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Fighting Systemic Barriers With A Neobank For Native Americans

When Amber Buker explains how she came to co-found a neobank for Native Americans, she tells the story of the time she tried applying to a down payment assistance program for members of her tribe.

It was in 2017, when she was working in Nashville, after graduating from law school in Portland, Ore. There she realized just how removed from the traditional financial system she and her family were, and set her sights on home ownership. But as a first generation college student and first in her family to buy a home, she didn’t know how to get started. Then her mother told her their tribe, the Choctaw Nation, had a down payment assistance program that might be able to help her.

Buker found a description of the program on the tribe’s web site and promptly called customer service for help. Only, she was told the benefit didn’t exist. So she called back and, eventually, found someone who could help. However, the rules were so opaque that, between the two of them, they couldn’t figure out whether Buker qualified and what her next steps should be. Then she tried her mortgage broker, who was unwilling to look into the problem. She ended up giving up on the program, though, eventually, she was able to buy a home.

That experience was one of multiple reasons that, this year, she co-founded a digital bank run by Indigenous Americans, for Indigenous Americans. Called Totem, it’s aimed at addressing the systemic barriers to financial services faced by Native Americans, partnering with First Pryority Bank, a Tulsa community bank, to act as its sponsor bank, holding Totem’s deposits. “Our goal is to get more of our people banked, help them grow their credit and access the tribal benefits that we believe will contribute to building a new tradition of native wealth building,” she says.

Neobanks are fintech companies that operate online only and don’t have physical branches. Typically, because they lack banking licenses, they work with regular banks as sponsors, allowing their customers’ deposits to be FDIC-insured. Many focus on specific communities, such as immigrants.

Unbanked and Facing Systemic Barriers

Through her research, Buker discovered that about 16% of Native Americans are unbanked, mirroring research published in a 2020 FDIC report. That’s the largest ethnic and racial group of unbanked people in the country, she says, a distinction that’s the result of generations-long systemic barriers. For example, Native Americans, on average, travel three times further to get to a bank than other Americans, she says. They’re also more likely to be credit invisible (no credit at all).

Those aren’t the only barriers. For example, people living on remote rural reservations likely lack mail-deliverable households. But banks generally don’t issue debit cards to such consumers. Other problems: Many Native Americans have last names with two words. As a result, their names often show up differently on different reports. They also typically can’t use tribal enrollment cards to verify their identity.

Buker also found that 13% of her potential audience was banking with a digital-only entity, but that service “didn’t reflect their values,” she says. The rest banked with community banks or credit unions, or at large traditional players.

In fact, there are only 30 Native-owned banks in the country, according to Buker. They also tend to be small and lacking in cutting edge technology consumers expect. For most Native Americans who want to be able to use easily accessible banking apps and other services, she says, the only choice is a more traditional bank. “But I heard over and over, if you could provide me with all that and I could bank with a place that aligns with my values as an Indigenous person, I would do that in a heartbeat,” she says.

Buker also determined that Totem could address some issues unique to native Americans. One was the matter of benefit programs and services, like that down payment assistance program she couldn’t tap. Not only are they difficult to access, she says, but even those who do sign up still have trouble receiving the assistance. The reason: Because many people are unbanked, tribes often issue paper checks or prepaid cards, mechanisms that are slow and subject to many fees. Buker plans to work with tribes to help them manage the process of making people aware of these benefits and then distributing them.

Getting Started

After graduating from law school, Buker held several jobs advising CEOs and top executives on fintech strategies. In 2020, she moved back to Tulsa and bought a home. Then Covid hit and digital banking exploded. That included multiple neobanks aimed at various communities.

But as she looked around, Buker realized there weren’t any for Native Americans. With her background, she already had a solid understanding of the digital banking space from the perspective of community banks and fintech organizations. Perhaps, drawing on that expertise, she could launch her own neobank for her community.

After meeting another Native American woman involved in fintech, she started talking to tribal leaders, customers and potential investors. In Fall 2021, she also met Richard Chance, a member of the Cherokee Nation, through Natives in Tech, a nonprofit creating open source technology for indigenous people in tech. He became her CTO and co-founder.

Eventually, she met with Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, which is the lead investor in a just-announced $2.2 million pre-seed round. Now she and Chance are building the app, with plans to launch it in Spring 2023.

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