Gretchen Fauske

An Alaska startup supports new mothers amid rising mental health challenges

Last year Heather Helzer “inherited” an extra child for a few days. The mother of two discovered that a close friend was dealing with postpartum anxiety, recognized that she needed medical attention, and sprang into action. “I have two children, a 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, and so I had all the clothes and supplies on hand for another child already. I told my friend to check into the hospital immediately and that I could care for her child,” said Helzer. “I know how hard it can be for mothers to ask for help, even when they really need it. So often mothers feel ashamed if they are struggling or worry about inconveniencing someone and I didn’t want that to be a barrier to seeking treatment.” Helzer is keenly interested in the topic of mental health and motherhood, and at the time was partway through a class being offered by Moms Matter Now. Founded by Holly Brooks, a former Olympic skier and therapist specializing in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and Calisa Kastning, a nonprofit executive director, Moms Matter Now focuses on proactive and preventative maternal mental health. The startup offers a membership that includes online courses, live coaching, and a private support community for expectant and new mothers. Their mission is to “educate, empower and support women in pregnancy through early motherhood so they don’t lose their minds, selves, or relationships.” Mothers themselves, Brooks says that although she and Kastning had been thinking about Moms Matter Now for quite some time, the pandemic catalyzed them into launching on Mother’s Day, 2021. “With daycares closing and school going virtual, someone had to be home with the kids and more often than not, that someone was the mom. In fact, 80% of the 1.1 million Americans who left the workforce were women,” says Brooks. “Women already do twice as much childcare and rearing, even if both parents work full time, and the pandemic exacerbated this even more. … It felt like a crisis, but also a call to action.” The number of women experiencing anxiety or depression after delivering a child almost tripled during the pandemic. Possible COVID-19 exposures, increased social and physical isolation, economic concerns, and less access to health care and social supports are some of the causes of increased mental distress for new mothers. Researchers have identified a direct correlation between the physical and mental health of a mother and the health of the baby. If a mother is healthy, there’s a better chance for the baby to thrive. Conversely, depression and anxiety during pregnancy and postpartum can impact their physical and mental health for years. Even without a pandemic, the transition to motherhood, known as matresence, is challenging. Brooks likens it to adolescence, when teeneagers undergo a physical and psychological transformation and are flooded with hormones, but explains that it’s lesser known and often overlooked. “It’s a real gap. People take birthing classes and breastfeeding classes, but there’s very little talk about how to be proactive in terms of the emotional and psychological transition to motherhood,” says Brooks. “There are reactive services for women experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety, but nothing to prepare women for this big identity shift and what it might do to their lives and relationship with their partner, if they have one.” Brooks and Kastning think there’s an opportunity to fill the gap with their startup and hope to reach mothers across the country. With more than a million millennial women becoming first-time mothers each year in the U.S., that’s a sizable market, one that Forbes calls the “new mom economy” and estimated at $46 billion in 2019. “The more we connect with mothers, the more we discover how much they really need access to this kind of information,” says Brooks. “When a woman is pregnant there’s so much excitement and expectation, and focus on things like her belly, the nursery, baby showers. Then after birth, the attention, effort and health care visits are all about the baby. We believe that when a baby is born, so is a mother, and she needs support too.” The Moms Matter Now membership is due to launch February 2022 and will focus on helping mothers and their families build realistic expectations for what Brooks calls “baby shock.” Expectant and new mothers will learn about topics including anxiety, mom guilt, maternal gatekeeping, strategies to balance the mental load, and acceptance of postpartum bodies. Brooks and Kastning created Moms Matter Now to include everything they wish they’d had or known in their own motherhood journeys and believe that the blend of online courses, live coaching, and a private support community will empower women in their respective motherhood journeys. Helzer says the community and courses would have been especially useful when she had her first child. “When we’re caring for our children, it’s so easy to forget who you are as an individual, you’re doing things for your kids that you’re not even doing for yourself, like making sure they have healthy food, time to play, exercise, and learn. We often put our kids’ or partner’s needs in front of our own, but Holly and Calisa helped me see that I can’t do a good job as a mother if I’m not taking care of myself too.” Future plans include content focusing on new fathers, another underserved population. Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

In building community, even the littlest things can make a big difference

On Halloween, Tina Chapman’s daughter found a rock with a painting of Charlie Brown in a ghost costume hidden in the snow with the words, “You got a rock” written on the back, along with instructions to “Keep or hide, but post to FB @AnchorageRocks.” Chapman was thrilled. Not only was her daughter delighted by her discovery, the rock is part of a communitywide rock painting movement founded by Chapman and Angela Gray 2015. Inspired by a rock painting club in Texas, Chapman and Gray created the Anchorage Rocks Facebook group as a way to celebrate rocks painted, hidden, and eventually discovered and shared, in Anchorage. The concept was slow to catch on at first; the duo remembers being thrilled when their group hit 100 members a few months after they started, but has since ballooned to its current membership of nearly 14,000 people. Rocks painted in Anchorage have traveled the world, and have been found as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Guam, South Africa and England. A quick scan through the group shows art ranging from classic cartoons to detailed landscapes, with plenty of holiday-themed designs like Santa Claus or the Grinch. Chapman says that people participate for different reasons. Some enjoy painting to slow down from the busyness of life, while some are artists simply wanting to share their creations with the community. Others are drawn to hiding rocks and another group to the competition of finding and collecting them. Noting that their membership “jumped crazy high,” during COVID-19, she attributes their growth to providing a collective experience people can participate in while staying safe. Regardless of why people first join Anchorage Rocks, they become part of the greater purpose to “spread kindness and joy in our community.” As communities rebuild and reshape themselves in a post-pandemic world, encouraging community connection can help combat the mental health impacts of the pandemic. Emphasizing opportunities to strengthen social ties – which range from close friends to online connections, and can dramatically shape our health, happiness, and even how long we live – will aid in collective resilience and recovery. Two groups, the Anchorage Park Foundation and Best Beginnings, partnered to bring Little Free Libraries to parks as a way to connect kids to literacy, parks and recreation. The libraries were built during the pandemic, and have become well-used community resources. Stephanie Schott, the early literacy director at Best Beginnings, a child literacy nonprofit, says one of her favorite parts of Little Free Libraries is offering kids a book when they pass by. “We were restocking a library in Campbell Park, and a little girl was playing nearby. She came over, and picked up a book. Her parents came over to see what was going on, and then they started looking through the books too,” says Schott. “It’s immensely gratifying to tell them there’s no limit on how many books they can borrow, how long they can keep them, or times they can go back for more.” Libraries are often built and decorated as a community project, giving each one its own personality. For example, Creekside Park’s Little Free Library is painted with book titles in Hmong, Spanish and Samoan, featuring books by authors who represent the community. Titles include “Molly of Denali,” “Water Protectors,” “Sulwe,” and “I Am Enough.” Each Little Free Library has volunteer community stewards who care for the library, adding books when inventory is low and assisting with simple maintenance needs. Community members are invited to add their own books to the libraries as well, and Schott delights in seeing all of the different structures around town. Some were created through a partnership Best Beginnings has with the Anchorage Parks Foundation partnership, and others were built by individuals or other organizations. Schott dreams of a little library in every park, school, bus stop or grocery store. “Little Free Libraries belong in all parts of our community, it is all about sharing and access.” When building community, even the littlest things can make a big difference. Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach. Rhiana Gay is a kindergarten teacher at Creekside Park Elementary School, and was recently awarded 2021 African American Educator of Excellence through the Alaska Black Caucus. Fauske and Gay participate in the Women’s Power League of Alaska Mentorship Project.

A small but growing fellowship program aims to combat Alaska’s brain drain

“Hey, let’s grab lunch next week!” It’s a fairly standard text message that is sent and received countless times each day. But when Matthew Robinson read it, he laughed out loud. The sender lives 2,846 air miles away from Anchorage, in Chicago, Illinois. “I’ve told him that I’m in Alaska, he knows,” said Robinson. “I’ve sent my friends photos, they’ve seen the posts on social media, but they just don’t think it’s real. Maybe they think I’m using Photoshop or something?” Robinson has been living in Alaska since September. He’s part of the Alaska Fellows Program (AFP), a fall-to-spring residential fellowship program that pairs recent college graduates with community-focused organizations and professional mentors. Although Robinson was immediately attracted to the idea of applying some of the concepts he’d learned while earning his degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, his choice to move to Anchorage was met with mixed reviews. “Some of my mentors seemed mind-boggled over me coming here, a couple of them actually said ‘Why Alaska, what’s there for you?’ But my family was really supportive for me to get out of Chicago and experience more of the world, and my mom is excited to come visit in the spring,” Robinson said. Robinson is one of 24 Alaska Fellows living in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Sitka. They hail from near and far — about 30% of fellows are from Alaska, and the rest are from all over the country. Host organizations pay between $20,000-$22,000 to participate in the program, and fellows receive a modest stipend and live communally for nine months while working for nonprofit or public sector organizations. Examples of fellowship positions and responsibilities include college and career counseling at Sitka’s Mt. Edgecumbe High School, providing rural community health with OneHealth and conducting housing policy research with Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Outside of work, fellows have helped with tax preparation services in rural Alaska, butchered moose, ran the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, worked as deckhands on commercial fishing boats, coached Junior Nordic skiing or high school debate and joined the volunteer fire department. Meredith Redick, who recently concluded her term as executive director, says that the program was launched in part to combat “brain drain,” which is when Alaskans leave the state for educational or professional opportunities and don’t return. AFP does the reverse, offering young Alaskans a reason to stay and attracting recent college graduates to the state. Alaska has the most unstable population in the country, with thousands of people coming and going each year. Recent trends show fewer people moving to the state while the number of those leaving remains consistent, causing population declines. In 2020, the state lost an estimated 4,000 people. So far, nearly half of the fellows have extended their time in Alaska for at least a year after their fellowship concluded, with many staying indefinitely. Redick is one of them. Back in 2016, she was unsure of what she wanted to do after completing her two-year commitment with Teach for America, and was drawn to the built-in community of the program. “The idea of moving to a new city and getting an apartment by myself was terrifying,” she says. “But with AFP, you know where you’re living, there’s a site coordinator, and you have the other fellows experiencing everything together.” During her fellowship, Redick worked for the University of Alaska Southeast in Sitka providing science education to K-12 and undergraduate students, and then stayed on as a site coordinator which grew into becoming AFP’s first full-time Executive Director. “There are clear career pathways if you want to work in medicine, law, or finance, but if you’re interested in nonprofits or local government, it’s not as straightforward,” she says. “Alaska is an incubator, a great place to get your feet wet and try new things while you figure out what you want.” Her hope for the program is that participants see Alaska as a place to launch a fulfilling career and be part of the community. AFP founder Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins feels the same. “It’s been so gratifying to see fellows put down roots in Alaska, investing in their communities, buying houses, moving into leadership positions professionally, and mentoring new fellows who are just starting the program.” He says he started the program because an informal college summer internship program he’d begun in 2010 had led to great experiences for participants. “Many of the students who spent the summer in Sitka were graduating and looking for something similar, so I thought to myself, ‘Why not create a program that lets recent grads spend a whole year in Sitka?’ So that’s what we did, and people had life-changing experiences, and ran with it. Now we’re in four different cities.” Robinson, who is splitting his time between the Municipality of Anchorage 49th State Angel Fund and the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development doing entrepreneurial ecosystem building work, has enjoyed connecting with local startup founders. “There’s a real urgency to entrepreneurs here, and they seem motivated to find resources to help them,” says Robinson. “And the community really encourages and pushes them too. I think there’s a recognition that entrepreneurs here are building business that Alaska needs, in areas like air cargo or energy efficiency.” So far, he’s helped organize Alaska Startup Week; regularly hosts 1 Million Cups, a weekly event to educate, engage, and connect entrepreneurs; and helps facilitate Upstart Alaska, an entrepreneur development accelerator. Robinson has been impressed by Alaska entrepreneurs’ adaptability, something he’s working on for himself. “I’m getting to know myself better, and am learning to adapt to new environments. In Chicago, everything is very up tempo, and there’s always something going on, it almost feels like the city is moving nonstop,” he says. “In Anchorage, the focus is more about doing things outside, and I’ve really come to appreciate that kind of activity and the peace it brings. I’ve learned it doesn’t take much for me to enjoy where I am.” Despite his growing appreciation for Alaska, Robinson will return to Chicago in the summer to finish up his master’s degree. Redick says she’s planning to stay in Alaska. “I didn’t expect to stay here, but I’ve been in Sitka five years now and it truly feels like home. I think it would be really hard to live anywhere else.” Gretchen Fauske is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, board president for Anchorage Downtown Partnership and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

