Join us for a conversation with Joe Nayquonabe, Jr., CEO and chair of the board of directors for Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures. You'll learn about resiliency and how it influenced his leadership journey. You'll also hear how COVID-19 has impacted him personally and as a leader, and many other topics on this episode.
- Jason Schlender, former Extension leadership and civic engagement educator
- Joe Nayquonabe, Jr., CEO of Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures
- Learn more about the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and their response to the COVID-19 pandemic in this news article, New efforts help American Indians in Minnesota during COVID-19 pandemic
- Get the latest from the Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures web site.
- Dive more into leadership and civic engagement through resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership.
Read this episode's conversation below.
Note: Our Indigenized Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.
Jason Schlender: Welcome to Indigenized Connections On Air, a podcast brought to you by the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality in the area of Leadership and Civic Engagement, and also by the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network, which explores the issues that impact tribal communities and leadership throughout Minnesota
I'm your host, Jason Schlender, and I'm the American-Indian Leadership and Civic Engagement educator. My guest today is Joe Nayquonabe, Jr. Joe is an enrolled citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and is currently the CEO of the Mille Lacs Band's Corporate Commission, where he created several companies including the Mille Lacs Band Corporate Ventures. So, please welcome Joe Nayquonabe, Jr. to the podcast.
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: Hey, good afternoon, man. Thanks for having me.
Jason Schlender: Yeah. How you doing these days?
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: It's going okay, man. I did start this nice beard at the beginning of it. It seemed like every day was like Groundhog Day. Just every day seemed the same, and I needed a daily reminder that change was happening and growth was happening, and it might look ugly and it might look patchy, but there is growth and there is movement happening. So I chose to grow this hideous-looking beard effort I have going on here as a, basically just as a daily reminder that, hey man, things are moving, things are growing, it might not feel or look like it at sometimes but we'll get through this, and I'll get a nice shave when we can get back to some sort of normalcy here. But things have been going well, thanks for asking, man.
Jason Schlender: Yeah, absolutely. So, today's focus is resiliency. Share with us your leadership journey.
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: Yeah, that's a good question. I had to think back a little bit about where it all kind of started, and I had to go way back into my childhood actually. It really started when I met one of the legends of Minnesota Indian basketball, Jack Desjarlais, he's the head coach of the Red Lake basketball program. He ended up being the head coach for the 16 and under team that went to the North American Indigenous Games, and I had made that team.
I was probably ... I think I was 15 years old at the time, and at that point in time, I knew I was a player, I knew I wanted to be a basketball player and I wanted to contribute to the team as a player, but I think meeting him and being on that team really taught me about leadership and made me want to be more than a player, it made me want to be a leader. I really looked up to him, just the way he ran the team. He had these cool goal-setting things that he would do with us to make us individually better, and then better as a team. He had this great method of storytelling to really bring us into focus when we were working on something.
Then he had these great motivational methods, and I just thought that was so cool. I was like, "How can this guy have such an impact on the team and he never even sets a foot on the floor," it was just the fact that he had all of these leadership qualities and these ways to motivate. It was at that point in time that I wanted to be that, I wanted to be a leader on the floor, I wanted to be a person that could assist with goal-setting and help goal-setting, I wanted to be a person that could motivate people. I wanted to bring focus to my fellow teammates' minds, and that's really where I think I fell in love or developed the passion for leadership.
I no longer wanted to just be a player, no longer wanted to just be a cog in the wheel, I wanted to be somebody that was out front leading, and that really propelled me through my athletic career, went into, kind of took that same mentality into my academics. I was always ... I think I was always more interested in what other people were working on and how I could help them shape their projects.
Then, that rolled straight into my business career, landing on the ground at Grand Casino. I adopted a servant leadership style, is what I call it. I had noticed that, I had seen plenty of authoritarian leaders throughout my life, and I always felt like that whole style where you kind of rule with the iron fist and bark orders around, I thought that was played out and outdated, and I thought what people were really looking for was somebody that could listen, somebody that could really understand what they want to accomplish in life, and then really invest all my energy into helping them get better, helping them succeed.
