SAIO 50 for 50: Gregg Paisley
This Week's Spotlight: Gregg Paisley ('92, M.B.A. Public Management)
Paisley (Blackfeet: Amskapi Piikani) retired in 2003 from a career as an executive in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street and has since started various for-profit and non-profit entities on the Blackfeet Reservation—all with the aim of creating jobs, increasing tribal household incomes, improving social conditions, and generating good will and mutual understanding between Indian Country and the outside world. Paisley is the CEO of Blackfeet Industries LLC, the umbrella organization for Blackfeet Indian Market and other enterprises, Principal of Chenoa Strategies, which provides business services focusing on Indian Country advocacy, economic development, cultural revitalization, and public relations, and Director of American Indian Partnership, a 501(c)(3) which includes The Blackfeet Children Christmas Fund, 500 Generations, and other projects.
A musician, Paisley’s entrepreneurship began with selling professional audio, light, and video equipment to concert venues, bands, nightclubs, and recording studios. Paisley’s specialty was electroacoustical engineering, and his companies grew to make him one of the ten largest suppliers in the U.S. with multiple stores and fabrication shops in the Northwest. Paisley shifted focus and spent several years in business roles at enterprise software and hardware companies—from start-up and pre-IPO to NASDAQ companies to Fortune 500s—serving a variety of industries, including finance, government, pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing.
In addition to his Stanford degree, Paisley holds a bachelor’s in history with honors, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of Washington and a bachelor’s in business from City College.
Although you’re “retired” you are involved in a number of organizations focused on economic development in Indian Country - including American Indian Partnerships, Blackfeet Industries, and Chenoa Strategies. What do these companies do and how do their foci differ?
In a way, my various organizations all do the same thing: try to improve quality of life on our reservation. That’s a mission that requires various separate vehicles to get us there: different business models, legal structures, and an array of strategies and tactics. It also requires doing business in ways that outside companies either can’t or won’t do, and many locals don’t have the experience or capital to do.
For example, I have year after year for a decade won various federal contracts to provide business services on the rez (staffing, cash handling, technical services, etc.). These contracts require a for-profit structure and to be credentialed / integrated into government contracting systems. I have been told by contracting officers it is hard to find local reservation-based vendors that can qualify --many don’t even have bank accounts!
Conversely, we are one of the largest purchasers and transactors of Blackfeet arts and crafts, in part because our trading posts, art galleries, artists’ studios, etc. do business in ways outside companies will not. For example, unlike the artist / trading post / wholesale system of the Southwest (the Navajo being the leading example), the Blackfeet have historically not had an adequate conduit to connect supply and demand. (Demand is largely the 2+ million Glacier Park visitors and supply is our artists.) So we provide the conduit that previously barely existed by doing something almost unheard of in the outside world. Very few of our artists have bank accounts so we pay all our artists in cash (I mean actual folding money) either on the spot at our buying counters if it is jewelry, crafts, etc., or by 5pm same-day if it is fine art. But 90% of our sales are by credit card which takes days to settle, so think about the cash needed on site in our remote, under-banked area of Montana and the non-standard accounting systems we have to use!
Our other entities: non-profit / 501(c)3 and real estate operations (we own thousands of square feet of commercial space that we make available to tribal members trying to start their own businesses, often at no charge and with seed funding) are necessary to reach certain of our objectives. For example, when we raise money for various children, cultural, or educational programs, our donors need their gifts or grants to be tax deductible.
In sum, we are about the mission, not the money. I believe there must be a reason I was blessed with excess capital and I think that reason can be found on my own reservation.
What were some of the companies you worked for in tech? Which did you enjoy the most and why?
I worked at Compaq / Tandem / Digital (later all part of HP), as well as an enterprise CRM company (Onyx), a statistical science / artificial intelligence high-end enterprise software company, and a few others. I especially like working in AI, but probably the most fun was when I was hired into the highest strata of enterprise applications (SAP and Siebel) and we drove a billion+ dollars in incremental revenues, pretty much shutting out IBM, which in those days was rarely done. That winner-take-all period appealed to the great white shark in me.
Does anything you learned in tech inform the work you do now?
On 9/11, the company where I was a vice president had an office a block from the World Trade Center (we supplied advanced technologies to Wall Street). Fortunately I was not in NYC that day, but in bed asleep on the West Coast. Outside of my household, no one who cared about me knew where I was, and my phone rang off the hook with worry. Afterwards I spent most of the next few months agonizing who to lay off, round after round. Eventually, I laid myself off to stop the pain and to do something actually important (be a stay at home dad). What I learned is this: You may think you have a job that is important, impressive, exciting, sexy, and that you are hot stuff, the envy of all around you. But here’s the reality that I eventually woke up to. Nothing in the workplace you do is very important compared to helping others who need it. Helping pull one person up from the depths of despair and on track for a good life feels better and matters more than making an app used by millions, going viral, or being an “influencer.” So if you can find work that matches your skill set and that you enjoy, and your job entails helping others reach their goals and dreams, you have the best job in the world.
Here’s something I noticed in industry, which informs my work today: I met countless thousands of other executives in the workplace, but even though 1 out of 200 Americans are Indians living on a reservation, I never met another Indian (as far as I know). I should have met a few, right? But no. What’s wrong with this picture?
Please share a favorite SAIO/Stanford native community memory.
My best memory is just the general feeling that, of all the big universities, Stanford is the one that best supports, welcomes, respects, funds / resources, and celebrates indigenous peoples. That was 28 years ago and it is even truer today.
What was one of the major issues facing the native community (at Stanford or more broadly) while you were at Stanford?
Same problems we find everywhere, finding our place in the world and making for ourselves the life we want
What do you want for the Stanford native community in the next 50 years?
Stanford is already a model for other schools with respect to diversity / inclusion / support for natives, so I just want our school to keep doing what it is already doing.