Chrystel Cornelius will receive a cash award of $250,000 and the accompanying Heinz Award for the Economy in recognition of her influential work in the Native American community.
Cornelius has spent years providing financial resources and support for rural Indigenous tribes, who often do not have access to personal or business loans.
Who is Chrystel Cornelius?
Chrystel Cornelius is a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
Growing up in a poverty-stricken rural reservation in North Dakota, Cornelius knows first-hand how financial hardships can impact every avenue of a family’s life.
Although her childhood circumstances presented obstacles, Cornelius attests that growing up in North Dakota made her who she is today. On top of that, it inspired her to find job opportunities outside the reservation.
For several years, Cornelius worked as a tribal planner, writing grants and finding required resources for Native communities, like clean energy projects and nursing homes.
Chrystel Cornelius’ Work in the Native Community
Cornelius has worked to make the Native American community better for years.
Initially, she founded the Turtle Mountain CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution), the first non-profit on her reservation. Establishing a CDFI is essential, more than most people recognize.
There are very few Native CDFIs that offer loan opportunities to Indigenous people.
Instead, Native people are too often subject to predatory lending, unethical actions that make receiving or paying off loans nearly impossible for the borrowers.
Position as the President and CEO of Oweesta Corporation
In 2011, Cornelius became president and CEO of Oweesta Corporation.
This corporation is a Colorado-based CDFI providing financial assistance services exclusively to Native CDFIs and Indigenous communities.
Although Oweesta Corporation doesn’t offer loans directly, they help ensure Native people receive fair loans from other financial institutions.
“I feel very honored to be able to be in this position [to be able] to help hundreds of Native communities,” Cornelius says.
What does the Oweesta Corporation do?
Oweesta Corporation’s mission is to return the wealth to Native people and lands by offering small business support, home loans, and job opportunities.
Additionally, the company provides various financial tools, training, and capital to ensure Native people have more control over their financial future.
In the past 20 years, Oweesta Corporation has provided more than $60 million in loans and investments to over 8,500 Native individuals.
Kim O’Dell, the director of the Heinz Award program, says Cornelius and Oweesta Corporation have “created more opportunities for home ownership in these rural communities that are often disconnected from financial services.”
Impact on the Native American Community
Cornelius’ work directly focuses on rural Native communities. However, its effect spreads throughout the country, significantly impacting communities everywhere, both Native and non-Native.
O’Dell claims Cornelius’ efforts benefit “many different rural areas” and are “tailored for the individuals in those communities throughout the country.”
Regarding her recent accolade, Cornelius says she feels “very honored to hold this award with individuals that have greatly changed society.”