That's pretty much what I do, that's pretty much my role that I play as a leader, but that's really what my journeys look like. It really started there on the basketball court and just wanting to be something more than a player, I wanted to be ... I wanted to really lead the charge I guess.
Jason Schlender: Nice. So when we think about resilience, resilience is something we could hold up in our communities, and in our people. What were some key times in your life where you needed to draw upon this inner resilience?
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: Yeah, that's a good word. That's a good word to use. So that's the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, right? I think we do that every day as business people, I think you are inevitably going run into difficulties, and if you dwell on those and you let them eat at you without reacting quickly, I think you are going get left in the dust, so I think that ... I think I have had a lot of repetitions with that on a daily basis.
I think the monumental ones, I think, in my life, I can remember the ... I can remember coming ... I came back from an internship, I was interning in Washington DC, and I decided that I wanted to come back home and go to school, and I was really hellbent on going to Carlson School of Management for my bachelor program. So, I enrolled in the program and they kind of strung me along for a long time, and then eventually they denied me. I remember getting ... I remember getting the letter in the mail and I opened it, and they had denied my entrance into Carlson for the bachelor program, and I just kind of flipped out a little bit and I didn't really know what to do. But I just had to bounce back.
I think that very day I drove up, I was living in the cities at the time, and I drove straight up to St. Cloud State University, that's where my father had graduated from, and I applied there. I busted down the door of somebody and applied and talked to them and told them my situation, and they took me that day. But I think, again, I think if I would have dwelled on that and let that eat at me without just reacting, that was probably one of the biggest ones.
Another big one happened here in my career. As I made my way up through the marketing ladder, as you mentioned there, I started out here as a database marketing manager. Prior to that, I actually interned here in the promotions department, and I was climbing the ladder doing well. Then a new CEO came in, and for whatever reason he just didn't like me, and he actually fired me from my position, I was the VP of Marketing at the time, and he had fired me from my position. I remember going home, so pissed off, "Who do I call? What do I do? Who can help me?"
I just had to slap myself out of that and just think, "You know, maybe it's not a problem that he has, maybe it's a problem that I have, maybe I'm not strong enough to be in that role," and it was that point in time that I decided to do my MBA. Again that was all just quick. I spent a little bit of time sulking, maybe an hour, but after that it was like, "You gotta get on the horse and you gotta figure out ... Take responsibility for what happened, even if it was a crappy situation, and maybe the guy was just a jerk."
That didn't really matter. I turned back to self-reflection and figured out, "Well, what the heck can I do? I just got to make myself better and make my skill set better so that it doesn't happen again." So that was kind of the big one ... Or those are two big ones that I think about a lot actually.
I think if I hadn't shown resilience, and if I ... I think the way you asked the question is cool, because as Indian people we're kind of built with that, it's in our DNA. So these kind of things come at us, and it's almost ... If we just let the process work and let what's in our DNA work ... We've been doing this ... We've been bouncing back from bigger things than that for centuries, so I think if you just let that happen, it will happen, I think that's kind of the cool thing that I think has happened for me as I've had to bounce back from a few of those things.
Jason Schlender: Yeah, so when we think of those, I think about those things that you're up against, you obviously had some ... Obviously a relationship with your supervisor or your boss or whatever that eventually led to a challenge or those things were ... But what I think is ... What we touched on is obviously, our history are the things that, through our DNA and through the things that indigenous people have endured. One thing that stands true though is some ... The teachings of our elders, it could be just teachings of just people, key people in your community that you look up to, when we think of that.
What were some key teachings that you relied on, that you relied upon that, if there was somebody in your community or if there was just ... And even ... Not necessarily even within the community, sometimes there's just somebody that, that resonates with you with their ... Obviously, you mentioned your former basketball coach, but when we think about teachings in some way that provide a foundation for us, share with us some of those teachings, or Elders or someone.
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: Sure, Yeah, I was lucky, man. I've been blessed with just a lot of amazing people in my life. When I was growing up, my heroes were like... Were all the drum-keepers here on Mille Lacs. Every spring and fall we were at the dance hall, and I can just think of them, Reggie Gabo, Melvin Eagle, AJ Nickaboine, Raining Boyd, all these guys were just ... They were my heroes. Those are dudes, how they carried themselves. There's nothing flashy about it, but how they carried themselves was something that I always wanted to emulate. They were humble, they were smart, they were caring, and those were things that I just grew up with that, that I always wanted to emulate.
