Julie Gardella

Virtual business plan competitions overcome digital hurdles

Despite a year marred by lockdowns, travel bans, job losses and business closures, Alaska’s regional business plan competitions did not miss a beat. Entrepreneurs showed up to connect, learn, and hustle, and organizers got creative to adapt their programs to run in a virtual format. For the typical regional business plan competition, the training workshops take place in person in one of the regional hub communities. Participants learn about critical business topics like customer discovery, sustainable business models, and financial analysis. However, over the last eighteen months, public health restrictions have prevented traveling and gathering in person, so organizers of business plan competitions ran their interactive workshops in a virtual format. One organization that successfully transitioned its program online is Spruce Root. Spruce Root is a Native Community Development Financial Institution, or CDFI, in Southeast Alaska, which runs an annual business plan competition and training program called Path to Prosperity, or P2P. According to its Programs Manager, Ashley Snookes, “it’s so much more than just a business plan competition. It’s an opportunity to connect and get to know other entrepreneurs and to utilize one another’s shared knowledge and experiences to build better, more resilient businesses.” P2P’s “Business Boot Camp” was historically held in person in Juneau, with participants traveling from all around Southeast Alaska for an intensive, 3-day training, networking, and mentorship curriculum. Since gatherings were not possible last year, P2P organizers had to innovate to overcome challenges of creating the same collaborative environment in an online format. “I think one of the big challenges (with online training) was figuring out how we could create meaningful connections between individuals in a virtual setting,” Snookes said, “And we solved that by trying to have a really dynamic virtual experience.” Instead of long hours just on Zoom, organizers engaged participants in a variety of ways. Sometimes entrepreneurs would go for a walk and take a one-on-one phone call with another participant. Other times they would do virtual yoga together or tell funny stories. “I think we really stretched Zoom and virtual connecting to its limits,” added Snookes. “I think we really saw people connect because of it.” Building community online requires a lot of creativity, innovation, and willingness to connect in new ways. In Alaska, it also has the added challenge of operating in regions that are chronically underserved by the telecommunications industry. With prohibitively high internet costs for unreliable service, the virtual format was difficult for many participants, especially those who live in communities outside of regional hubs. Cindy Mittlestadt, who partnered with Spruce Root to launch the Path to Prosperity program in Bristol Bay through Bristol Bay Native Corp., cited internet connectivity as one of the major challenges to running a virtual Business Boot Camp. “Internet connectivity is always top of mind, and the biggest fear in hosting any events when we’re trying to connect businesses from all communities across Bristol Bay, so that was very much a challenge” Mittlestadt said. “I can tell you one business, (based outside a hub community) probably experienced a dropped line no less than 20 times an hour and very rarely could sustain the video component of boot camp.” Despite the hurdles, entrepreneurs persevered through every dropped line, lagged connection, and technology failure. They worked with competition organizers to come up with creative ways to participate in training and activities, even if the internet was down. Mittlestadt noted that being prepared in advance was key to overcoming connectivity challenges during business boot camp. Her advice to others organizing similar meetings is to “have good communication behind the scenes, create more space and pause for conversation or questions throughout the process, and be available pretty much ‘round the clock during the boot camp to really increase the level of support that you can do offline, in addition to what you can offer online.” Despite the drawbacks, the virtual format offered some advantages to participants. Both Snookes and Mittlestadt listed participants remaining with their families as a big advantage to virtual boot camp over in person. “People were able to (attend boot camp) and still have breakfast with their kids in the morning or be around their family and talk about what they were learning in the evening, and so I think that that was a real advantage,” Snookes said. Mittlestadt echoed her statement by saying “that connection to family, and knowing that they didn’t have to travel or have to leave their family for an extended period of time I think, is always a plus.” The remote format allowed for a much wider variety of guest speakers, mentors, and instructors, to participate in training sessions. For instance, Best in the West, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region’s business plan competition, was able to host experts from across the state and beyond throughout its programming because of the virtual format. Participants learned about business lending from a loan expert in Anchorage, connected with a tech company in San Francisco to discuss affordable options for point-of-sales systems, and heard from a panel of entrepreneurs who built successful e-commerce businesses in Alaska and Hawaii. Ashleigh Delgado, one of the awardees of Best in the West this year, connected virtually with a mentor based almost 400 miles away. She recently opened Studio 1, a rejuvenating day spa offering a variety of beauty services in Bethel. Through the program, Delgado met virtually with a mentor, who is a longtime beauty professional and entrepreneur in Anchorage. “I connected with her and she really helped me with building my brand.” Delgado said. “She told me to describe my brand, and I told her it was a classy, sophisticated, salon. Very open, very trendy, very modern. And she told me that was my brand. That was a huge takeaway with what I got with my mentor.” The strengths and weaknesses of virtual gathering make the future of business boot camp a tough decision for organizers. For 2021, Spruce Root plans to once again offer its programs virtually, with hopes for in-person events in 2022. Best in the West is considering a hybrid option for workshops to keep both the social benefits of in person interaction and the networking opportunities outside of the region available online. However they proceed, Alaska’s regional business plan competitions have adapted, created, and innovated to facilitate the best experience they could for their regions’ entrepreneurs. “We have our largest number of applications that we’ve ever had to the program this year” said Snookes, “and I really attribute that to a lot of the changes that have happened in the economy and a readiness now for people to either launch or expand a business.” Julie Gardella is the Analyst and Program Specialist at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. She was the lead program partner for Best in the West 2021 and serves on the organizing committee of 1 Million Cups Anchorage. Gardella is passionate about equity and justice in businesses at any stage and size, and loves to work with entrepreneurs and see them succeed. Gardella is originally from Massachusetts, and moved to Alaska as part of the Alaska Fellows Program.