New climate tech fund seeks to support entrepreneurs solving climate challenges

A new wave of climate technology venture capital funds emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, including one with ties to Alaska. The recently-announced Earthshot Ventures is spinning out from Hawaii and California-based Elemental Accelerator to invest in entrepreneurs solving climate challenges around the world. The fund raised $60 million from entities like McKinley Alaska Private Investment, who is joined by well known organizations like Emerson Collective, Microsoft, Impact Engine, and others. Similar funds were also launched over the last year and a half, including Amazon’s $2 billion Climate Pledge venture fund, Microsoft’s $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund, and Unilever’s €1 billion climate fund. These funds are investing in startups developing technologies and services that will speed up the transition to a low-carbon economy. Locally, Anchorage-based Launch Alaska, a climate technology accelerator that focuses on deployment of that technology in Alaska, has partnered with Earthshot Ventures to provide dealflow and access to their customer networks. This kind of partnership is a new, more integrated approach; Earthshot Ventures combines the best parts of the accelerator model and the fund model to create a supportive environment for scaling companies to fight climate change.  Isaac Vanderburg, CEO of Launch Alaska, says it’s crucial for Alaska to be at the forefront of the energy transition, and participating in this fund will help to do just that. “Our state has had several decades of miraculous economic progress thanks to oil and gas, but the writing is on the wall: it’s time for us to become a new kind of energy state,” Vanderburg said. “Fortunately, Alaska is developing a reputation as a world class proving ground for some of the globe’s most exciting climate tech companies. And now, we can connect the companies we work with to Earthshot Ventures for funding.”  Vanderburg said that although many of the companies that participate in Launch Alaska’s program are from outside Alaska, they spend money in the state as they work on their projects and some of them are opening satellite offices, hiring Alaskans, or buying homes. As Launch Alaska continues to operate, he hopes more and more companies will invest in the state for the long term. Additionally, the fund may be a resource to Alaska startups working in climate tech.  “Startups have the opportunity to change the trajectory of a state’s entire economy, and the companies we work with have both the ability and the aspiration to grow to thousands of jobs,” Vanderburg said. “If we can support these companies’ growth, they will offer a way for us to continue to be an energy state, just with a different kind of energy economy than we’ve grown accustomed to.” Companies in Launch Alaska’s current portfolio include Ampaire Inc, a startup developing electric aircraft from short-haul cargo to passenger transport; DASH Systems, an airdrop delivery solution tailored for remote areas; 60Hertz, an Alaska-based maintenance software to manage and monitor grid-tied and off-grid assets; and Dynamhex, a technology platform for companies, municipalities, and utilities to meet climate targets with data-driven solutions. Climate technology companies backed by venture capital raised $14.2 billion globally between January and June of 2021, and the amount of venture capital funding invested in climate technology has grown a whopping 3,750 percent since 2013. Startups seek venture funding to not just inject capital into their businesses, but also for industry connections and access to experts as they scale their companies.  “That’s part of the special sauce we offer,” Vanderburg said. “By bringing together a venture capital fund with a deployment accelerator, we’re able to help companies get traction, access funding and tap into our network within the climate tech community.” He expects that a number of the companies Launch Alaska works with will be interested in seeing if they’re a fit for the new fund. Mike Jackson, Managing Partner for Earthshot Ventures, hopes they will be.  “Launch and Elemental both know what it takes to operate in the real world, how projects get funded, how to interact with stakeholders, and how to collaborate with large energy companies,” Jackson said. “They also help entrepreneurs think through the impact they might make on the communities they serve, and how they can benefit them along with the environment by providing equity and access to clean energy.”  He said that Alaska occupies a unique position as a resource extraction state on the front lines of climate change, and that the oil and gas industry will be a big part of solving the problem. Under pressure from their governments, investors, and the public, oil companies like BP and Royal Dutch Shell have committed to reducing their emissions and have been selling off oil fields while investing in renewable energy.  Other companies, like Walmart, FedEx, Coca-Cola, Alaska Airlines, and Best Buy are committed to going carbon neutral by 2040. This means that they will rely entirely on renewable energy or offset the burning of fossil fuels with the capture and storage of carbon dioxide, and will be looking to climate technology companies to help them do it. Vanderburg said these companies have recognized the same thing Launch Alaska, Elemental Excelerator, and Earthshot Ventures have:  “The energy transition is either going to happen to us, or we can lead it,” he said. “Deploying and scaling the technologies to combat climate change is the biggest economic opportunity of our generation.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Upskilling Anchorage’s workforce to fill employment gaps

Last July as COVID-19 cases surged, Dynaa Montgomery was surprised to learn that she was considered an “essential employee” by her company. She is a data collector for an out-of-state corporation, and much of her work involves visiting retailers in Anchorage and surrounding areas to do comparison pricing. Montgomery says she was concerned about working during the pandemic, and the experience made her feel like her company chose to disregard the wellbeing of its employees. She began thinking about finding a different job but didn’t feel like she could leave her current position. “I still had to eat! That doesn’t stop,” says Montgomery. “And it wasn’t the first time I had to work somewhere I didn’t like. Quitting wasn’t an option.” When she heard about Upskilling Anchorage, she thought it might be just what she needed to find a new job with higher pay and potential for growth. Launched in March 2021 with Federal COVID-19 relief funding from the Municipality of Anchorage’s 49th State Angel Fund, gener8tor Upskilling Anchorage is a free self-paced virtual skills training program for under- and unemployed individuals looking to gain new career skills. A new, responsive kind of workforce development, upskilling is the process of using training to build on or advance existing skills and quickly addresses workforce needs with freshly educated workers. By delivering no-cost training in a condensed period of time (Upskilling Anchorage programs are five to 10 weeks long depending on the career track) participants are able to sharpen their skills without the sizable investment of time and money necessitated by a traditional degree or certificate program, and upon completion are more attractive to prospective employers. Montgomery, who is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in human services from the University of Alaska Anchorage next year, says that her Customer Service certificate is complementary to her degree. “Having a background in customer service is helpful no matter where you work; you have to be able to communicate with people and understand how they perceive you,” she said. “And, this certificate helps me right now; I’m still a student and have student bills! Anything that can help me increase my earning potential before graduation is awesome.” Currently, Anchorage is home to an estimated 10,000 unemployed individuals, who are generally younger on average than the workforce at large, and largely from lower-paying jobs in retail and the service sector. Prolonged periods of unemployment, like that caused by COVID-19, can cause skills to atrophy, and potentially result in long-term earning losses, reduced physical and psychological health, and other effects lasting years. Workforce training offerings can combat some of these effects by enhancing the employability of individuals. “We are training people who are actively looking for jobs or who want to show their current employers that they’re invested in adding to their expertise,” said Upskilling Anchorage Program Manager Gianna Varrati. “I know so many people hiring right now — I have a list of 300 employers and growing — and they will definitely take a look at our graduates!” Areas of focus are targeted towards those seeking full-time employment in a variety of in-demand fields such as web development, marketing, or information technology. The opportunity to embrace modern, virtually-delivered skill development to take advantage of both local and remote job opportunities represents a significant benefit for workers and employers alike. “We work with our partners to help us identify where employers really need skilled employees, and that guides our focus for each cohort,” Varrati said. “Customer service came up a lot, and that’s the cohort that just wrapped up. Next we are focusing on IT Help Desk skills.” Local community collaborating partners include the State of Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Anchorage Economic Development Corp., University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, and Anchorage Community Land Trust. Workforce readiness — the basic academic, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills for successful employment — is a perennial problem in Alaska. Employers often report that they’re helping new hires develop basic skills that should be a prerequisite to employment instead of something learned on the job. As part of the Upskilling program, participants receive one-on-one resume building, LinkedIn profile and cover letter writing, and interview preparation assistance, along with regular support from the gener8tor team and the opportunity to connect with national experts in their area of focus. They engage in weekly webinars that address soft skills through webinars like “Developing Your Emotional Intelligence,” “Teamwork Foundations,” and “Effective Listening,” and offer job search content like “A Career Strategist’s Guide to Getting a Job” and “Video Interview Tips.” Montgomery says that the job search support was invaluable. “I hadn’t updated my resume for three or four years because it had been awhile since I looked for a job,” she said. “The courses got me familiar with how to organize my resume, prepare for interviews, and not be so nervous.” At the end of the program, participants are invited to participate in an “Interview Swarm,” or virtual job fair, where they will be connected to employers hiring in the industries in which they have obtained certifications through Upskilling. “Our intent is to help the community employ the community first, but if one of our graduates can’t find the opportunity they’re looking for, we are connected to people hiring remote workers outside of Alaska too,” says Varrati. “But we are focusing first on connecting people to employment within the state of Alaska.” Montgomery has already had two interviews with more to come. “I definitely feel hopeful,” she said. “Before I’d go through an interview and guess what they wanted to hear, but in the course we heard directly from employers about what they were expecting and looking for, and that was really useful.” The next Upskilling Anchorage cohort will focus on IT Help Desk skills, and will run from Aug. 30 to Oct. 22. Applications are open to those ages 18 and above, and although the program is available to all who apply, Varatti says they’re looking for people who are dedicated to the process. “Our ideal applicant is someone who is going to put the time and effort into finishing the modules, will check in with their career coach each week, and will be active in our lunch and learns,” said Varatti. Montgomery says that anyone considering taking a course from Upskilling Anchorage should go for it. “I feel like it opened my prospects up, and now I see things differently,” she said. “It gave me a leg up because I’m more marketable and they help you get job interviews!” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach. She was named to the Alaska Journal of Commerce Top Forty Under 40 in 2013.