I think about ... My dad was, and is very influential in my life, and from him I learned work ethic. I think a lot about generations today, in this whole casino era, people forget how poor we were, and they forget how hard our parents had to work just to make ends meet. I can remember my dad would wake up in the morning and he'd had to help in human services building to put in a shift. From there he'd head over to St. Cloud State to take classes in the afternoon.
After that he would head over to the VA, and he'd put in his time there washing dishes and messing around with the folks over at the VA over there in St. Cloud. Then he would drive home, and he would become the overnight security guard for the local golf course. I think he did that ... That was probably his favorite job because he got free golf out of that one. [chuckle] But the point was, he was just working all the time.
So his work ethic really rubbed off on me, he always told us, "Nobody's ever going give you anything, you got to take it." And he was really big on education, he said, "In your life ..." With the way the band was growing and the way the casinos were growing, he said, "There's going be a lot of people that are going look to hand you things," and he said, "Don't take the handouts, he said, "Go and get your education, do the work, don't take shortcuts." I think that's always been something that I lived with. A lot of my wen'ehs were important and influential in my life, and thanks to my mom and dad I had some great ones.
My wen'eh Musse, one of his famous quotes was that our modern-day bows and arrows are degrees and briefcases. Just like wen'ehs do, he would come up to me even as a small boy, and he would talk me up and he'd say, "Hey, this guy is going... This guy is going be somebody, this guy is going... My wen'eh is going get his degree, and my wen'eh is going come back here and really help... "He was always talking me up.
So, just as a young kid, I had a lot of good wen'ehs putting stuff in my head to stay on a nice path. We also had great leadership here at the tribe, Marge Anderson in the '90s. The call was just incessant man, it was like, "Go get your degree, go get your credentials, and then come back, bring that back to the community." And she made that call to all of us as we grew up, and it was just like this. So that's kind of what's always been in my head, and I think about all those people that's been really influential in shaping my life and my leadership style.
Jason Schlender: Yeah, you mentioned ... You mentioned your dad, it's ... For our listeners there that don't know, Joe Sr., he's ... The one thing I think that I really appreciate is just his patience, it's ... In my own journey to reacquire my language, I sit with him all the time. Anytime I get a chance to sit with him at ... For... During any drum dance, or any time to just sit there, and just talk about ... Obviously we catch up on golf and different life stories, of course, but he's one of our foundations of our language and our pursuit to revitalize it.
We've lost a lot of speakers in the last, say 10 years, some of the ones that were really carrying that ... Carrying the load for us, and so it really ... A lot of us, even in the Wisconsin, Minnesota, in this Michigan area, even into Ontario, really rely on your dad for his work, and obviously respect his journey too. He always talks about it all the time just being.
In his time, he served in the military, and the personal sacrifice, it's just something that we just kind of humbles us, he always carries himself in such a real humble way that is that reflection. Just like what you said, He's not all about show or anything, not flashy or anything, but he's just one of the most kind, most patient man that I have ever known. So any time ... And it's ... For those of us that are kind of in this language culture revitalization, even just for even rectifying your life, if you're just going through addiction, it's hard to approach some of our elders because you're afraid of making a mistake, so there's always that little bit of hesitancy.
So it took a little while to kind of approach him and but then once you kind of cozy up and he sits there and tells you some stories and then he actually seeks you out every time, you know, he kind of goes out of his way to shake your hand and reassure you and then you also mentioned wen’ehs for our listeners out there, that word means your namesake it's like somebody that's in your life that... It's a reciprocal relationship. You take care of one another for the expense of your life.
It provides an extended family, so those ... All those things are crucial to living a good life ... I want to shift gears a little bit focus on this COVID-19 stuff. Obviously, it's a shut down. A lot of things, right? So our casinos are closed at the moment, a lot of our non what they classify as, non-essential businesses are shut down, but I wanted to kind of have you reflect on how you've coped with some of those challenges from a personal perspective within your family, but also being the CEO of the Corporate Ventures, and you have some huge decisions to ... You made some huge decisions, but you got a lot of things looking forward to ... If you could just reflect on that.
