

Alaska Pacific University (APU) and the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) now offer executive leadership programs for Alaska Natives like Ahtna shareholder-owner Rhonda Oliver.

Rhonda, who is the daughter of Maggie Oliver from Cantwell and the late Tom Oliver, is the controller at Cook Inlet Region Inc. (CIRI). She earned a certification and nine credits that can be applied to a master’s degree at APU’s Alaska Native Executive Leadership Program (ANELP).

“The program is geared toward more than working for an Alaska Native corporation,” Rhonda explains. “It’s about growing leaders and it covered a variety of leadership topics that, as you develop professionally, you’re going to need. I learned a lot of tangible, practical skills that draw on daily.”

ANELP emphasizes the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and the formation and management of ANCSA corporations.

“As somebody looking back on ANCSA, working for a successful corporation 40 years after the fact, that’s the only perspective I had,” Oliver said. “Being in the course, hearing these speakers, it let me look at ANCSA through a different lens.”

ANELP is similar to other master’s programs at APU. Classes meet two days a month and in between, students work on assignments, homework and readings.

“What’s great about the program is the relationships that are built with our classmates,” Rhonda says. “These are other future leaders in the Native community that each offer different skill sets. We were able to talk about each other’s work challenges and are able to get a wide variety of perspectives on solutions and ideas.”

“Having Native management classes and programs available at two of Alaska’s major universities is a great step in the right direction.”
– Genevieve John

Since the 2014 fall semester, UAA has offered a new minor in Alaska Native Business Management. The courses give students an in-depth look at how Alaska Native Corporations – including Ahtna – have diversified into successful state, national and global companies. The minor utilizes targeted education, hands-on training, research and technical assistance to grow the next generation of Alaska Native corporate and nonprofit leaders.

“With the increasing levels of sophistication and diversity in Alaska Native Corporation businesses, having Native management classes and programs available at two of Alaska’s major universities is a great step in the right direction,” notes Ahtna Board Member Genevieve John. “The more exposure our shareholders get to business education and best practices that can be blended with our culture and values to benefit the Ahtna Athabaskan people, the stronger our future shareholder leaders will be.”

UAA has more than 2,000 Alaska Native and American Indian students, says Sharon Lind, term assistant professor for UAA’s College of Business and Public Policy. “We have more Alaska Native students than any other university, so this program makes sense here.”

The Alaska Native Business Management minor is comprised of five required courses totaling 13 credits and an additional five elective credits that are focused on Alaska Native topics. Concepts covered in the required courses include Alaska Native corporation business practices, leadership and business management.

For spring semester this year, classes include Alaska Native Organizations, Indigenous Leadership and Inside the Boardroom of an Alaska Native Organization. Oliver will be participating in this class on March 25th as a guest speaker covering a variety of topics including understanding financial statements as a board member.

“We have a strong interest in these classes by Alaska Native students,” Sharon says. “Additionally, we are starting to see a very strong interest from our accounting students. Those majoring in accounting know they will probably start their careers in an auditing firm, and it is to their advantage to have knowledge in this area before joining that firm.”

Oliver found APU program ‘incredibly beneficial’

Rhonda Oliver credits her educational success to Ahtna.

Outdoor photo of Grant Hall at Alaska Pacific University
Grant Hall at Alaska Pacific University

“The Ahtna Heritage Foundation scholarship played a huge role in getting me through school,” she says. Rhonda earned a Bachelor in Business Administration degree with an emphasis in accounting.

Following graduation, Ahtna’s Margie Ewan connected Rhonda with the national public accounting firm Deloitte, where she worked her way up from an intern to a professional auditor in 6.5 years. She earned her Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license and had the opportunity to travel the state extensively. “I was so lucky to be able to experience Alaska off the beaten path,” says Rhonda.

After her time at Deloitte, Oliver became Director of Accounting at CIRI. She served in that role for 10 years before being offered the position of CIRI’s Corporate Controller. In 2013, CIRI asked Rhonda if she would be interested in attending the Alaska Native Executive Leadership Program (ANELP). “I was thrilled at the opportunity to expand my education,” The program includes an extensive nine-month curriculum that consisted of a variety of topics ranging from government contracting to mentorship programs. “ANELP was incredibly beneficial,” Oliver says.

Rhonda has two children, aged 11 and 13. She plans on finishing her master’s degree when they get a little older.

She’s been back to ANELP to speak to current students about effective accounting departments and about how to maximize Alaska Native corporations’ economic and social wellbeing.

“The program has made me realize that I love teaching,” she says. “The knowledge I’ve gained through this program is invaluable and I’ve been able to pass that knowledge down to young, future Native leaders – which is what it’s all about.”