The power of shopping local

During a year when many local businesses struggled, some retailers reported stable or increased revenues. John Staser of Mountain View Sports in Anchorage says that his 2020 sales turned out to be even with the year prior, and are up so far in 2021. “Alaskans really stepped up to support local businesses,” says Staser. “I noticed a change in attitude and more customers saying they want to shop local. I attribute it to how people saw restaurants struggling and some closing; it struck home that if you don’t buy from people they go out of business.” Local small businesses are the backbone of Alaska’s economy. A dollar spent at a local business has three times the impact on the economy compared to a dollar at a non-local business. Across the state, small businesses employ approximately 137,000 individuals and provide critical goods and services to residents and other businesses. According to “Buy Local: The Impact of Spending at Local Businesses in Alaska”, for every dollar spent at a local business, 63 cents stays in Alaska compared to an estimated 22 cents at non-local businesses. “It’s not only powerful, it’s doable.” Julie Gardella, an analyst at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development and a contributor to the report, knows full well how much it takes to be a business owner; she grew up watching her father run his small business. Gardella recently placed an order with Denali Dreams in Anchorage, and was gratified by the amount of the time the salesperson spent with her, which was followed up with a sample and a handwritten note. “It was kind and so personal,” she said. “The whole experience brought me a lot of joy, plus the product is high-quality and costs the same as something I could buy at the grocery store. I’m definitely going to keep shopping there and recommend it to my friends.” Despite already knowing that shopping locally is good for the economy, Gardella admitted she was surprised by how much money leaves the state when shopping at a chain store. “The way we did the analysis showed that if each (Alaska) household switched $20 a week or $1,000 a year from a big box store or online to a locally-owned business, that would be an additional $103 million into the economy each year,” she said. “Making the change to local is not only powerful, it’s doable.” Local businesses have more intricate financial ties to their communities than chain operations do. When they need professional services like accountants or lawyers, they tend to contract with in-state firms, keeping the spending local. Because they are relatively small and nimble, local businesses are more able to stock Alaska-made products, stimulating manufacturing. While chain businesses may give to charity, they tend to spend the most money near their corporate headquarters in some other state. Local businesses, on the other hand, prefer to give to local nonprofits. All of these ties help to keep more money circulating in Alaska. Gardella says she’s seen people becoming increasingly conscious about where they spend their money, and points to the Buy Alaska program as an example of how people can find more ways to support local businesses. Formed to connect consumers to Alaska businesses to grow the state’s economy, the program includes a product directory, marketing campaigns, and recently announced a new partnership with Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises to introduce passengers to Alaskan-owned businesses in port towns that are struggling because of the pandemic. Customer service, local expertise, and competitive pricing make the difference When it comes to consumers choosing to shop local, Mike Hajdukovich, owner of Trax Outdoor Center in Fairbanks and Trax 2.0 in Anchorage wants to be clear that he’s not interested in “handouts.” “Don’t just come in just because you want to buy something local, come in because I’m better than every box store and everyone online,” he said. “Nine times out of 10, the local guys are going to bust their butts to bring up the level of service because we know that when people come through our doors, that’s our chance.” Along with customer service, Staser focuses on matching prices online. “I challenge retailers to join me,” he said. “It’s scary at first but when you get down to it you gain a customer for life and it doesn’t cost that much to do it. We need to step up and be cost competitive.” Staser says that when chain stores offer the same products at the same prices, they simply “can’t compete with a good local store,” and notes that Mountain View Sports customers can avail themselves of his 33 years of experience in the industry combined with a lifetime spent hunting and fishing. He considers a member of his staff to be one of the best guides in Alaska and makes sure that his customers are the beneficiaries of their knowledge. “We can tell them where the fish are biting that day, what our personal experiences are with the gear, what fits them and what doesn’t,” he said. “And then they can walk out of the store that day with their products in hand; it’s immediate gratification.” When it comes to locally-made products, Staser says he’ll sell everything he can get his hands on. Currently that includes products from Alpine Fit, FisheWear, and an assortment of t-shirts and jewelry. By comparison, Alaska products generally struggle to find shelf space at large chain retailers. Recently ShuzyQ moved into his store, and their added inventory of both fashionable and functional footwear has been a successful complement to outerwear and fly fishing gear. Despite a clear belief that their stores offer the best option for their customers, both Staser and Hajdukovich keep an eye on their national competitors to stay sharp. “REI is a good store, they have good stuff and they’re tough to beat…but I’m going to die trying,” says Hajdukovich. Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Could small-scale nuclear power be a part of Alaska’s future energy mix?

As parts of Alaska hit new record lows for April — blizzard conditions, negative 70 degree wind chill, and temperatures more than 40 degrees below zero in some parts of the state — we’re reminded, as we often are during winter months, to be grateful for the comfort of warm shelters that stand up to even the most wicked of weather events. That comfort comes easier in some places than others. Hundreds of villages, spanning the state across miles upon miles of wilderness, are powered by microgrids, which are self-sufficient energy systems that act as individual controllable entities. Alaska’s microgrids depend primarily on high cost imported diesel fuel to bring electricity to rural homes, businesses, and community buildings. As a result, rural residents pay much more than residents in Alaska’s more populated areas in the Railbelt or Southeast. These expenditures on imported heat and fuel for electric power generation represent a significant drain on local households. Finding a consistent, lower cost source of energy — including both electric power and heat — would mean that instead of spending income on utility services, rural Alaskans could invest additional funds in education, technology, new businesses, savings, and more. One way to reduce the cost of power and increase reliability is through innovative new energy solutions. An emerging technology, micro-nuclear reactors, is being considered as an option for powering remote microgrids. Micro-nuclear reactors, approximately the size of a shipping container or small house, offer consistent, nearly maintenance-free power for 10 to 20 years before requiring refueling. At the University of Alaska Fairbanks Center for Energy and Power, Gwen Holdmann and her team are dedicated to applied energy research and technology testing focused on lowering the cost of energy in Alaska. Known by many as one of the top global experts in microgrid energy systems, Holdmann thinks nuclear energy has the potential to replace diesel fuel in rural communities but recognizes that concerns exist. “The nuclear energy industry has really evolved over time. The last 10 years have seen a new, much more flexible approach to how nuclear energy can be deployed. Systems are smaller, modular, and with more inherent built-in safety features,” says Holdmann. “That said, many people have a sort of visceral reaction to the idea of radioactive materials potentially contaminating the environment and that is legitimate. When you’re thinking about energy sources, it’s important to evaluate potential risk as part of a broader decision-making process. “That includes understanding the technology, how the technology functions under a variety of operational and environmental conditions, and consideration of the full life cycle including fuel management. Then you have to balance all of those concerns against the potential to reduce costs or create new economic opportunities.” Richelle Johnson, lead analyst at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, or CED, just wrapped up a year-and-a-half long project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and Idaho National Labs researching potential use cases for small scale nuclear power. “Alaska’s future energy landscape is going to look a lot different than it does today,” says Johnson. “It’ll be a mix of renewables and fossil fuels, but realistically it could also include nuclear.” Johnson and other UA CED researchers interviewed a number of potential energy users, ranging from small villages and hub communities to remote mining projects and military installments. “The people we interviewed for the report were experts in their field, and were very aware of the limitations of renewables in Alaska — you can only gather wind resources when the wind is blowing, you can only collect solar power when the sun is up — you still need a consistent baseload, and right now that comes from diesel,” Johnson said. Despite interest in the benefits of nuclear power, researchers found skepticism about operating a new nuclear technology in remote areas and a preference to see it proven out elsewhere first. “When it’s -20 degrees outside, you have to know how to fix something, and right now it is still unclear what that looks like for micro-reactors,” says Johnson. Silicon Valley-based Oklo, a venture-funded company founded in 2013, is poised to deploy its first project in Idaho Falls on the Idaho National Labs campus. As the sole company with a license application to build and operate a small-scale nuclear power plant, they are leading the industry in new technology. Large players like General Electric and Westinghouse are not far behind with designs of their own, however. Co-founder and CEO Jacob DeWitte, says that Oklo’s microreactors are a far cry from what most people picture when they think of nuclear energy. “We look different and operate different because we’ve been able to incorporate technology that’s been developing for decades,” he said. He’s looking for an Alaska site for his second deployment project, and has spent time in the state as a portfolio company for Launch Alaska, an Anchorage-based nonprofit dedicated to energy innovation. “Right now we’re in the process of finding partners and end users for our system. Alaska offers so much diversity in culture, climate, and geographic regions,” DeWitte said. “From a technical perspective, making something work in Alaska would help us evaluate our capacity to deliver in the most demanding environments in the world, to really prove out what we can do. If we can do it there, we can do it anywhere.” The deployment at INL is planned for sometime in the early 2020s if everything goes to plan, and an Alaska project would follow. The company is already pursuing multiple leads in Alaska, and is actively seeking additional customers in the states. DeWitte says that although he understands concerns, he’s hoping to help people shift their thinking about nuclear energy. “Our microreactors are inherently safe, self stabilize, are able to shut themselves down, and stay cool without a lot of operational involvement,” says DeWitte. “These are simple, safe systems.” That’s not to say nuclear energy shouldn’t continue to be treated with care. Holdmann referenced a floating Russion nuclear power plant (with more, such as a 35-megawatt barge, being planned to serve Russia’s Arctic communities) noting that if there were an accident on it, it would negatively impact Alaska’s fisheries. Other countries, like Canada and China are deeply engaged in research, testing, and deployment of small modular reactors. “There’s been a significant increase of nuclear installations across the world, especially in regions with more friendly permitting and licensing,” says Holdmann. “As a country, if we want to maintain our leadership in this industry, we need to pay attention to what’s going on. There’s a balance between caution and progress.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Hybrid events as the future of community gathering

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to temporarily close their doors to in-person customers, owners are preparing for a return to business as (mostly) usual, and in some cases, better. Many learned lessons about how to reach their customers virtually and don’t intend to let them go to waste. Here’s what three different Alaska businesses have planned as they begin to re-open:  Toast of the Town When COVID-19 hit Alaska and the first emergency order was issued, Crystal Biringer, President of Anchorage-based events company Toast of the Town, or TOTT, remembers thinking “Holy cow, everything we have planned for the foreseeable future is no longer an option...what are we going to do?”  She knew that her team needed to make some quick decisions to continue serving their clients and for the business to survive.  Pre-pandemic, only about 10 percent of TOTT’s businesses was virtual, consisting mostly of the occasional live stream or post-event recordings shared on social media. Regardless, the team was confident they could make the transition to focusing mostly on digital events for the next two years… and they were right, to the rate of a 57 percent increase in the number of events in 2020 from 2019. Biringer notes that the company also saw an increase of at least 50 percent attendance at virtual events, and credits part of their success to enlisting the services of Upper One Studios to partner on virtual production work. She also says thoughtful touches like hospitality boxes — themed packages sent to attendees pre-event to create a shared experience and tie into the event — along with chat functionality and interactive two-way app integrations allowing people to connect digitally with each other went a long way to differentiating TOTT’s events from just another Zoom call. A key lesson learned during the last year was that while in-person events are often successful because the attendees look forward to seeing and interacting with each other, virtual events are successful because of high quality content and relevant subject matter. Fortunately, access to high-end speakers is better than ever, Biringer said. “You don’t have to worry about housing, travel, and developing a full-fledged Alaska experience for each speaker you bring up. Instead you’re just asking for a couple hours of their time,” she said. “That cost difference has been a blessing to event budgets.” As businesses begin to open up and it’s safe to gather in crowds, Biringer intends to make use of everything she learned this year. “We discovered what virtual events can deliver — increased attendance, higher sponsor impact, speaker accessibility — and so I believe the future of events is to go hybrid. This isn’t a solution for all events, some have an in-person value that shouldn’t be replicated digitally, but if you’re producing a conference or fundraiser, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be a hybrid event. In fact you’re really missing out on a big opportunity if you stick to just in-person.” Despite changes, Biringer says the purpose behind TOTT’s work hasn’t changed.  “We’re still bringing people together through shared experience and an immersive atmosphere,” she said. “We’re still helping people engage, the environment in which we do it is just a little different now.” The Pub The Pub at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is a 30-year-old institution well-loved by students, staff, and alumni, and self-described as “a little bar on the flagship campus of the coldest state, and we like to party.”  Manager Mike Willis says that pre-COVID-19, The Pub had a Facebook page that wasn’t used much. That quickly changed as he and his staff scrambled to figure out how an in-person drinking establishment on a now closed college campus could stay connected to the community during the midst of a pandemic. The answer? Virtual Pub Trivia.  “We knew trivia was something we could offer online, that would help people stop feeling so alienated and alone,” Willis said. “Natilly and Melissa on our staff quickly figured out how to do it via Zoom, there were a few kinks at first but now we’re rocking and rolling!” Trivia has been a mainstay of The Pub for nearly a decade, featuring topics like Alaska History, Black Histroy Month, Sex Ed, Inaugurations, and Alaska Beer Week. When it shifted to virtual delivery, Willis said that alumni and former staff now living out of state started joining the Zoom and the team soon had “celebrity hosts,” like former pub manager Donald Crocker who joined in to host a couple sessions. A few student clubs also stepped in to host as well. Recognizing the value in creating digital content for their customers, The Pub also partnered with Telesomm, a startup company headquartered in Fairbanks offering custom wine experiences with sommeliers via Zoom. Last week they hosted “The Arts and Beats of Wine” with Chris McCoyd, a “Hip Hop Somm” with a degree in music business.  Facebook Live tours and Q&A sessions with breweries like the Alaskan Brewing Co., Black Spruce Brewery, and Midnight Sun Brewery also proved popular. Willis says they expect to continue offering similar content even as they begin to re-open. “Our big takeaway from all of this is that now we have a strong social media presence, we have some momentum, and we’re going to invest more time, energy, and resources into keeping it going,” says Willis. “Because of social media we were able to connect with regulars, stay relevant, and communicate with our patrons. We don’t want to lose the ground we’ve gained just because we’re starting to re-open for in-person visitors.”  Willis is excited about exploring a hybrid model for Pub Trivia after The Pub re-opens for in-person customers. Mind and Mountain  Sarah Histand is the founder of Mind and Mountain, a woman-centered training program for winter (“Ski Babes”) and summer (“Summer Strong”) outdoor recreation. Although most of her work pre-pandemic was in-person, she had already developed an existing online platform meant to complement sessions in Anchorage. “Because I had the technology, it was a pretty easy decision to pivot to all online delivery,” Histand said. “There was a learning curve working with people who hadn’t done online workouts before, helping them see that they could get the benefits of going to the gym from their living rooms, but overall it went well.” Her response to the pandemic quickly paid off, as she nearly doubled the number of people signed up for her program in 2020. As Histand built up the digital Ski Babe and Summer Strong experience she made sure to emphasize both physical and mental health, as a lot of her clients were struggling with disconnection and isolation. “I heard from a lot of people that they appreciated having a way to interact online that wasn’t social media,” she said. “The support of our community was a big benefit for people, and helped them manage their stress.” Despite her success this year, Histand is looking forward to a return to in-person training and hopes to bring it back as soon as the summer. “As a teacher it’s really different to interact with people in-person, and I’m excited for it to be an option again,” Histand said. “But I’m definitely going to keep the online platform going; it’s so easy for people to access at any time and is an incredibly effective way to get strong from anywhere, plus now I really believe in the possibility of creating community connections online.” Histand says there’s balance to find between in-person and online experiences, across industries. “The pandemic showed us that it’s possible to operate online but emphasized how valuable and irreplaceable in-person time is,” she said. “There’s a hybrid, a place in the middle that’s the way of the future.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Alaska Angel Conference connects entrepreneurs with investors