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: Sure, I'll start with the family or personal stuff, I think for me, the main thing was kind of like the old stoic mentality can control what you can control and don't worry about the rest. That's typically one of the ways I try to live anyway, but I think in this particular instance, that's really been the mantra for me, control what you can control and don't worry about the rest.
I think the first thing that came to mind for me right away was just self-care ... There's a lot going on where I'm relied upon by my family I'm relied upon by businesses in the community, my father ... So I'm no good if I'm not taking care of myself. So I think that's one thing I can control on a daily basis, so I've really doubled down on my running, so I was training for Grandma's Marathon and I'm still going run the virtual marathon now I won't be on the streets of Duluth like I'd like to be.
But I've continued with my running, increased my sleep, so typically what my sleep patterns have been I've been just doubling down on how much sleep I get, really trying to sharpen my mind, so I've been reading a heck of a lot, both COVID-related and non-COVID related, fiction non-fiction doesn't matter. I keep feeding my brain and making sure I'm keeping my mind sharp so that I know what's going on, so those have been the big things personally, just massive double down on self-care and making sure I'm not getting too down or too off kilter there. So trying to make sure I stay in balance.
On the business side, the tough decision, I thought the tough decision was over with closing, closing the casinos. That was very, very difficult. But I think this decision to re-open and when we re-open, I think that's actually much, much harder, so ... And that's something ... That's something that we're contemplating and have been contemplating, they were really like three ... I look at it in three big waves so far, wave one was the shut down.
And what our focus was there was really on our community first, making sure we keep the community safe and we're not inviting the spread into our community, which our businesses have a tendency to do, because we have a lot of folks visit, but also how do we protect our associates, so in that way, that was really about making sure we paid our associates through the first four weeks until relief came from the state and federal government. So really got them through that really tough time, and then helped them soar into the relief packages that were out there.
And then wave two for me, and for, I guess for us, was really at that point trying to ... There's a little bit of a grieving process, I think it's shocking and tough, and at the same time, we had to gear up to try to get as much relief as we could for small businesses, so all of the different CARES Act relief that was out there.
We were trying to pile that up for all of our businesses and also trying to explore other things that the casinos could go into, so it was really this really defensive way of how do we play defense at this point and make sure that our businesses can stay viable and prepare themselves for the next wave, which is kind of what I feel we're in right now which is the re-opening phase, and at this point in time, we're beyond all the grief and we've really turned it into and accepted it as a blessing.
So there's, again, control what you can control, you can view this in a number of ways, but if we chose to view it as a blessing and to take the time that we have here while everything's kind of grinded to a halt to really sharpen up everything so we're looking at our organizational structure, we're looking at our strategies.
We're looking at all of the different things that we think can propel the company, not just from the re-opening phase, but also how can we ... What do we want to look like for the next decade or two, and this unbelievable opportunity we have right now to really spend time in that normally, there's just so, so much stuff going on, you're caught in this whirlwind where the amount of time you can spend on that stuff is really minimal right now, basic the whirlwind is gone so we're really stepping into figuring out how we want the company to look going forward, how it will provide best for the band, and so that's kind of been that's kind of been the tactic for me, pretty much stay busy, stay focused and control what I can control you know.
Jason Schlender: Great. Yeah, when I think of like that when the directives came down from ... It was, I don't know, to me, it seemed kind of like with just ... Personally, within our own house, kind of almost like a slumber party atmosphere almost like ... So really loaded up on snacks and we were watching movies and keeping my kids close, and we were just like, thinking it was just going to last a week, or how long is this really going to last, but then as time kind of we got kind of sick eating junk food and the movies kind of get played out and then you find yourself like, what else? What else can I do?
