Most interns hope a good performance will jump-start a career. But Joseph Nayquonabe’s stint as a federal lobbyist intern on Capitol Hill was anything but a jump-start.
“I failed miserably, so I tried an internship in the marketing department of my tribal casino at Grand Casino Mille Lacs when I was a senior at St. Cloud State University in 2003,” he says. “I fell in love with casino marketing and operations, and built my career there right out of college.”
After rising to become corporate vice president of marketing for Grand Casinos, Nayquonabe was appointed CEO and chairman of the board of directors for Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures, which oversees all tribal businesses. He also analyzes new opportunities for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, raises capital and sets strategy, coordination and development of resources across a portfolio that employs 3,500.
Since the opening of Grand Casino Mille Lacs in 1991, the portfolio has added Grand Casino Hinckley, Eddy’s Resort, Big Sandy Lodge & Resort, hotels in the St. Paul and Minneapolis area, plus a cinema, grocery store, gas/convenience stores, golf course, wastewater treatment plant, commercial laundry facility, medical office building and print shop.
“From our casinos and hotels to our non-gaming operations, our businesses are a vital economic force in east-central Minnesota,” marathon runner Nayquonabe says. “The mission of my life is to be a force in Indian Country to make our economies innovate and grow.”
Before achieving success, Nayquonabe—who holds an MBA and a master’s degree in tribal administration and governance, both through the University of Minnesota—leaned on the guidance of two mentors.
Angela Heikes, CEO of Mystic Lake Casino, taught him the importance of data-driven decision-making.
“If it’s not getting measured it’s not getting done, so starting with the best metrics was something that helped me incredibly,” he says.
Robert Allen, past COO of Pinnacle Entertainment, was a slot guru for the tribal company and was laser-focused on the guest experience.
“He helped me by challenging me to always start and end with the guest when making decisions.”
Nayquonabe sees geographic expansion, urban-based gaming and serving new customer bases with new offerings as growth keys. He cites the purchase of Pennsylvania’s Sands Bethlehem by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama as a blueprint for the future.
“I think this is the type of activity all gaming tribes will partake in, whether financing, developing or managing projects,” says Nayquonabe, who loves to read, listen to podcasts and shoot hoops with his three daughters.
Indeed, the tribal corporation has followed that road already as it seeks to anchor rural areas, with an eye on expanding education, housing and health care for the population.
Such growth opens up the need for younger talent. Nayquonabe urges young people to imagine themselves at the helm of a company.
“People want to follow someone somewhere, so, when you get to a leadership position, where are you going to take them? The clearer that picture gets based on your study and experience, the more confidence you’ll have in trying to make a difference in your company.”