Ana Kaiser and her co-founders Alexa Daniels and Jordan Bolton had their sights set on selling their keto/paleo/vegan donuts in the Lower 48.  They launched Fossil Fuel in 2018 after running a successful Kickstarter campaign, and quickly established a solid market base in Alaska. But to reach more customers who embraced the kind of lifestyle their products support, they knew they needed to grow into new markets, which required expertise and capital they didn’t have.   Kaiser had recently heard about a new funding opportunity, the Alaska Angel Conference, or AAC, and she and the team decided to give it a shot.  AAC is a collection of events designed to educate Alaska startup founders and new angel investors over the course of 12 weeks. Startups learn how to position themselves for investment and pitch their companies, while investors learn the ropes of angel investing (many are new to this level and type of investing), pooling their funds and making a group decision as to which participating company will receive their joint investment.  The term “conference” is a bit of a misnomer since the event spans several weeks where the investors conduct due diligence on each company participating, and while the companies simultaneously perfect their pitches, work on their business plans, and learn about tools of the fundraising trade like ‘term sheets.’  The decision to participate in angel investing — when an individual provides financial backing for small startups or entrepreneurs, typically in exchange for ownership equity in the company — is a serious one for both investors and entrepreneurs. Investors are putting dollars on the line in what is a traditionally very high-risk type of investment, and entrepreneurs are potentially giving away ownership in their company in return for receiving funding.  The conference supports both through the process, with the goal of increasing the number of investors in Alaska to spur entrepreneurial growth. Only one company is chosen at the end of the AAC to receive the pooled investment, which averages $100,000.  Previous AAC winners include Sitka-based Ramper Innovations, which developed a compact motorized folding conveyor system for baggage handlers, and Anchorage-based Pandere Shoes, a company making expandable footwear. Gaining financial savvy...with funding at the end Now in its third year, 2021 AAC organizer Mark Billingsley says that although the opportunity to secure funding is a driver for many entrepreneurs to participate, the true value is in the education and the network.  “There’s an incredible amount of access in the conference,” Bilingsley said. “If an entrepreneur wants to sit down with an investor, they’ll get that meeting. If they need help with something, they’ll get it. The mentorship opportunities alone, from people who are experts at building businesses, are immeasurable. There’s money at the end, but it’s more about growing your financial savvy for your business.” Billingsley is the University of Alaska Fairbanks Director for the Office of Intellectual Property and Commercialization, as well as the UAF Center for Innovation, Commercialization, and Entrepreneurship and sees AAC as a foundation of the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.  “There are a couple ways to get a startup off the ground; bank loans and bootstrapping are great, but not always viable options, same with borrowing from family and friends,” Billingsley said. “That’s where angel investors come in; they provide that seed funding that can make a real difference for a company. Basically, the AAC helps investors get more savvy, connects them with startups looking for funding to grow, and in the process helps startups reach their goals.” Billingsley is quick to say that AAC is not an Alaska version of Shark Tank, a notoriously cutthroat television show featuring investors and entrepreneurs looking for funding and sparring over dealmaking. “This is a really friendly experience, and I think of it as more a tool for teaching,” he said. “Founders can spend as much time as they want debriefing on their pitches and will have someone walking them through what it means to seek and obtain funding. They’ll gain a network of investors, and receive a lot of really specific feedback on whatever they need, whether that's their financial documents, business model, pitch...whatever is most relevant to the company.” Navigating funding options — especially the diverse and nebulous world of equity investment — can be challenging for entrepreneurs. Resources to help them negotiate, understand deal terms, and make the best decision for their company and themselves are key. Although Ramper Innovations beat out Fossil Fuel for the overall conference investment in 2019, the company used the feedback from AAC to pitch other private investors and successfully obtained funding. “We love to see ‘sidecar’ investments happening because of the conference,” Billingsley said. “It’s happened the last two years and I expect to see it again, especially with such a large pool of investors already signed up! People like to invest in industries they know, so even if a company isn’t the best fit for the overall investment, it might be a really exciting opportunity for one or two people on their own.” Kaiser says that one of the best parts of AAC was learning how to do market research, knowledge that was essential as the company achieved their goal of  expanding into other states. Currently, Fossil Fuel is in grocery stores in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, with more to come. The company is currently negotiating with a fairly large supermarket chain.  From entrepreneur to investor to organizer An unexpected benefit of AAC for Kaiser was finding a community she wanted to continue to be part of.  “Entrepreneurship is a solitary road, it’s nice to meet people going through similar things and swap ideas and knowledge with them,” she said.  That community is part of the reason she and her husband signed up to participate again in 2020, this time as angel investors. “The world of starting a business is so interesting, you meet so many passionate people, and from participating in 2019 we realized that we just really wanted to invest in Alaska business. AAC seemed like the best way to get started, there is so much to understand, it’s like drinking water from a fire hose.” Kaiser is participating again this year, this time as an organizer with Billingsley and others. “Each time, the value for me is the learning...and I can’t wait to see what I learn this year!” Alaskans interested in applying to the 2021 AAC  — either as investors or on behalf of their companies — must do so by March 3. It is free to participate as an entrepreneur; investors must commit to making a $5,000 investment. Both entrepreneurs and investors should commit to spending 2 to 4 hours per week on the conference during the finals. Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Much more than a cup of coffee

Back in 2014, Katherine Jernstrom was in Kansas City, Mo., attending events at the Kauffman Foundation, the largest foundation dedicated to supporting entrepreneurship in the country, and had a free morning.  She decided to stop by the city’s 1 Million Cups gathering, an event where a local entrepreneur gives a six-minute presentation about their idea or business, followed by feedback and questions from attendees. “The event was held in the largest auditorium at the Foundation; there were probably a couple hundred people attending, a mixture of entrepreneurs, investors, community leaders, and they were super energetic and excited to help out this one entrepreneur on stage,” recalled Jernstrom. “It was such an inspiring event and I knew right away we needed to start a 1MC chapter in Anchorage. Highlighting and giving a stage to local entrepreneurs felt really needed at the time.” Just a couple months later, she and a few local entrepreneurs launched 1MC Anchorage, holding weekly gatherings at The Boardroom, a coworking space she co-founded.  The event quickly took off, becoming not just a platform for entrepreneurs, but a place to see and be seen, and a way to stay connected to the entrepreneurial community. Deals were done during the informal networking after each presentation, investments were made, future co-founders connected, and opportunities for collaboration abounded. Pandere Shoes, an early Anchorage presenter, won a national 1MC competition in 2016, which included prize money of $10,000 and training opportunities. A community-based program 1MC is based on the notion that great ideas are discussed over coffee (their goal is one million cups of it, in fact!), and the gathering takes place on Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m. in more than 160 communities across the globe. Anchorage organizers estimate that over the years approximately 250 people have presented locally; mostly entrepreneurs, but also artists, nonprofits, investors, researchers, and community organizers.  Jernstrom thinks that the supportive community vibe has much to do with the program's success.  “This isn’t Shark Tank,” she said, referencing the famously cutthroat television investment pitch show, “this is a space offering entrepreneurs an encouraging environment. The most valuable thing for someone in the early stages of entrepreneurship is feedback, and sometimes it’s scary and hard to find people to talk to. 1MC provides an open and welcoming experience that allows them to get the feedback they need, while making connections and learning about available resources.” Not everyone who presented is still in business. After all, 52 percent of small businesses in Alaska fail during the first five years. But many others — Kicksled Alaska, Fossil Fuel Donuts, Heather’s Choice, The Launch Company, Paper Peony, and Trickster Company to name a few — are going strong and have loyal followings. Connections help entrepreneurs grow their businesses Pulling off a weekly event for crowds ranging from 15 to 55 is no small feat, especially when the organizing committee is composed of volunteers, as it is in 1MC communities everywhere. The current iteration is made up of mostly staff from the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development along with a local entrepreneur, Sarah Katari. Like most people who attend regularly, Katari has a 1MC connection story.  After launching their business, Katari Creative, they were searching for community and connection. Katari began attending 1MC, and one of the first presentations they saw was Megan Militelloof Elevated Oats, a company making handmade, small batch granola. Katari quickly struck up a rapport, which led to a couple copywriting gigs, and evolved into a long term communications contract.  Each 1MC event concludes with a question posed to the presenter: “What can this community do for you?” Militello initially found the question surprising. She was new to the state, hadn’t met many people yet, and didn’t expect to find a community ready to help her endeavor. “California was a totally different, more competitive place,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had options or support before, and to encounter such a welcoming community was really meaningful.” Since her 1MC presentation, Militello has grown Elevated Oats from operating under a cottage food license to include a commercial kitchen, steadily increasing wholesale clients and sales, and a team experimenting with new flavors and revamping their packaging. She said that the introduction to the community and connections with fellow entrepreneurs provided by 1MC were key to her growth. As for Katari, they presented their own business at 1MC earlier this month.  What’s next? Over the years the event location has moved a few times, first at The Boardroom when it was located on 5th Avenue in Downtown Anchorage; then the Anchorage Museum’s Muse Restaurant, which included a monthly artist presentation; and later at the Writer’s Block Bookstore and Cafe in Spenard.  Currently, 1MC is conducted entirely via Zoom and streamed on Facebook Live due to the pandemic. For those who miss the live event, presentations are saved on the 1MC Anchorage Facebook page. This has allowed for presenters and attendees alike to tune in from across the state and even the country, something that was technically challenging pre-pandemic. Like many entities, COVID-19 changed 1MC, and while organizers navigated the challenges associated with moving an in-person event to streaming only, they also identified the opportunity to serve more of Alaska. Later this week, the 1MC Anchorage organizing committee is hosting a statewide information session to drum up interest statewide in the weekly event. Anyone who would like to join the conversation, whether as a future presenter, potential member of the organizing committee, or just to listen and learn, is welcome to the open call on Friday, January 22 from  2:00 - 2:30 PM (Zoom information here). The call will be recorded and saved on the 1MC Anchorage Facebook page for people who aren’t able to attend at the time scheduled.  And as always, organizers recommend joining the gathering with a cup of coffee in hand. Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

