Chrystel Cornelius, president and CEO of Oweesta Corporation in Longmont, said she was “beyond astounded” to hear she was the recipient of the 27th Heinz Award for the Economy, administered by the Heinz Family Foundation.
“I’m generally pretty eloquent, but I was left speechless for a moment,” Cornelius said.
Established in 1993, the Heinz Awards recognizes individuals for outstanding contributions in areas of the economy, the arts and the environment. The award also comes with an unrestricted cash prize of $250,000.
Cornelius runs Oweesta, an intermediary nonprofit corporation that provides financial tools, training, and capital exclusively to Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and Native communities across the U.S.
“We honor Chrystel for her innovative approach to addressing the economic barriers, neglect and disenfranchisement that for centuries have stripped Native peoples of sovereignty and the ability to control their financial future,” wrote Teresa Heinz, chairwoman of the Heinz Family Foundation, in a news release.
Cornelius is a member of both the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She was raised on a reservation in rural North Dakota, just seven miles from the Canadian border. Despite the reservation’s designation as a persistent poverty area, Cornelius said it didn’t feel that way to her.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “The natural landscape was full of lakes and trees, and we were a close community. While we were very impoverished, in many ways I never felt poor.”
In 2006, Cornelius founded the Turtle Mountain CDFI, which was the first nonprofit on her reservation. As a tribal planner, Cornelius said she knew there was not a strong outlet for economic development on the reservation.
“I saw the lack of resources, structurally and institutionally, that keep our people impoverished,” she said. “We didn’t have a bank on the reservation … and the only other options were predatory lenders.”
Cornelius took training courses on how to start a CDFI from Oweesta, beginning what she described as a “deep relationship” with the corporation. She moved to Colorado and became Oweesta’s CEO and president in 2011, just six months after joining the nonprofit as an employee.
“It has been a privilege and honor to run Oweesta,” Cornelius said.
Cornelius cited Oweesta’s Native American COVID-19 Disaster Recovery Fund, a $36 million dollar fund for Native communities struggling financially with the pandemic, as one of the nonprofit’s most significant accomplishments under her leadership.
“The advancement of what we were intended to do as an intermediary is what I’m really proud of,” she said.
Oweesta Communications Officer Denisse Ruiz said she was thrilled that Cornelius received the award, calling it a testament to her service of Native communities.
“(Cornelius) has led our organization through great lengths, and by doing so, lives have been changed for the better,” Ruiz said.
Boulder Daily Camera
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