Andy Wells had come a long way even before he traveled the 1,500 miles from northern Minnesota to South Carolina this week.
To hear him tell it, there was the hardscrabble youth in a small white house on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, the working his way through college over six years and the two decades teaching the next generation of the tribe.
Then, faced with the reservation’s staggering unemployment figures, Wells decided his new purpose was entrepreneurship. He would create jobs for his people. That was in 1989.
Two decades later, and Wells Technology had annual revenues of $54 million. At least that was the figure President Barack Obama quoted when he personally thanked Wells for his enterprise and community investment during a ceremony at the White House — capital letters this time — three years ago.
“That was a nice surprise,” he said matter-of-factly.
Speaking to the sixth annual Native American Business Expo in North Charleston Friday, the 70-year-old Wells, sporting a beaded bolo tie, charmed and inspired the assembled businessmen and government officials.
He encouraged them to lift up their native communities, such as by hiring and providing technical training to felons who deserve a second chance.
“We’ve got to help our people, not stand back and criticize them,” Wells said.
Now the leader of a diversified company with a stable of big-name customers and approaching $100 million in revenues, Wells said Native-American-owned companies, like individuals, can succeed in the 21st-century.
“All I ask for is a chance to let me compete,” he said. “And I want to win it on value.”
Almost 100 people gathered for the all-day expo, put on by the American Indian Chamber of Commerce South Carolina. The event was heavy on marketing spiels from sponsoring companies, including several defense contractors, but the overarching message was the need for continued progress.
“We are no longer comfortable talking the talk,” chamber President Alan Linnemann said, calling for more member involvement to propel the group forward. “We can’t do it alone.”
He encouraged everyone to show up this afternoon at Brittlebank Park for what he called the “largest celebration of Native American culture that’s happened in modern times” in South Carolina. Expo attendees got a small taste at lunch Friday when a man and a boy danced to drumbeats in full feathered garb.
Stan Wetherell wants to further lift up of all aspects of Native American life.
Recalling the difficulties his grandfather faced as a Native American living in Orangeburg, Wetherell presented his new website, GoNativeAmerican.com, a kind of catch-all Native American history, e-commerce and social network.
He said some artisans already had signed up to sell their wares through the site, but that he wanted to wait to officially launch it.
“And now’s the time,” he said.
Seconds later, the website appeared on the projection screens, and then came the questions about how to join and how much it would cost.
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.