“We have to be innovative. We have an obligation to our communities. We have to find ways to make it work.”
— Tina Steffen, Skya’ana Coffee Co. of Klawock, Alaska
The Tongass of Southeast Alaska is a place of forests, rivers and wild coastlines. Its waters supply a quarter of the U.S. wild salmon harvest. It's also home for 74,000 people. On top of all that, it’s as pretty as a picture – more than a million tourists will visit this year.
Yet at the same time, after enduring the shockwaves of boom-and-bust for decades, communities find themselves struggling to retain their young people, preserve local traditions and create the jobs families need.
This prompts a question: Is there a new way forward?
A rising tide of entrepreneurs shows that there is. Our Path to Prosperity business competition, designed in partnership with the indigenous-led Spruce Root Inc., trains and offers startup funding to socially responsible and environmentally sustainable ventures from across Southeast Alaska.
Our most recent Path to Prosperity winners, Skya’ana Coffee Co. of Klawock, Alaska, and Juneau’s Wild Alaska Kelp Co., will each bring home $40,000 in business development funds. They both exemplify businesses that serve as a force for good – for people and the planet – while maintaining profitability. These three “P’s” are the hallmarks of Path to Prosperity businesses.
Path to Prosperity has been a guiding force for a new generation of entrepreneurs in Alaska. By training its participants in crafting solid business plans that include sustainability as a measure of success, P2P is helping people launch their dreams. In fact, a panel of contest judges bases its awards on the strength of contestants’ business plans.
“The entire experience with P2P, especially the mentoring and networking, has been life changing for me and the future of my business,” said Tina Steffen, the company’s founder. “Learning the importance of being a triple-bottom-line company has completely changed the way I look at being a business owner. I am so thankful for these opportunities.”
For Matt Kern, co-founder of Wild Alaska Kelp Co., business training through P2P offered an intensive learning experience.
“The Path to Prosperity Business Boot Camp is an experience that you can’t emulate in any other way,” Kern says.
Reshaping an Economic Landscape
Tina is deeply connected to the villages on Prince of Wales Island. She has raised her own family here. It’s where she coaches a boys' basketball team and cross country. It’s truly home, and she fears a lack of good jobs will force people to leave villages like hers.
“We have to be innovative,” she says. “We have an obligation to our communities. We have to find ways to make it work.”
She credits P2P with helping her see how her own devotion to her community and culture can help guide how she runs her business. Business is business – or so she thought – separate from all she does to make her community a great place to live.
But then she attended the P2P Business Boot Camp, and the rest is history: “You can’t unknow what they taught you,” she says.
As her business grows, she and her mother and business partner, Betty, along wtih son Malik, the chief coffee roaster, now envision a bright future for Skya’ana Coffee including improving the company’s marketing, professional industry training for their staff and developing a new tea product brewed from traditional local herbs. Skya’ana also plans to build relationships directly with coffee farmers, whose communities face struggles similar to those in Southeast Alaska.
The lush forests and clear waters of Southeast Alaska brim with life. For Matt Kern, a co-founder of Wild Alaska Kelp Co., it’s the source of the best ingredients on Earth.
Take kelp, for instance. It’s a culinary staple for cuisines around the world. Yet even in coastal Alaska, kelp is far from a dietary mainstay. Matt and his co-founder, Lia Heifetz, say that’s about to change.
Their startup has already outgrown their own kitchen. To reach more customers, Wild Alaska Kelp Co. will open a storefront in bustling downtown Juneau.
Developing their own delectable product line is one mark of success, but they’re committed to seeing business as something more than selling a product.
“We’re interested in creating a business that adds value to all sorts of edible resources that can be grown around Southeast Alaska,” Lia says. “Our goal is to really create the framework for entrepreneurs all over to be able to stay in their communities and create livelihoods for themselves.”
Building on Local Wealth
The businesses making sustainable use of local natural resources will form the backbone of sustainable economies and vibrant rural communities for years to come. Path to Prosperity exists to help speed up this process.
“We’re continuing to see even more innovation and ingenuity from Path to Prosperity applicants,” says Christine Woll, who directs Southeast Alaska programs for The Nature Conservancy. “This is an encouraging sign for our region because these businesses will strengthen our communities today and far into the future.”
The competition is open to all residents of Southeast Alaska. This includes individuals, for-profit businesses and tribal entities. Business concepts must be for a business located in Southeast Alaska.
Since its inception in 2013, the program has received applications from over 159 businesses and startups from across Southeast Alaska and has provided intensive management training to 48 entrepreneurs during the signature Business Boot Camp weekends in Juneau.
To learn how to apply, visit spruceroot.org.