That's why I'm thankful for, being able to get outside and just get on Spearfish. That's big thing for me was just to be able to get outside and do stuff like that, and just to try to stay busy too, because work keep us busy. We're fortunate, we're fortunate to be provided the opportunity to work remotely, so that's but and then at the same time, I think about those families that don't have that opportunity that are not as fortunate, so I really share that with my kids they're just loving it because it's ... School's done, and I guess ... So we're trying to keep them on a schedule too and it's a little difficult. You know what I mean? Because you're asked to be a home school teacher, so you're doing your work you're living your life, now you're responsible for trying to educate your children too. It's.
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: Crazy. We also got lucky that we bought a puppy during this, we have a new dog in the house, and so that was like ... And he came at the right ... The perfect time. As you mentioned on the top, there's four girls in the house, so you can imagine after the movies got old and you can only watch so many TikTok videos, things start to get crazy in the house well then he came, and he's been exactly what we needed to lift our spirits and keep the kids busy.
Jason Schlender: What kind of dog did you get?
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: We got a husky.
Jason Schlender: Oh nice. We was in the same discussion, I think we're probably a couple of weeks late. But we've read those articles too. It's a great time to get a dog for anybody that just wants to raise dog because you have the time to put into the training and socialization and get outside as before ... That's one thing we struggled with was just our time management for ... We love dogs within our family too, but we just get so busy with life, just sometimes it's never the intent to neglect anybody, not to neglect your parents or anything like that, but you want to be able to give them the time that they deserve, and obviously they're a part of your family. So as we reflect on your leadership, journey what advice do you have for aspiring young leaders?
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: I think for young leaders and old leaders, maybe especially old leaders like you and I ... I always say that it's not that hard to be a normal leader. I think there's a bunch of normal leaders walking around, but what I always kind of encourage of our folks and what I encourage of the youth that I get to talk to is you don't want to be normal, you want to be abnormal.
Like abnormal people, abnormal leaders create abnormal results. So anything you can do to make yourself different than everybody else is really what I encourage.
I usually talk about just the really five things that people can invest in to transform their leadership skills or just transform how they go about life, and the first thing is really to feed your mind, so the mantra that I have is leaders are readers. So the 30 minutes a day, if you're not reading something, it doesn't have to be boring, a matter of fact it shouldn't be boring. It could be non-fiction, it could be fiction, it could be magazines, it could be comic books. I have a comic book right back here, Batman. I have the Harvard Business Review here, I have a pile of books over here, Seth Godin and other things, but feed your mind.
I think every single day you need to be feeding your mind, so that's one thing I recommend to people. You can start to pass a lot of the normal leaders up just by ... Just with that step alone.
The second thing, kind of relates to what I was talking about earlier, but the second thing is to strength your body so you're ... Again, another good Jack Besharle reference. He would always say, "If you physically get tired, that means that your mind already broke down an hour ago." So your mental and your physical body are all connected.
So anything you can do to strengthen your body, you don't have to train for a marathon like I am certainly but just making sure you get your, whatever it is, 10,000 steps, lift some weights, shoot some hoops, do something where you're strengthening your body, if your body collapses, obviously, you're not going to be any good to anybody.
Find great role models is the next step, so I always think that when you're a leader, the ... It can get ... I don't know, it could be lonely, you feel like you're alone, you feel like you might have some hesitation or anxiety to ask for help, because people sometimes think that the leader should always have the answer, and I think that's where just good role models come in.
So I always encourage people, I'm like, "Look, write down, write down two leaders, one is somebody that you could talk to tomorrow, so one good role model that's accessible to you that you could talk to tomorrow, you look up to them, admire them, you like the way they live their life, write that name down, and at some point, talk to those folks, they can help you, and then the other leader or the other role model that you could write down is somebody that's just out there in the universe that you might not be able to talk to tomorrow, but you could certainly research.
So if it's Barack Obama, for example, and maybe you can't talk to him, but you can certainly follow him on Twitter, you can certainly read his books, and there's a bunch of things that having these folks as role models, it's important, so that you don't feel alone, you have somebody to go to when you need help, and you just have other people to emulate as you head through your leadership journey. So I think finding role models is important.
The next step is to get in proximity, there are ... And that basically meant we all know that there are folks out there that can advance your projects. So if there's something that you're working on or something that you want to bring into your company, your community, into the world, there are folks out there that can help with that, and if you can get in proximity of those folks, whether it's people they know, connections that you both know, the closer you can get to those folks and the closer proximity you can get to the people that can help move your project along, that's something that really helps great leaders stand out, is to get in proximity, and then the final thing is to give.
