Growing up on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, Justin Lepscier (B’08) watched his grandmother fight for the very existence of their tribe. The federal government had terminated the tribe’s status in 1954 and she, along with other tribal leaders and activists, successfully lobbied to get it restored and set up a tribal government and constitution.
As a child, Lepscier tagged along with her to legislative meetings and observed her work with fascination.
“She was always very unselfish, looking out for the entire tribe,” says Lepscier. “She was a big influence on me.”
Now, Lepscier follows in his grandmother’s footsteps, as a loan officer at the Native American-owned Bay Bank and a leader in economic development for the tribe, which now has 8,700 members and a 353-square-mile reservation.
“I want to do what I can to help my community and some of the folks who are undereducated and underserved,” he says.
Lepscier first became involved in politics as an intern with congressman Patrick Kennedy in Washington, D.C., during his senior year in high school. With a desire to learn more about business, he stayed in the area to attend Georgetown McDonough. During his first year of college, he met with an unexpected challenge when his mother died due to an arterial disease.
“I struggled because of that tragedy, but my experience with Georgetown was awesome because of all of the support I received from staff and professors,” he says.
His classes in management and finance have helped him in his current work at the bank, headquartered in Green Bay, but he points to Georgetown’s Jesuit values as especially motivating in his work. Solely owned by the Oneida Nation, Bay Bank administers a federal program to provide home loans to Native Americans. For those who do not qualify, Lepscier and his colleagues work with them to determine the steps they need to undertake to become homeowners.
“Seeing that open up opportunities for people has been really exciting,” Lepscier says.
In addition to his work with the bank, Lepscier helps run a granite, quartz, and marble countertop business and serves as board chairman of the Wolf River Development Co., which operates current non-gaming tribally owned businesses and looks for new business opportunities both on and off the reservation.
“We want to try and diversify our portfolio so we are not just reliant on gaming and federal grants,” he says.
That is important, according to Lepscier, because despite a strong sense of community, the tribe still struggles with poverty and unemployment.
One source of income — as well as pride — is Menominee Tribal Enterprises, a sustainable forestry company for which Lepscier also serves as a board member. The quality of the lumber it produces is so high that the Milwaukee Bucks and NCAA Final Four basketball tournament use it exclusively for their courts. Through these and other enterprises, Lepscier hopes that he can help the tribe continue to develop economically and fulfill the promise of past generations.
“Seeing all of the time and effort my grandmother and others did to get us restored,” he says, “it is important that we continue to move in the right direction and make the decisions we need to be successful.”