Untapped Talent: Growing business ownership in Anchorage’s low-income neighborhoods

  • Theron Biglow and Alicia George are a husband and wife entrepreneur team who own “Cali’s Smokey BBQ & Soulfood.” They are graduates of Set Up Shop and plan to open in Mountain View next year. (Photo/Courtesy/Kirk Rose)

Working in Anchorage’s low-income neighborhoods, I have seen firsthand the toll the recession has taken on neighborhood businesses and the local economy. Commercial vacancies are up, unemployment is high, and small businesses are challenged across the city. 

I also know that there is a huge pool of untapped talent in our community: neighbors who want to open their own businesses, and are already selling food by the plate, painting houses, or baking cakes for parties and events.

Opening a business takes a leap. It takes an enormous amount of time, money, support from friends and family, and belief in yourself and your idea. It’s a difficult journey, even if you have the best idea in the world.

In Alaska, less than half of all small businesses make it to the five-year mark. Opening a business, and keeping it open, is even harder if you’re part of a community with low access to capital and few friends and family members who have the money to invest in your business or support you in lean months.

That’s why only a quarter of small businesses in our state are women-owned, and only 11 percent are minority-owned. Even with those barriers to entry, we still meet people every day who are eager to make the leap into business ownership.

This year, we started a program called Set Up Shop to support neighborhood entrepreneurs who have the talent but may not have the access to resources they need to start or expand the business of their dreams.

Set Up Shop provides entrepreneurs with a pipeline of services, including training, business assistance, access to loans, and help with real estate.

In our first year, we’ve trained 36 entrepreneurs, helped 12 businesses access affordable business services, and lent $22,500 to help businesses grow inventory and buy equipment. 84 percent of graduates reside in low-income Anchorage neighborhoods, 78 percent of graduates are women and 85 percent are from minority or immigrant communities.

I’m proud of the talent emerging from Set Up Shop. Theron Biglow and Alicia George are a husband and wife entrepreneur team who own “Cali’s Smokey BBQ & Soulfood.”

Theron, or “Ron,” and Alicia, moved to Anchorage in 2013 with just $40 and a bag of their belongings. Ron is a disabled veteran, and Alicia spent several years managing a grocery store deli, where she perfected her barbecue technique.

Together they spent years grilling for their neighbors, family, and church members, and Alicia sensed that it was time for them to formalize and take the leap to small business ownership.

Ron and Alicia were confident in their product, but were ineligible for traditional financing and needed some brass tacks vetting of their idea. They enrolled in Set Up Shop, where they learned how to build a business plan that would enable them to grow into a full-time food cart.

With financing now in the works, they are planning to operate full time on Mountain View Drive starting in the summer of 2019.

While we can’t solve all of the problems that small business owners face, we can help provide the tools, access to capital, and ongoing support to move entrepreneurs to a next phase of growth.

When we capitalize on the drive of entrepreneurs like Theron and Alicia, we harness our city’s strength and can transform and grow our local economy and support small business corridors even in down times.

We work with residents every day in Mountain View, Fairview, and Spenard to make concentrated investments that disrupt concentrated poverty. By practicing a place-based approach, neighborhoods improve for the benefit of the whole community. Supporting neighborhood entrepreneurs is central to our work. Not only are we creating and retaining wealth within a community, these entrepreneurs are role models and community leaders who empower the next generation.

We hope you’ll join us during Start Up Week to celebrate our training program’s graduation and all of the neighborhood heroes that are making Anchorage a better place to live and work. 

Set Up Shop Graduation and Neighborhood Heroes Awards Night - Thursday, November 15th at 6PM, at the Church of Love (3502 Spenard Rd.)

Alaska Startup Week is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to connect across the state and is a collaborative effort by multiple organizations to diversify Alaska’s economy, largely led by entrepreneurs. This year, Alaska Startup Week has grown from three communities to ten, with over 70 events in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, Kenai, Soldotna, Palmer, Bethel, Homer, and Seward. Alaska Startup Week is on Facebook.

Kirk Rose is the CEO of the Anchorage Community Land Trust. ACLT is a nonprofit organization that has been working in Anchorage neighborhoods since 2004 to build small businesses and create economically healthy neighborhoods.

11/16/2018 - 1:45pm