Give back and give back more than you ever expect to receive, so whatever that cause is that gets you up in the morning or that you think about a lot, if it's emergency response or it's the local fire department, or it's the Red Cross, or it's ... We have all these different things that you could contribute time to, and ...
That's a big thing about leadership, if you can practice that on a daily basis where you're constantly giving back, whether it's your time your money any other resources that you have, if you're just giving, giving, giving and you're not always expecting something back, that's kind of like the ... I think the world writes itself, when you're doing that, eventually the karma catches up to you, and all of a sudden things start to get delivered to you and those blessings come back. So those are the five things I talk about a lot, and then I recommend to both ... And again, it's both leaders, young and old, I think if you're not constantly transforming your skill set, you're just getting passed up, and that you're less and less effective when you're not doing that. So those are the things.
Jason Schlender: Our last question here today, is obviously, looking at post-COVID-19, the response, response from the state from the tribes, what ways do you see tribes connecting through economic development post-COVID-19?
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: I think that one of the shocking things that we're going to start to see is that how reliant we are on Indian gaming. So I think one of the biggest things that I think about ... It's all been theoretical, like theoretically, the state might open a casino in Minneapolis and that's going to hurt our business by X percent, theoretically, there's been all these ... Theoretically, the state's going to close gaming or open up online gaming, there's all these theoretical examples that we game plan for these doomsday scenarios or ...
We do goal setting, but we also do something called Fear setting, where we try to list the things that we fear the most. To this point, all of that stuff's been theoretical, and now we have an actual real case study. So when you look at how reliant we are on Indian Gaming and how shocking that's going to be to tribes, I think it will motivate people to diversify, and we've tried a number of things in a number of ways to diversify our revenue streams, we haven't done nearly enough, and I think that that kind of journey or that desire to diversify is a lot harder than people think, and that's going to ...
I think what that's going to do is it's going to bring more tribes together on that front, there are certainly ... There are tribes that are a little further along than other tribes, and I think the ability to collaborate together, I think is going to increase ... These are things that we've been talking about and hoping for, and I think it's been really hard for people to get over the hump, and I think this is one of those things I hope that shocks the system a little bit in Indian Country, and we decide that we're not ...
Indian Gaming might be this great blessing, but it's not the be all end all, our great Chief here from Mille Lacs Art Gabo said that gaming is just a tool for further economic development, and he wanted us to view the casino properties in that way, and I think more and more times are going to buy into that same sort of mentality, and I think there'll be a lot more collaboration on how to vet deals, how to look at deals, how to combine capital on deals, and that's really what I think will be kind of the focus probably for the next decade in Indian country. I think it was going there anyway, I think this thing just kind of ... This will just speed it up. It'll kind of pour some gasoline on the fire, and I think we'll see a lot more diversification efforts across the Indian country.
Jason Schlender: Well, I want to thank you for your time today. Joe appreciate your, appreciate your journey, your thoughts and your wisdom, and obviously your contribution to the Mille Lacs Band, and they've really looking back at how much they've grown in the last 10, 15 years it's really you're a true, valuable asset to the obviously to the business, but also to many, many families are beneficiaries of your work, so I just want to share my appreciation for your work so.
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: Cool man.
Jason Schlender: Miigwech for being here today.
Joe Nayquonabe, Jr: Yeah, good, okay.
Jason Schlender: Miigwech to Joe Nayquonabe, Jr. for joining today's podcast. To learn more about the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe response to COVID-19 pandemic, please visit millelacsband.com/services/COVID-19-information. Information for the latest on Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures go to MLCV.com and to learn more about Leadership and Civic Engagement, go to extension.umn.edu/community-development/leadership-and-civic-engagement, where you will find more resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership.
Make sure to follow the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network on Facebook, www.facebook.com/umn.indigenous.leadership.network to stay up-to-date on research and resources for tribal communities and tribal leadership. We hope that you will join us again for another episode of Indigenous Connections On Air.
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