From the Last Frontier to the Final Frontier: An opportunity for Alaska

Forty miles from the City of Kodiak sits the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska, only one of four places to launch a rocket into orbit from the United States, and where, just a week ago on Dec. 15, California-based Astra became the third private company in the country to send an orbital-class rocket into space.  The recent launch is a sign of a changing industry. With the advent of liquid-fueled rockets carrying smaller payloads (in rocketry a payload usually means a satellite, space probe, or spacecraft carrying people, animals, or cargo) than traditional solid-fueled rockets, launches are occurring with increasing frequency nationwide. Last year 235 payloads were launched into space by the United States, compared to 49 just five years earlier. This means greater demand for launches and more opportunity for launch operators like Alaska Aerospace Corp., operator of the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska, or PSCA, to generate revenue; more jobs for Alaskans in the aerospace industry; potential for startup companies to develop new and innovative technology and processes; and opportunities for the University of Alaska system to train, research, and help lead innovation.  AAC President and CEO Mark Lester says that Alaska is at the cutting edge of the industry, and considers offering space services a kind of natural resource development.  “Much like the (Ted Stevens) Anchorage International Airport’s success as a global cargo hub, we're taking advantage of our geography. PSCA’s unique location offers tremendous access to a broad range of orbits and the expansive Pacific Ocean.”  Although the AAC is a corporation owned by the State of Alaska, it hasn’t received state funding for the last five years. The corporation spends about $16 million per year on Alaska-based goods, services, and labor, and has created over $78 million in economic activity at Kodiak since its inception.  As the number of launches increase at PSCA — Lester is shooting for two to three commercial launches a month with government launches scheduled when requested — there could be an even greater return on investment for Alaska.  With teams of five to 50 launch personnel regularly visiting Kodiak island for stays ranging from a few days to a couple months, there’s opportunity for businesses like logistics companies, rental car agencies, restaurants, and lodging adjacent to the PSCA to start up and grow.  A 2011 report by McKinley Research Group (formerly the McDowell Group), found that a single launch puts nearly $3.5 million into the Alaska economy (counting indirect and induced effects), with employees spending time at local restaurants, buying gifts for family members, going on sightseeing tours, and taking guided fishing trips. The economic impact has certainly increased since the report was authored, and Lester expects the trend to continue.  “We’ll see growth in logistics, moving rockets and support equipment into Kodiak. We either need to ship up propellant, fuel, and satellites or start manufacturing our own. UAF is already building small satellites and I know of at least one outside company considering Anchorage or Fairbanks to integrate rocket and satellite operations in Alaska,” Lester said. Beyond this, Lester notes the opportunity to grow the state’s own aerospace workforce. “Two years ago, about 75 percent of our launch team was from the Lower 48 because we were only operating about one launch a year,” he said. “During the past two years we’ve flipped that. Now that we’re launching more, about 75 percent of our staff are from Kodiak, 95 percent are from Alaska, and we’ll continue to need people joining the industry.” Fortunately, the University of Alaska Fairbanks is graduating people like Ben Kellie, founder of Anchorage-based The Launch Company.  After earning his bachelor’s degree from UAF and master’s degree from Ohio State University, both in mechanical engineering, Kellie got his start in the industry as a launch and test engineer working at Elon Musk’s SpaceX. While there, he helped lead the design, construction, and initial operation of the west coast launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, serving as lead engineer during the first launch from that facility.  Next, Kellie helped lead the development of two SpaceX landing platforms, two large barges modified to catch rockets at sea, and since has worked on every launch pad in the country, along with helping design and operate more than a dozen iterations of launch sites for a variety of space companies.  “It takes a lot of work to launch a rocket. It can be hard to imagine everything that goes into it until you’ve done it,” Kellie said. “But a helpful analogy is to think about being at an airport. There are tons of people running around trying to load the plane with fuel, air condition the interior so it’s a comfortable temperature, check the engines, file paperwork with the FAA, load cargo, and finally prep for takeoff by rolling back from the gate. There are similar steps in rocketry, and they are even more involved.”  Traditionally, each launch site has been a one-off, requiring unique design and set-up, suitable for only one type of rocket; the process is akin to building an airport each time an airplane takes off. That’s where The Launch Company is shaking things up.  Kellie and his team are working toward what they call the “Third Wave of Space,” which is the world's first multi-user, mobile launch site designed to service the widest range of launch vehicles. “Currently, there are over 100 rocket companies working towards launch in the U.S. and around the world. Simultaneously, there are only around a dozen ‘on-ramps’ to space — potential launch sites — and even fewer that are fully operational,” said Kellie. “If new companies have to continuously reinvent the wheel to stand up new sites, we will never get reliable, cheap access to space. We need to move past a world where launches are a major event. If every flight of a 737 were televised and met with applause, we wouldn’t be doing a lot of flying.” Although The Launch Company has only been operating since 2019, the team attracted the interest of Voyager Space Holdings, and the two companies are currently negotiating an acquisition where Voyager will be the majority stakeholder. “We’d been collaborating and Voyager really saw our capabilities, our projects, our vision, what we believe in, and what we’re building here,” Kellie said. “And, they have deep connections in aerospace and can really help us have a bigger reach and get to our goals of building standardized launch hardware faster.”  The Launch Company’s potential acquisition is part of a national trend, where young companies are driving innovation and attracting venture capital. In 2019, investors poured $5.8 billion into space related companies across 198 investment rounds, the most ever for the industry. In Alaska, McKinley Capital Management’s Na’-Nuk Investment Fund recently invested in Astra. One of Kellie’s conditions for the acquisition is that The Launch Company stay in Alaska. He is committed to growing the aerospace industry here. “Space is a huge challenge and is something that stretches the imagination,” he said. “It makes sense for it to grow here; exploration is in our roots, we’re used to logistics and planning, and doing hard things is at the core of our identity. Alaskans are well-suited for working in dynamic environments like rocketry.” For those looking to follow in Kellie’s footsteps, opportunities abound. Through the NASA-funded Alaska Space Grant Program at UAF, students can enroll in the Space Systems Engineering Program, or SSEP, access the Space Lab, pursue funding for education and research, and receive assistance when applying to internships or jobs. Students in the SSEP learn to design and build small satellites and control systems, and launch suborbital rockets from the Poker Flat Research Range, the world’s only scientific rocket launch facility owned by a university.  The University of Alaska Anchorage offers a rocketry club, and recently members competed in the annual Space Grant Midwest High-Powered Rocket Competition by building rockets capable of exceeding the speed of sound. Lester says that an online spaceport operations certificate may soon be available through UAF as well, and that not all jobs in the industry require highly specialized education.  “To work in aerospace, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. A certificate program, combined with on the job training, can help people learn about space transportation technology, and be qualified for jobs that don’t require engineering. A lot of our operations are similar to working at an airport.” Both AAC and The Launch Company regularly host interns, and Kellie makes a point of hiring them afterward as staff if budgets allow. “It’s super viable to work in space systems in Alaska now, or found a space startup,” he said.  “Of the 11 people who work at The Launch Company, 10 either grew up in Alaska or went to college here. And if anyone out there wants to start their own company, I’ll give them space in our shop to do so.” Both Kellie and Lester think aerospace will be a big part of a diversified Alaska economy. “My personal passion, and the reason I moved back to the state, is working with entrepreneurs and building Alaska’s future economy, and aerospace is how I’m doing that,” said Kellie. As for Lester, he moved here from Colorado two years ago because he was so excited about the potential. “The opportunity to build a new economy, define the future of spaceports...it’s all happening right now from Alaska. Together, we are creating the future of commercial space transportation.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

STARTUP WEEK 2020: We need each other, now more than ever

The Techstars Alaska Startup Week op-ed series features entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial ecosystem builders sharing their thoughts and ideas on a variety of  topics related to startups and innovation. Techstars Alaska Startup Week is a week-long series of events hosted by entrepreneurs and business leaders from across the state. In 2020, all events are virtual, and you can find them here: Startup Week Schedule. All are welcome, please join us! As I look back on Techstars Alaska Startup Week 2020, the first fully virtual startup week in Alaska’s history, my biggest lesson — one that I learned again and again — is how much we need each other, now more than ever. Entrepreneurs, investors, consultants, ecosystem builders, dreamers, community champions, and more, despite being physically distant from one another, none of us exist in a vacuum.  This week we’ve seen subject matter experts share their knowledge in marketing webinars, business owners give a tour of their spaces, entrepreneurs tell the stories of their experiences with failure and resilience. We’ve met people who have been in the startup world for years, and people who are just getting started. We’ve “traveled” from Juneau to Kodiak to Anchorage to Fairbanks and more, all within the span of a few days. And through it, we’ve learned, we’ve celebrated, we’ve challenged, and we’ve grown.   Most of all, we’ve connected. When I was organizing the Facebook premier of The Failure // Resilience Project, Ben Kellie — a seasoned entrepreneur whose startup, The Launch Company, is being acquired by Voyager Space Holdings — wrote me a note that said, “I’m starved for community right now so I was stoked to get the email invitation for the event.” Earlier this month I collaborated with HairVoyage, a beauty tech startup that offers paid peer mentorship experiences to beauty professionals around the world. Founder MaryAlice Turletes told me that, “In the process of building HairVoyage we learned that connectedness drives everything — you can be a part of many communities but igniting individual connections is what brings to life the power of any community.” HairVoyage most likely wouldn’t exist, and certainly not in its current iteration, without this community. It was born during a Startup Weekend, and gained investment during the Alaska Angel Conference. Along the way, Turletes and her business partner Dana Herndon have built relationships with and learned from numerous local entrepreneurs and engaged with ecosystem building organizations like the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, 49 State Angel Fund, Juneau Economic Development Council, and the Alaska Small Business Development Center. On Wednesday, I had the privilege of being invited to Spruce Root’s Master Class as a mentor, and “speed dated” a handful of Southeast Alaska companies. My major takeaway was how much each founder cares about and invests in their community, and how in turn, their community cares about and invests in them.  Launch Alaska, a startup accelerator in Anchorage, held the second session of their Tech Deployment Tract, where panelists open up their figurative roledexs to help startup founders make connections with subject matter experts and potential customers in Alaska. This is motivated in part by excitement around innovative new solutions to challenging problems, but mostly out of a genuine desire to help, to share in someone else's success.   At each event, whether a webinar where experts freely shared information that they could charge hundreds of dollars for, or founders excitedly touring us through their workshops and explaining the many, often laborious, steps they’d taken to ensure their spaces were safe for employees and customers alike, the investment in each other was clear. We’re not going to make it out of the pandemic unchanged, nor should we. As we move closer to what appears to be a successful vaccine, I hope that a return to “normal” does not mean a return to “same.” Instead, may we all learn from our experience and emerge stronger, smarter, and better - as a community. There’s still time to join Startup Week! November 20 4:30 PM - Business and Brew: The Uncle Leroy’s Coffee Story November 21 10:00 AM - Alaska BIPOC Business Development Summit 10:30 AM - K-12: One Tree Alaska Participatory Action Research Collaborative  Details: Techstars Alaska Startups Week 2020 Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Alaska Startup Week goes online Nov. 16-22

Alaska Startup Week is back for 2020, although it looks a bit different this year: all events will be 100 percent online! From Nov. 16-22, Alaskans interested in entrepreneurship and innovation are invited to attend events ranging from marketing webinars and a master class for the new economy to an opportunity to identify problems and solutions North of the 60th Parallel and 1 Million Cups featuring Triverus! Co-chaired by Erin Baca, Director of the 49th State Angel Fund and Jake Carpenter of AppCare, events are being developed with an eye to the times: a number of sessions focus on helping businesses learn digital marketing tools to reach customers and organizers are planning a watch party for a mini documentary featuring entrepreneurs sharing their experiences with failure and resilience. Alaska Startup Week coincides with Global Entrepreneurship Week, giving participants access to 40,000 events occurring in 180 countries across the world. Additionally, a series of op-eds exploring topics related to entrepreneurship and innovation will run in the Alaska Journal of Commerce. “Startup Week has always been an opportunity for our community to come together,” Baca said. “And this year’s no different - we’ll just be spending time together virtually! It’s actually a great opportunity for people across the state to connect; usually we’re limited by geography, but this year we’ll all be in the digital realm.” A sense of community is more important than ever; entrepreneurship can often be an isolating endeavor, and pursuing a business in the midst of a global pandemic is even more challenging. If you’re looking for connection to Alaska’s startup community, join us! All are welcome. Find more information about Alaska Startup Week at alaska.startupweek.com, and on the Alaska Startups Facebook page. Events will be added daily until Startup Week commences! ^ Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

