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.”
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.
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.