STARTUP WEEK 2020: Stories from the Y-K Delta

When Yvonne Jackson was awarded a grant from the Best in the West business plan competition, she had been operating Alaska Rural Professional Development for just about one year. Like many entrepreneurs, she got the idea for her business from a problem she was experiencing in her own life. As the workforce development director at the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) in Bethel, Jackson was in search of an organization to provide professional development and computer skills training in the area. She wanted to make the high paying, well-benefitted government jobs in the region more accessible to the local workforce. “I started looking for local vendors to provide (job seekers) with the skills and the training to become qualified for these job opportunities, but we couldn’t find it. And since we couldn’t find that, I came up with the idea that well, we speak the language, we can hire local, we know what they need, I can put this together.” Best in the West has been supporting entrepreneurs like Jackson for over ten years in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta region. Since inception in 2009, the program has awarded grant funding to almost 80 local entrepreneurs, including Jackson, to start or grow their businesses.  Current or aspiring entrepreneurs in the Y-K Delta are eligible to submit a short business plan for consideration to Reyne Athanas, founder and organizer of Best in the West. Athanas then distributes the plans to judges representing the funding partners who evaluate the applications and select finalists.  Over the next two months, finalists further develop their business plans, creating budgets, marketing plans, and operational timelines, eventually pitching their venture to the judges who then choose which entrepreneurs will receive grant funding. Award amounts range from $2,000 to $8,000 and are based on both the business plans and pitches.  Some Best in the West winners use the grant for seed funding to start a new business, while others use it to expand an existing business, sometimes making the leap from a home business to a commercial location.  Still others put their grants to good use to turn a hobby or family project into a business by investing in new or higher quality equipment. In the past four years, staff from the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development worked with Athanas to design and lead business training workshops for participants in the program, covering topics such as customer discovery, break-even analysis, and pitching the business. They also meet previous awardees to discuss lessons learned when launching their businesses, and are introduced to local and statewide resources available to small business owners.        Its mission is to serve the Y-K region by fostering local entrepreneurship to generate income, create jobs, and empower residents to provide valuable products and services to the community through their businesses. Put plainly, “You take the money, you’ve got a business idea, you work on that business idea, and you make it viable.  That’s the major thing we're offering these small businesses,” Athanas said. That’s exactly what Bethel-based beekeeper and 2018 Best in the West awardee Louise Russel is working on now.  Russel operates Jones Family Apiary with her husband and kids. They began keeping bees as a family project and Russel thought if they invested in new equipment, they could create a sustainable business. She and her family used their Best in the West grant to buy insulated hives for the winter to protect her bees from large temperature swings during the cold months, and an electric honey spinner to improve efficiency.  The Jones Family Apiary received so many preorders for their honey this year, they sold out before the bees had even made any. Now they are trying to keep up with demand so their apiary can be a sustainable, profitable business producing a quality local product. Like Russel, Bethel-based artist and entrepreneur Krystle Penaflor was also already making personalized clothing in Bethel when she decided to turn her hobby into Fireweed Craft Company. She received her funding in 2018 and used it to purchase a heat press, which has a much higher temperature and pressure than the iron she was using before, allowing her to  press the vinyl cutouts she creates onto t-shirts or other material, resulting in a higher quality product.  Former participants in the program found not only the funding, but also the business training process and skill building components valuable. Katie Basile found writing a business plan to be particularly useful for her photography and youth media business. She had been living in New York, but had recently moved back to her hometown of Bethel, where she could focus on her passion: storytelling in the Y-K Delta.  When reflecting on writing a business plan for Best in the West, she said “It helped me ...nail down what my real focus areas are for work. And that is Y-K Delta, environment, and youth media...Through that process I was able to look through my work and thought about my goals and came up with that and that’s really true today still,” she said. Best in the West empowers entrepreneurial community members to provide valuable products and services to the region, and salon owner Tracey Wilbanks is no exception. Her once home business, Windy Willow Hair Salon, became so busy she needed to start renting a commercial space to accommodate the demand.  Though she is based in Bethel, she serves clients throughout the Y-K Delta; her salon is so popular that she is booked 10 to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Wilbanks said she thinks her work helps people feel good about how they look. Her grant allowed her to keep her prices low, “so that I can help everybody because to me, self-esteem and feeling good about yourself helps wellness.”  Jackson, Russel, Penaflor, Basile, and Wilbanks are just five of the approximately 80 entrepreneurs to receive funding, training, and business support from the Best in the West over the past decade, 75 percent of whom the program estimates are still operating their business today.   Athanas’s work on the program has helped grow entrepreneurship in the region and provided an opportunity for those undertaking the challenge of starting and running a business to come together.   The program’s future is uncertain, according to Athanas, due to funding and staffing but her goal is “keeping it going.”   “Hopefully it continues” she said, “because it’s successful.”   Julie Gardella is the Analyst and Program Specialist at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. She helped lead a number of the Best in the West sessions during the 2019/2020 competition. Julie is originally from Massachusetts, and moved to Alaska a little more than a year ago as part of the Alaska Fellows Program.  Julie completed her fellowship with UA CED and has stayed on in her new role.  Before moving to Alaska, Julie worked as the Staff Assistant for the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard Kennedy School.  
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