The rise of Alaska’s gig economy

When Lesli Olson moved to Anchorage from New York City in 2006, she was happy to find a community with its own distinct style, one that she was inspired to celebrate, document, and participate in via Instagram and a blog. Thus, Far North Fashion was born. Although her account began as a creative outlet, when Olson started using LiketoKnowit, a social-based shopping service, she started making commissions when followers purchase items she links to. Small at first, her income from Far North Fashion grew steadily and now makes up a good share of her family’s income. “My husband is starting a new job soon and taking a pay cut,” Olson says. “But when I looked at the numbers, I realized Far North Fashion would actually make up the difference for us.” Olson invests a considerable amount of time each week in her Instagram account, getting up two hours early to search online for deals to share with her followers. Throughout the rest of the day she responds to comments, spends time styling her daily look, and poses for photos to share to her account — all when she’s not working at her job as a music teacher at Bayshore Elementary School or caring for her family. Although being compensated for her time is a welcome benefit, Olson says she’d continue even without the commissions. “I’m such a nerd when it comes to fashion,” she said. “And I have a heart for bringing people together. Fashion blogging through a social network allows me to blend two things I love.” Olson is considered a gig worker, someone who earns income via activities outside of traditional, long-term employer-employee relationships. This definition spans workers like Olson who perform gig work in addition to a full-time job, to those whose entire income is gig-based. Gig workers can be thought of as a cross between business owners and wage-earning workers. Nationally, more than a quarter of U.S. workers participate in the gig economy in some capacity. Of those, about 1 in 10 relies on gig work for their primary income. About 1 in 6 Alaska workers are self-employed, according to Nolan Klouda of the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. These are business owners without employees, and can be considered gig workers. Drawing on U.S. Census Bureau data, Klouda notes that these individuals earned $2.8 billion in revenues in 2018, or about $49,000 each. “The average varies considerably by industry,” said Klouda. “It ranges from $104,000 for self-employed individuals in real estate to less than $15,000 for educational services.” Revenues are not necessarily the same as personal income for these individuals, who may have expenses to pay from their revenues. Gig work offers more ways for people to be productive and earn money while creating value and increasing options for consumers. It also provides an opportunity for people to find work that suits their skills or schedules, or like Olson, follow a passion. Those that have extra time and want to add to their incomes can deliver groceries for Instacart, walk dogs via Rover.com, or turn extra rooms or family cabins into vacation rentals on Airbnb. Home bakers can organize pop-up markets or deliver directly to customers, crafters can set up an Etsy account, and countless more can pursue their dreams of becoming social media influencers. However alluring, Klouda cautions against romanticizing gig work. “People’s experiences will vary hugely,” he said. “For some it’s simply a new opportunity to make money on top of whatever else they were doing. For others, gig work might force them down a pathway of having to earn a paycheck without the normal protection of a traditional job.” Gig workers go without employer-sponsored health insurance or 401k retirement plans, do not pay unemployment insurance, or have paid vacation or sick leave. They are not protected by the Family Medical Leave Act or Workers Compensation, and don’t have a union to advocate for them. Gig work can also be lonely or isolating, without an opportunity to to build meaningful relationships with colleagues, clients, or customers. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce might have the beginnings of a solution to some of the challenges facing gig workers. In September, the Anchorage Chamber announced a new way for gig workers to connect and find support through the Anchorage Gig Economy Network, or AGEN, and committee. Led by Dr. Jocasta Gee Olp, the Anchorage Chamber’s diversity coordinator, and Olson as chair, the committee intends to spend the next year building the network and learning from its members. In the future, Olp says that the Anchorage Chamber may advocate on issues facing gig workers, but only after they fully understand what’s needed to support the sector. She is particularly interested in learning more about full-time gig workers. “I’m curious about how they made that decision: was it out of passion or necessity?” Olp said. “I also want to know how sustainable gig work is for people and what kind of resources they’d like to see offered.” The Anchorage Chamber’s focus on the gig economy comes at a time when workers in the sector may need increased support. Although it’s too soon to tell how COVID-19 is affecting gig workers, Klouda says that just as wage-earners have been subject to layoffs and business owners have faced closures and falling revenues, self-employed individuals have almost certainly suffered from a poor economy, despite being eligible for unemployment benefits offered through the CARES Act. He’s recently noted a trend in an increase in business applications during the pandemic, indicating that more Alaskans are starting business, which is consistent with the trend of self-employment and increased entrepreneurship during recessions. “Economists talk a lot about creative destruction during recessions,” says Klouda. “Businesses fail at high rates, but new businesses get started. When it comes to gig workers, we can’t be sure yet whether the creative part really balances out the destructive part.” During the course of the next year, the Anchorage Chamber may be able to address some of the unknowns surrounding the gig economy. “We want our membership, our board, and our leaders to really get to understand the gig economy, the needs of the network, and learn about any challenges they might be facing” said Olp. “Gig workers are part of Anchorage’s business community, and with that comes the opportunity to have a voice.” ^ Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Redesigned BuyAlaska program seeks to bolster state economy

In February this year, Katie Ashbaugh excitedly accepted the position of sustainability coordinator at Allen Marine Tours, a Southeast Alaska day-cruise operator. She was looking forward to helping the company mitigate its environmental impact. “This was the beginning of my dream career,” says Ashbaugh. She recently earned an MBA that focused on balancing profitability and sustainability, and was eager to get started. “Simple changes — like making sure that cups and containers are compostable, sharing information about the cycle of trash, and helping passengers connect that to how we can be good stewards of our environment — make a big difference,” she said.  She worked for Allen Marine Tours for six weeks, and then the pandemic hit.  Like many Alaskans, Ashbaugh was furloughed in March and eventually laid off at the end of April. She remembers walking through downtown Juneau in the spring and noting the uncommon quiet. Usually teeming with visitors from all over the world, the streets were mostly empty and shops were closed. Once businesses started re-opening, the difference between locally-owned and non-locally-owned businesses was starkly apparent. “Local businesses quickly got creative about finding safe ways for people to come in and shop,” says Ashbaugh. “But we have a section of downtown called the ‘tourist trap’ that’s mostly owned by cruise ships; all of those shops are shuttered. They didn’t reopen, they aren’t thinking about reopening, and it’s really unfortunate to see this part of town underutilized… imagine if the shops there were local instead?” Katie Ashbaugh browses the inventory at Kindred Post in Juneau. Ashbaugh joined BuyAlaska after being furloughed from her new job with Allen Marine Tours amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo/Courtesy) Ashbaugh’s sustainable business experience, combined with her desire to champion local business, made her the top candidate for the Alaska Small Business Development Center’s BuyAlaska staff position at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Originally launched in the early 2000s to help businesses get online at a time when developing a website was prohibitively expensive for many owners, BuyAlaska has been mostly dormant in recent years. With the onset of COVID-19 and the upswell of support for small businesses across the state, the initiative was ripe for a refresh.  “People want to help each other out right now, and buying Alaska products or services is a good way to do so,” says Ashbaugh. “Once you purchase a locally-made product or choose a local service, it’s all part of a compounding cycle. You’re keeping money in your community, supporting jobs, benefiting the environment, and fostering a community culture.”  Nationally, studies show that locally-owned stores generate nearly four times as much economic benefit to surrounding areas than non-locally-owned stores, and local retailers return an average of 52 percent of their revenue to the local economy. Additionally, dining at a local restaurant produces more than twice the local economic impact of a chain restaurant.  Locally-owned businesses make an outsized impact on the economy because they tend to purchase more goods and services from local suppliers, increase the local tax base, and are more likely to donate to local charitable causes. BuyAlaska relies on a group of stakeholders from across the state representing numerous industries, using their expertise to advance the initiative. One of those stakeholders is Heather Rhodes, a marketing manager at Alaska Communications. Early on during the pandemic, Rhodes wanted to host a virtual breakfast for her team to help them feel connected while working remotely. She called a dozen different restaurants until she found one that was open. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “Some of the restaurants were longtime favorites, and a couple of them still haven’t re-opened. I want to help keep businesses from closing, get them online, and show them how to access new customers so that they can start to thrive again.” The recently-launched BuyAlaska website encourages Alaskans to shop local while also helping businesses connect with more customers and each other. It also offers links to business directories, resources for business owners to navigate going digital, and information about accessing COVID-19 support. The site is complemented by an e-newsletter and Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles. Rhodes is using her marketing and business expertise to help reach Alaskans and change the way they make purchasing decisions.  “On one side we’re making it easy for customers to find the local products they are looking for, and on the other we’re amplifying businesses’ marketing efforts and providing them with technical assistance. By supporting both sides we can make a bigger difference, faster.”  Heather Rhodes picks some Alaska Grown produce at Pyra’s Pioneer Peak farm in Palmer. (Photo/Courtesy) In Anchorage, where Rhodes lives, a recent report released by the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. says that 70 percent of businesses saw their revenue decline during the pandemic and 43 percent made employment reductions. She hopes the Buy Alaska initiative will motivate more people to buy local first to help businesses recover. “Instead of just clicking to order supplies, go see if the mom and pop shop down the street has what you’re looking for. Instead of getting your coffee from a national roaster, pick up something from a local roaster; we have so many great options!” she said. “And so many businesses are offering curbside pick-up, or delivery now. They’re making it so easy for us to support them.” Both Rhodes and Ashbaugh are putting their money where their mouths are; in Rhodes' case, literally. “My family and I are frequent fliers at Middle Way Cafe for cupcakes,” says Rhodes. “And then we rotate our coffee bean purchases between Kaladi Brothers, Steam Dot, and Black Cup.” Ashbaugh recently took advantage of a travel package for Alaskans, and visited Denali National Park for the first time. “We originally planned on camping, but there were such great discounts we were able to stay at some really nice places in the area.” She can’t stop buying local jewelry, and loves to support artists. “We’re voting with our pocketbooks,” says Rhodes. “And we want to see other Alaskans follow suit, and shop local first!” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

‘Nothing is for certain’ amid operating restrictions

In October 2013, Fat Ptarmigan opened its doors. After years spent working at bars and restaurants in Anchorage, co-owner and head chef Guy Conley was excited about bringing a “fast casual” dining option to the downtown scene. “There were a lot of fine dining options, but not many for someone looking for something casual,” says Conley. “No one was doing wood fired pizza when we opened and I couldn’t find a decent meatball in this town to save my life.” The restaurant opened to positive reviews and an overnight following. Diners loved the simple but delicious fare as well as the inviting ambiance of warm wood, exposed bricks, and a front row seat to watching Conley work the pizza oven. Less than a year later, the recession hit Alaska. “It definitely wasn’t an ideal time to open a restaurant,” says Conley. An opportunity, and a challenge Fast forward to early 2020. Fat Ptarmigan was still going strong, but downtown had changed since the restaurant’s early days. On the positive side, apartment buildings and condos being constructed were attracting new residents to the area and Conley felt like the Anchorage Police Department’s relocation to 4th Avenue was leading to decreased crime. New businesses were opening or expanding. On the negative side, Nordstrom, a downtown retail anchor since 1975, closed in 2019 and much of downtown business still depended on the visitor season and events that brought locals to the area. Conley says that even when the economy rebounded after the recession, people just weren’t eating out as much as they did pre-recession. Always on the lookout for ways to strengthen Fat Ptarmigan’s business model, a collaboration with the Double Shovel Cider Co. seemed like a good opportunity to diversify the restaurant’s offerings and co-mingle clientele, while taking advantage of underused space. For Double Shovel, it was a chance to have a downtown presence and easily connect with locals and visitors. Anchorage Cider House launched in February 2020 in Fat Partmigan’s south room, offering cider from Double Shovel on tap and in cans. Galen Jones, co-owner of Double Shovel, says that the collaboration with Fat Ptarmigan is grounded in shared values and a mutual appreciation of downtown. “A vibrant and thriving Downtown is good for Anchorage, and fortunately it’s on the upswing. We want to be part of developing an even more popular scene with increased activity, mixed use and residential buildings, help it be a place people want to hang out at all hours of the day,” Jones said. Jones’ plans for Anchorage Cider House included featuring ciders from around the world, educational tours spanning the cidery (located in Midtown) and the cider house, live music, special release parties, and Spain-inspired events serving cider directly from casks. Any other summer, and the Anchorage downtown restaurant scene would most likely be booming. But summer 2020 is unlike any other summer in living memory: it’s the summer of a global pandemic. A twist called COVID-19 By Anchorage Municipal Emergency Ordinance, restaurants and bars were closed to indoor dining from March 18 to May 11, and then again in August for a four-week reset meant to slow the rising numbers of COVID-19 in Anchorage. The closures have been brutal for businesses. “One bad week is hard to recover from,” says Jones. “And we’ve had months of bad, with no sustainable revenue. It was a big investment for us to open Anchorage Cider House, and if something were to happen to Fat Ptarmigan, we’d be up the creek without a paddle.” To get through the closures, Jones, Conley, and the rest of their team are focusing on new ways to reach customers. Conley says that third party apps like GrubHub and DoorDash are essential, but terrible in terms of revenue. “When we have a full dining room and can sell cider, wine, and beer, they’re okay. But now, when we’re relying on them, the fees they charge are devastating.” (Pro tip: if you connect to delivery apps from a restaurant’s website, the app waives the fees.) Both Jones and Conley say the federal Payroll Protection Program, or PPP, has helped, and are hopeful that State of Alaska CARES Act funds will soon be made available to businesses who received more than $5,000 from PPP (this has been proposed and will likely be approved soon). Conley says options like rent relief or delayed property taxes would be welcome. During a time when the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that as many as 85 percent of independent restaurants across the country may permanently close by the end of 2020, restaurateurs are looking for creative solutions. Getting creative Conly says that the Open Streets ANC initiative, organized by the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, is helping. “Downtown is like a ghost town, without the tourists and with the small number of people who live here. We’re not seeing a lot of foot traffic. But, we’re trying to get people to the outside seating and right now we’re only down 25 percent of our annual revenue, which is good compared to other restaurants I know.” The State of Alaska’s decision to allow to-go and delivery for alcohol is also helping. “We really focused on people picking up cans and growlers when we were first shut down,” says Jones. “Now with the ability to pick up cider combined with the open streets, we’re seeing revenues grow.” Conley found another way to reach customers, too: the Migrating Ptarmigan, a food truck selling Fat Ptarmigan fare. “It’s going well, and it’s another way to promote the business.” What does the future hold? “Right now we’re so preoccupied with the day-to-day and how to get people to come downtown, we haven’t really thought about how to get through the winter,” says Jones. “I wish I had a plan, but between running Double Shovel and keeping our full-time jobs, it’s tough to look further than a week into the future. But I know downtown in the winter is going to be really tough for everyone.” Conley hopes that indoor dining will return at least at 50 percent indoor seating capacity in the fall. Both like the idea that initiatives like Open Streets ANC and the EasyPark’s recently launched Operation Downtown Dine Out, which provides restaurant seating in parking spaces, might return next summer. “It’s so cool that there are all these options now with seating and shops, and it feels like a safe and fun place to be. You can get food and see live music, see friends while staying distanced, support local businesses,” says Jones. Neither is keen to predict too far into the future though. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” says Conley, “It’s that nothing is for certain.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and small business. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

