Tiana Wang

What does thriving look like for entrepreneurs? Alaska Startup Week 2021 emphasizes community and diversity

When people talk about startups, the image of the lone, intrepid founder is often the first thing to come to mind. But as a first-time participant in Startup Week, I was amazed by the strength, resourcefulness and diversity of the Alaskan entrepreneurial community. From Nov. 8 to Nov. 12, organizers from nine different sites and hundreds of attendees gathered online and in-person to celebrate Alaska Startup Week 2021′s theme of “North to the Future: Start Up, Pivot, Thrive.” Through Zoom meetings, numerous emails and impromptu phone calls, I got to know — and learn from — incredible investors, ecosystem builders, professionals across a variety of industries, and, of course, entrepreneurs. What does Startup Week mean for the volunteers who devoted their energy, talents and countless hours to it? Other than an embodiment of the “give first” mindset that powers the Alaska startup community, it is also “a spotlight on our entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem, its successes, and its challenges across the state,” according to Startup Week co-chair Melanie Lucas-Conwell. As manager for the 49th State Angel Fund, Lucas-Conwell frames the significance of Startup Week from an economic perspective. “This is a time to listen to Alaskan entrepreneurs’ experiences and understand where the 49SAF can bring the most value,” she said. “For government entities, this is a celebration of economic development impact; individuals are looking for new ways to generate income and create jobs, coming together and sharing ideas on how to improve the world around us.” At the same time, this week of programming is an opportunity to recognize the exciting changes taking place across the state. “The types of events being hosted and the variety of attendees also show that Alaska’s industries are diversifying and becoming more sophisticated, such as manufacturing, mariculture, and equitable business practices,” Lucas-Conwell said. For Carrie Shephard, community engagement coordinator at Cook Inlet Housing Authority, serving as co-chair of Alaska Startup Week 2021 was a “proud, full-circle moment” that reflected her personal journey. Just as she grew from a shy business founder into a much more confident, connected and savvy entrepreneur, Startup Week evolved from humble beginnings into a “full-fledged celebration of entrepreneurship.” In 2015, while working at The Boardroom in downtown Anchorage, Shephard stumbled upon the kickoff of Anchorage Startup Weekend. She was immediately drawn to the palpable excitement of the gathering. When a committee member asked her if she wanted to join, Shephard said “yes,” and was given “a life-changing introduction to a different approach to business.” Until that moment, Shephard recalled, “I only knew how to find a gap in the marketplace and fill it. My business degree-provided roadmap looked like this: Start a small business, bootstrap until profitable, and one day sell it. After that weekend, though, I learned startup methods: the interactive process, customer discovery, mind-blowing options to integrate technology for scalable solutions, and how to be investor-worthy. It completely changed my perspective on how I saw the economic landscape. It changed how I saw the opportunities for myself as an entrepreneur.” Anchorage lead organizer Sarah Katari echoes the transformative quality of Startup Week. The founder of marketing agency Katari Creative is inspired by “everything that’s helped me become a successful young entrepreneur: A community of supportive people who continue to show up and show out for their startup community, an honest recognition of the lifestyle that isn’t easy nor for everyone, and spaces that foster real conversations about topics that are relevant and important.” Seeing community as the key to success, Katari is motivated by the commitment of Startup Week organizers to give back in turn. “Being a part of Alaska Startup Week for however many years to come will always be an easy ‘yes’ for me. Because it means investing the only resource we all have limited amounts of — time — into the place I call home,” Katari said. But there is more than one way to give back and build community. Peter Webley of the Center for Innovation, Commercialization, and Entrepreneurship noted the importance of a multi-pronged approach. In addition to giving founders a platform where they can share lessons learned, Center ICE featured groups that provided resources for entrepreneurs and highlighted startup companies and small businesses, providing them with “a venue to not only talk about their experiences, journeys, and new growth, but also to provide advice to those attending and watching afterwards.” Event hosts expressed similar sentiments on the importance of supporting local communities. Dorsey & Whitney LLP attorneys Jill McLeod and Siena Caruso presented a comprehensive webinar on the legal issues that founders should consider when forming a business. “We are grateful that our firm supports community service and leadership through partnerships with local organizations,” Caruso said. “It is intensely gratifying and exciting to sponsor events like Pitchfest to help start and grow businesses here in our own community. We look forward to continuing to support our local entrepreneurs in the years to come.” Dorsey partner McLeod additionally praised the “energy and breadth” of Startup Week offerings, noting that “[the programming] is a critical element for the success of Alaska’s incubator ecosystem.” Beyond a diverse range of topics, a major focus of Startup Week 2021 revolved around looping diverse communities into the discussion through outreach and events on equity and inclusion. Jasmin Smith, the founder of The Business Boutique and BabyVent, said that “by definition, Alaska is a diverse state.” Despite this, however, diversity “is not in the places that we should see it the most,” she said. This serial entrepreneur and community activist sees supporting BIPOC founders as “mak(ing) space for their experiences, support(ing) their needs and ideas for their community, and ensur(ing) equal disbursement of resources and capital in a way that allows BIPOC founders to assess the best usage for their businesses and cultural communities.” So how does one get involved in Startup Week? Becky Strub, founder of Alaskan Owned Apparel, has a suggestion for volunteers and entrepreneurs: “Please reach out to participate in 2022! Step outside your immediate community and you will find wide open, welcoming spaces in Alaska’s business world.” Tiana Wang supports entrepreneurship at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development through the Alaska Fellows Program. She has worked in a variety of roles, from editorial acquisitions at a publishing house to copywriting at a content marketing firm, and holds a B.A. from Yale as well as a certificate in mediation from California Lawyers for the Arts.
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