Karlene Hunter is CEO and co-founder of Native American Natural Foods. A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Ms. Hunter has more than 32 years of experience working on educational and economic development on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where Native American Natural Foods is based. The Kyle, S.D., company, founded with her longtime business partner Mark Tilsen, is the second business Ms. Hunter has started on the reservation.
In 1996, Ms. Hunter and Mr. Tilsen created Lakota Express, a direct marketing and customer care management company. Focused primarily on fund-raising for non-profit organizations, Ms. Hunter has led the direct marketing campaign for Oglala Lakota College for more than 25 years. More than $25 million has been raised under Ms. Hunter’s leadership, including raising the funds for the establishment of the first library on the reservation and the creation of new college centers in each of the nine districts on Pine Ridge.
In 2007, Ms. Hunter and Mr. Tilsen created Native American Natural Foods, a company devoted to the establishment of the first Native American national branded line of natural meat and fruit snacks. The company’s line of Tanka buffalo products has since grown to more than 4,000 retailers nationwide and has created more than 20 jobs on the reservation. Tanka Bars, the company’s signature product, is now the number one selling natural meat snack in the United States, according to SPINS, the natural food industry’s top retail measurement service.
From 2003 to 2005, Ms. Hunter also served as executive director of Lakota Funds Community Development Financial Institution. Launched in 1986, Lakota Funds, the first Native American CDFI, now has a loan portfolio in excess of $4.4 million and its maximum loan size has grown to $200,000. The fund has created more than 1,000 permanent jobs on Pine Ridge Reservation and has helped establish hundreds of businesses and entrepreneurs.
Well-known throughout the Native American community for her local and national service record, Ms. Hunter serves on the Board of Directors of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. She has also served on the Board of Directors for the Native American Rights Fund; the National Indian Business Association; Dakota’s America LLC; the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce.
Ms. Hunter, who holds an MBA from Oglala Lakota College, has received numerous awards, including the 2011 Social Venture Network Innovation Award, the Natural Foods Industry’s prestigious 2010 Cliff Adler ‘Heart in Business’ Award, and the 2007 SBA Small Business Woman of the Year for South Dakota. Recognized in 2003 as one of the 100 Best Minority Suppliers by the Minority Business Network, Ms. Hunter received the National Director’s Pioneer Award in 2006 from then-Department of Commerce Secretary Ronald Langston. She has also been awarded the President Harry S. Truman Foundation Scholarship; Indian Business Woman of the Year from the National Indian Business Association; Rising Star Award from the Business Women’s Network; Diversity Best Practices and NASFT Leadership Award Winner for Vision.