‘Nothing is for certain’ amid operating restrictions

In October 2013, Fat Ptarmigan opened its doors. After years spent working at bars and restaurants in Anchorage, co-owner and head chef Guy Conley was excited about bringing a “fast casual” dining option to the downtown scene. “There were a lot of fine dining options, but not many for someone looking for something casual,” says Conley. “No one was doing wood fired pizza when we opened and I couldn’t find a decent meatball in this town to save my life.” The restaurant opened to positive reviews and an overnight following. Diners loved the simple but delicious fare as well as the inviting ambiance of warm wood, exposed bricks, and a front row seat to watching Conley work the pizza oven. Less than a year later, the recession hit Alaska. “It definitely wasn’t an ideal time to open a restaurant,” says Conley. An opportunity, and a challenge Fast forward to early 2020. Fat Ptarmigan was still going strong, but downtown had changed since the restaurant’s early days. On the positive side, apartment buildings and condos being constructed were attracting new residents to the area and Conley felt like the Anchorage Police Department’s relocation to 4th Avenue was leading to decreased crime. New businesses were opening or expanding. On the negative side, Nordstrom, a downtown retail anchor since 1975, closed in 2019 and much of downtown business still depended on the visitor season and events that brought locals to the area. Conley says that even when the economy rebounded after the recession, people just weren’t eating out as much as they did pre-recession. Always on the lookout for ways to strengthen Fat Ptarmigan’s business model, a collaboration with the Double Shovel Cider Co. seemed like a good opportunity to diversify the restaurant's offerings and co-mingle clientele, while taking advantage of underused space. For Double Shovel, it was a chance to have a downtown presence and easily connect with locals and visitors. Anchorage Cider House launched in February 2020 in Fat Partmigan’s south room, offering cider from Double Shovel on tap and in cans. Galen Jones, co-owner of Double Shovel, says that the collaboration with Fat Ptarmigan is grounded in shared values and a mutual appreciation of downtown. “A vibrant and thriving Downtown is good for Anchorage, and fortunately it’s on the upswing. We want to be part of developing an even more popular scene with increased activity, mixed use and residential buildings, help it be a place people want to hang out at all hours of the day,” Jones said. Jones’ plans for Anchorage Cider House included featuring ciders from around the world, educational tours spanning the cidery (located in Midtown) and the cider house, live music, special release parties, and Spain-inspired events serving cider directly from casks. Any other summer, and the Anchorage downtown restaurant scene would most likely be booming. But summer 2020 is unlike any other summer in living memory: it’s the summer of a global pandemic. An twist called COVID-19 By Anchorage Municipal Emergency Ordinance, restaurants and bars were closed to indoor dining from March 18 to May 11, and then again in August for a four-week reset meant to slow the rising numbers of COVID-19 in Anchorage. The closures have been brutal for businesses. “One bad week is hard to recover from,” says Jones. “And we’ve had months of bad, with no sustainable revenue. It was a big investment for us to open Anchorage Cider House, and if something were to happen to Fat Ptarmigan, we’d be up the creek without a paddle.” To get through the closures, Jones, Conley, and the rest of their team are focusing on new ways to reach customers. Conley says that third party apps like GrubHub and DoorDash are essential, but terrible in terms of revenue. “When we have a full dining room and can sell cider, wine, and beer, they’re okay. But now, when we’re relying on them, the fees they charge are devastating.” (Pro tip: if you connect to delivery apps from a restaurant's website, the app waives the fees.) Both Jones and Conley say the federal Payroll Protection Program, or PPP, has helped, and are hopeful that State of Alaska CARES Act funds will soon be made available to businesses who received more than $5,000 from PPP (this has been proposed and will likely be approved soon). Conley says options like rent relief or delayed property taxes would be welcome. During a time when the Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates that as many as 85 percent of independent restaurants across the country may permanently close by the end of 2020, restaurateurs are looking for creative solutions. Getting creative Conly says that the Open Streets ANC initiative, organized by the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, is helping. “Downtown is like a ghost town, without the tourists and with the small number of people who live here. We’re not seeing a lot of foot traffic. But, we’re trying to get people to the outside seating and right now we’re only down 25 percent of our annual revenue, which is good compared to other restaurants I know.” The State of Alaska’s decision to allow to-go and delivery for alcohol is also helping. “We really focused on people picking up cans and growlers when we were first shut down,” says Jones. “Now with the ability to pick up cider combined with the open streets, we’re seeing revenues grow.” Conley found another way to reach customers, too: the Migrating Ptarmigan, a food truck selling Fat Ptarmigan fare. “It’s going well, and it’s another way to promote the business.” What does the future hold? “Right now we’re so preoccupied with the day-to-day and how to get people to come downtown, we haven't really thought about how to get through the winter,” says Jones. “I wish I had a plan, but between running Double Shovel and keeping our full-time jobs, it's tough to look further than a week into the future. But I know downtown in the winter is going to be really tough for everyone.” Conley hopes that indoor dining will return at least at 50 percent indoor seating capacity in the fall. Both like the idea that initiatives like Open Streets ANC and the EasyPark’s recently launched Operation Downtown Dine Out, which provides restaurant seating in parking spaces, might return next summer. “It’s so cool that there are all these options now with seating and shops, and it feels like a safe and fun place to be. You can get food and see live music, see friends while staying distanced, support local businesses,” says Jones. Neither is keen to predict too far into the future though. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” says Conley, “It’s that nothing is for certain.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for entrepreneurship, innovation, and small business. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Local lenders make the difference in Payroll Protection Program

“Have you heard that (insert name of local business) is closing?”  This is an all too common refrain in 2020, repeated as we’ve watched restaurants, fitness studios, tour companies, retailers, and more, shut their doors for good. Researchers estimate that between early March and early May 110,000 small businesses closed across the country. In Alaska, the number of open small businesses decreased by 29 percent and consumer spending is down by nearly 12 percent in comparison to January 2020 numbers.  Considering that the median business has more than $10,000 in monthly expenses and less than one month of cash on hand, it’s no surprise that many have been unable to stay afloat during the pandemic. “We have months of economic pain still to come,” says Nolan Klouda, Executive Director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. Paycheck Protection Program: $669 billion for small businesses nationwide The economy would probably be faring far worse if the federal government hadn’t acted quickly and authorized the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act on March 27.  The CARES Act is the largest economic stimulus plan in U.S. history, and includes the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided a total of $669 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses. The program was so popular the initial $349 billion ran out in two weeks, necessitating the authorization of a second phase. Slated to close on June 30 with $130 billion unspent, the PPP was recently extended to Aug. 8.  Although highly utilized, PPP presented a host of challenges for business owners, ranging from changing guidelines and concerns that loans would not be forgiven as promised, to establishing eligibility and finding a financial institution to apply through. In the future, business owners will need to calculate the forgivable amount of their loan and track allowable expenses to ensure program compliance, which may be difficult for some. Lenders also experienced challenges, including restrictions on the asset size of eligible lenders, unclear guidelines, and using a federal website not built to withstand the program’s heavy traffic. Going forward, lenders will need to manage servicing the unforgiven portion of loans, identify how to categorize the debt, and potentially deal with audits. Did PPP work? And did Alaska get a fair share? The Small Business Administration, which manages the PPP program, recently released detailed data regarding businesses nationwide that participated in the program. “The first question everyone wants answered is ‘Did it work?’ And the second question is ‘Did Alaska get its fair share?’” Klouda said. “Although it might take years to find out how effective PPP has been, it’s clear from reviewing the data that the program was used extensively in Alaska, by employers from just about every industry and region in the state.” When Klouda analyzed the data, he discovered the following: At 53 percent, Alaska entities received a smaller number of loans compared to the total number of small businesses and nonprofits, but a higher average loan amount of $112,000, versus $107,000 nationwide.  Employers in the state received $1,692 per capita, which is slightly better than the national figure of $1,594. Urban population centers like Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau received a greater proportion of PPP loans relative to the number of businesses than less populated rural areas. For the most part, Klouda’s findings about PPP in Alaska matched his expectations. One in particular though, surprised him: the top five PPP lenders were largely made up of local institutions. Wells Fargo was the only national bank ranked among the top five; the other four — Northrim Bank, First National Bank Alaska, Alaska USA Federal Credit Union, and First Bank — are all smaller in-state lenders.  Alaska’s leading PPP lender  Northrim alone was responsible for approximately one in four loans in the state, which translated to nearly 2,600 new business loans between April and June. For reference, there are only about 20,000 businesses and nonprofits with employees in the whole state. “We made a decision to assist as many businesses in Alaska as possible, regardless of whether they were an existing Northrim customer because as a community bank, we recognize the importance all our small businesses have within our community,” said Northrim Executive Vice President and Chief Lending Officer Mike Huston. To manage the high volume of applications, Northrim created a loan processing assembly line and brought staff from departments like IT, Accounting, Marketing, and others into the lending process.  “There were times when work was being done every minute of the day,” said Huston. “People stayed up late, got up early, and worked during the weekends. A significant portion of our staff were working remotely, and knowing that we were making a difference for our communities made us feel connected during this challenging time.” Although flexibility isn’t often a word associated with banks, Huston says it’s something Northrim prides itself on.  “One of our takeaways from this is that change is constant, and it’s coming at us quicker than ever. Tomorrow is not going to be what we expect and we have to be ready to adapt.” Disruption creates opportunity, and businesses that can pivot or identify new consumer needs can be successful despite a challenging economy, something Northrim knows well. The bank opened its doors in 1990 on the heels of a devastating recession, and has grown significantly since its origin in two trailers in a parking lot. Despite dire forecasts about Alaska's economy, Huston remains optimistic.  “We’re continuing to invest, Huston said. “We opened a loan production office in Kodiak in early March, and are planning to open a second community branch in Fairbanks this winter. We are committed to powering the businesses that power Alaska.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.  

How internships offer opportunity for students and startups

Meet John Boren, a 2020 graduate from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Computer Science and Engineering program. He’s been piecing together his college education for the last 20 years.  The first in his family to pursue a college degree, Boren enrolled at UAA and began paying for each class out of pocket, working multiple jobs during the school year and spending summers in his hometown of Seward serving Alaska’s busy visitor industry. Boren made it through two years of college, but the more he worked to afford tuition, the less time he had for classes and studying. “I just started taking fewer classes, dropped others, and eventually stopped going,” Boren said.  The next two decades in Boren’s life were marked by living overseas in Europe and South America; a stint at the University of Colorado Denver; a brief return to UAA; internships at high profile companies like Lipper Analytical Services — a division of Reuters — and IBM Research; and jobs as a deckhand, assistant project manager for a boilermaker servicing company, bar manager, and a longshoreman. In 2015, Boren was working as a floorhand for Doyon Drilling and making more than $100,000 per year when oil prices fell to $27. He remembers watching as colleagues lost their jobs and thinking, “Is this my future? When I’m 50 will I lose my job if the price of oil drops again?”  The experience inspired Boren to quit his high paying job and use his savings to finally finish his degree at UAA. Although Boren knew he wanted a future in computer science, he didn’t know that he would also get a taste of the startup life. John Boren at his internship for Legalverse. (Photo/Courtesy/John Boren) Shortly after beginning his final year of his undergraduate program, Boren saw a poster advertising a new program called Upstart Internship. Offered by the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development , or UACED, as part of the ARCTIC Program funded by the Office of Naval Research, the program pairs students with local startups to learn about entrepreneurship and what it means to be a founder. Intrigued by the possibility of working for Anchorage-based Legalverse, a startup offering electronic document management for legal teams, he applied and landed the job. “Of all the internships I’ve had over the course of my college career, the Upstart Internship was the best,” Boren said. “My boss, Jeff Levin, gave me relevant, cutting-edge SaaS (software as a service) work with time for me to research and understand what I was working on. More importantly, Jeff really focused on being a mentor and dedicated time to building our relationship. It was a great way to learn, and was especially rewarding because I knew my work was making a difference in growing his company. That kind of experience is hard to find in the software industry.” Margo Fliss, Upstart Internship program manager at UACED, says the time spent on mentorship and professional growth is intentionally built into the program. “Companies say that students apply for jobs but don’t have the experience or soft skills needed, and students say there aren’t opportunities for them to get experience or develop soft skills because companies won’t hire them,” Fliss says. “This program bridges both challenges — it gives students hands-on experience and professional development before graduation to ready them for the workforce.” The program also provides Anchorage startup companies — often operating on a shoestring budget and hungry for talented employees — the opportunity to work with some of Alaska’s brightest students. Companies must apply to the program to be considered for each cohort, and the number of applicants continues to increase. After companies are selected, prospective interns apply and go through an interview process. Startups participating in the 2019-20 cohort included Gennaker Systems (autonomous aircraft software); The Launch Company (commercial space/rocket launches); The Boardroom (a coworking space serving numerous startups); Launch Alaska (a startup accelerator); Alpine Fit (outdoor apparel); and Legalverse.  Fliss says that the Upstart program differs from what some might consider a typical internship that often includes filing or coffee runs.  “Startups who apply to be part of our program know that students need to be engaged beyond basic tasks — they are part of work that is critical to the success of the company,” Fliss said.  “Because of this, students are a valued member of the team and they learn firsthand what it's like to start and run your own business.” The Upstart Internship program emerged from UACED’s work in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, Fliss says.  “Rates of young entrepreneurs in Alaska are low and falling. Although over 60 percent of 20-somethings say they want to own a business, few of them actually do, and only six percent of Alaska’s businesses with employees are owned by someone under 35. By helping students engage in our startup community, we’re helping them visualize entrepreneurship as a career path,” she said. For some, launching their own company might come sooner than expected. Boren started applying for jobs in February, hoping to find a computer engineering opportunity that would utilize his degree. Initially, he felt like his prospects were promising. The onset of COVID-19 changed that. “All of a sudden there just weren’t jobs to apply for anymore,” Boren said. “The day I graduated, Doyon Drilling — my former employer — laid off more than 300 people. There are less jobs out there, and more people competing for them, for less money.”  He began evaluating other options. During his last semester of college, Boren participated in another one of UACED’s programs, the Upstart Alpha Startup Accelerator, which is also part of the ARCTIC program. Accelerators offer intensive mentorship and experiential learning over a period of 3 to 6 months to a cohort of entrepreneurs. When they “graduate” from the program, participants have ideally compressed years of startup learning into months.   “I was already drawn to be part of Alaska’s startup scene because of my internship,” he says. “And I thought it would be like a mini business school. I wanted to learn from people who had already launched a company, figure out who the players are, and understand business aspects like product market fit.”  During the program, Boren worked on an app called GIF Dat, which creates GIFs using voice recognition. It is the first app in a series that Boren is developing relating to voice recognition.  Other participants pursued concepts like an all-in-one family communication platform, financial literacy programming for businesses, an alcohol-free third space for young adults, a website for concert-goers, a hydroponic food production company, a digital banking service for Nigerians, and bilingual, early-childhood education resources.  The accelerator focuses on building entrepreneurial skills and relationships within the startup community. Not all participants will continue on with their businesses, having learned that their concepts weren’t feasible or sustainable. Boren is one of them. “I realize I probably won’t make any money with GIF Dat, but now I have the tools to work faster on the next product I launch, for myself, or for a company,” Boren said.  Currently, he’s working on a project automating a data mining pipeline for UACED and says that if he needs to he will focus more on launching his own company instead of seeking employment at a company. Over the years, he’s learned a lot about how plans can change, and is comfortable with uncertainty.  “You just never know what’s going to happen, but opportunities will always present themselves,” said Boren. “But what I do know is that I’m always going to be working hard to better myself and my family. And someday, whether it’s sooner or later, I’m going to be my own boss.” Gretchen Fauske is a marketing-minded economic developer fueled by a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

Pandemic startups: Two Alaska entrepreneurs take the leap

At a time when businesses across the state are forced to close their doors or are scaling back operations, it seems counterintuitive to launch a business. But is it? As our economy dives back into a recession caused by the combined global forces of COVID-19 and the low price of oil, new businesses are more important than ever. High rates of business closures leave gaps in the market for newcomers ready to fill them, and for those that find themselves suddenly unemployed and facing an uncertain future, launching a business may be a good option. Startups have long been an essential part of Alaska’s economy, responsible for 89 percent of net employment growth in the private sector. Over the last decade, startups in our state consistently added 4,000 to 6,000 jobs to the economy each year. Although experts caution that accessing traditional capital will be more difficult than ever, many founders can launch lean, test the market, and look for funding in the future when they’re ready to grow. And, with unemployment rates at an all time high, there’s no shortage of workers looking for new jobs. Nationally recognized startup accelerator Y Combinator is reporting 15 to 10 percent increase in applications for its summer program, which serves early stage entrepreneurs launching and growing their businesses. In Alaska, the opposite is true: economists are seeing rates of businesses hiring for the first time (most likely startups) declining by a third when comparing April 2019 to April 2020. Entrepreneurship comes in many flavors, but can be sorted into two primary categories: necessity and opportunity. To date, 85 percent of entrepreneurs in Alaska are “opportunity” entrepreneurs, which is about average compared to other states. However, economic downturns are associated with more necessity entrepreneurship, and rates of startups launched because of need may begin to increase. Entrepreneurship born of necessity Like many Alaskans, Seth Stetson was laid off from his job in March. Although returning to his position as director of Marketing and Business Development for Kaladi Brothers Coffee in Anchorage might be a possibility in the future, he didn’t want to wait to find out. Instead, Stetson launched Anchorage Grocery, a special order, bulk food delivery service. Customers place online or phone orders throughout the week, and Stetson delivers their groceries to their doorsteps every Friday. Anchorage Grocery is Stetson’s first business and is a direct result of the pandemic: he needed an income and a way to satisfy his creative drive. While watching consumer behavior change during quarantine, he determined that delivery is the future of grocery shopping. Along with bulk online ordering and delivery, Stetson provides packaging and sanitation services with each order. “I’m giving customers peace of mind by limiting the risk that their food is exposed to COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, bacteria and germs found in traditional public grocery stores,” Stetson said. Before launching, Stetson thought that starting a business took years of planning, saving capital and working with banks. After he was laid off, he decided he was just going to launch and figure it out. It took him 2½ weeks to create a Shopify website, set up an LLC, get an EIN number, open a Sysco account, figure out product margins, and populate the website. “It was really interesting to start a business this way, without having prior experience and doing it in such a short time period,” Stetson said. “I just keep moving forward and getting things done, picking off what I need to do next. And, I’m still adjusting to the fact that if I stop, the business stops. It’s just me keeping it going.” Stetson says he’s getting a lot of feedback from customers that want more Alaska Grown options, which he intends to explore in future. Currently his local partners include Arctic Harvest, Copper River Seafoods, Kaladi Brothers Coffee and Molly B’s Bingerz cookies. He also closely tracks website activity to discern customer interest. “Right now it’s all about the meat — ribeye, ground beef, seafood — along with rice, and some fruit and vegetables,” Stetson said. “These aren’t your grocery store quantities, this is stocking up: 15 pounds of ribeye, 50 pounds of rice. My customers want to fill their freezers and their pantries.” Entrepreneurship born of opportunity When Ross Johnston of Anchorage noted images of sourdough starter and bread flooding social media during quarantine — combined with a nationwide shortage of packaged yeast — he quickly launched a new venture: Ötzi Premium Sourdough Starter. Sourdough, made by the fermentation of a flour and water mixture using the flour’s naturally occurring yeast, is a lengthy process of “feeding” the starter with additional flour and water for hours or days before mixing in other ingredients and allowing several hours of rising time before baking. When store-bought yeast is unavailable for bread, sourdough provides a tasty alternative and has captivated home bakers’ attention in recent months. “I got really into sourdough sometime near the end of summer 2019, and toyed with the idea of selling starter at a Saturday market booth,” says Johnston. “But then I started thinking about how people pay more for unique and novel products, and how sourdough bakers are fascinated by the origin story of their yeast.” Hence Ötzi, named after a mummified man who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE discovered in a glacier in the Ötzal Alps between Austria and Italy. Ötzi’s stomach contents included processed wheat brain, believed to possibly have been eaten in the form of bread. Johnston thinks the market is ripe for a premium product and likens sourdough to wine, with many varieties and prices points available. Hoping to tap into a customer segment attracted to a high-end product, his starter sells online for $24.99 on its own, or $49.99 for a kit that includes starter, water from glacial ice melt, and stone ground flour, along with instructions for upkeep and how to bake sourdough bread and pancakes. Johnston hopes his products will appeal to people in the Lower 48, hungry for a taste of Alaska’s wide open spaces, pristine wilderness and good bread. He’s already reached a few out-of-state customers and continues to refine his product based on their purchasing preferences and product feedback. Ötzi is one of Johnston’s many entrepreneurial endeavors. As he gauges whether or not the market opportunity he suspects exists is real, he’ll scale the company accordingly. “This specific type of business is fantastic for right now. People are finding time to engage in lengthier rituals like baking sourdough bread and seem to have a greater affinity for the creative process,” says Johnston. “But any time you launch a business, whether you’re in the midst of a global pandemic or not, it’s risky.” Both Johnston and Stetson are gambling that their risks will pay off. For Johnston, that means seeing an idea scale to outside markets. For Stetson, it’s being in control of his future and providing for his family. And for Alaska, it’s the beginning of an economic rebuilding, the glimmering hope of a prosperous future. You can watch Seth Stetson and Ross Johnston present more information about Anchorage Grocery and Ötzi on Wednesday, May 26, at 9 am via Zoom: https://alaska.zoom.us/j/92204612024. Gretchen Fauske is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for Launch Alaska, Vice Chair for Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified CliftonStrengths coach.

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