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North Slope Marketplace: Boot Camp for Arctic Entrepreneurs

by Sep 25, 2023Alaska Native, Magazine

Alaska Business

Frieda Nageak wishes that visitors to Alaska’s northernmost town could take home authentic souvenirs.

“We have a lot of visitors from all over the United States and from Canada and different places. They’re always wanting to buy something that is Barrow related or Iñupiaq related, but they can’t seem to find anything,” she says.

Shirts sold at the Alaska Commercial Company store in Utqiaġvik’s Barrow neighborhood, for example, show images of moose in a forest, neither of which are anywhere nearby. The Stuaqpak supermarket across the lagoon in Browerville carries apparel printed with eagles soaring over mountains—again, imagery alien to the tundra.

“It’s general souvenirs, general Alaska stuff that you could get from Fourth Avenue [in Anchorage],” Nageak says.

Across the street from the supermarket, the Iñupiat Heritage Center offers a small selection of local handicrafts. Tourists can also find Utqiaġvik swag at KBRW public radio and at Iḷisaġvik College, where Nageak works as external affairs coordinator.

Nageak would like to do better, though, so she’s planning a place-based brand to be sold at her NageAK Souvenirs store. “It would include caps, beanies, sweatshirts, magnets, spoons, plates—whatever people collect,” she says. She would use images of wildlife and landscapes photographed by her late father.

To make that wish come true, she’s enrolled in North Slope Marketplace (NSM), a program for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) shareholders like herself. NSM provides technical training, cash, and financing to entrepreneurs. Nageak was among ten applicants selected to participate in the three-day Business Boot Camp in August. After mentors and consultants help refine their business plans, three of the ten finalists will be awarded up to $25,000 to grow their businesses.

Meet the Finalists

Other 2023 finalists include coffee shops in Point Hope and Wainwright, a retailer in Anaktuvuk Pass, and a couple of Nageak’s neighbors in Utqiaġvik: a hauling service and an IT installer.

Unlike the souvenir shop, Inu-IT is already operating. Anton Edwardson launched the business last year based on his experience as an IT manager at Iḷisaġvik College. He hooks up wireless and wired networks, troubleshoots printers and security cameras—all the nerd stuff.

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Anton is a one-person shop, so he hopes to expand. With the assistance of NSM, not only could Inu-IT take on more clients but Anton could train residents to provide IT services locally. That way, clients wouldn’t have to pay extra for travel and lodging to bring personnel to the Slope.

Frieda Nageak loves showing visitors around Iḷisaġvik College, where she works as external affairs coordinator. Her idea for a souvenir shop earned her a spot in the 2023 cohort of North Slope Marketplace Business Boot Camp.

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From her office at McKinley Alaska Growth Capital, Mary Miner can see the company’s former owner, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, where the North Slope Marketplace program was created for the benefit of its shareholders.

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“If we want to nurture local businesses in villages, we need to be based in villages… It is important, if we want to get to the root of these incredible opportunities, to be there on the ground doing it.”

—Rachel Edwardson, Director/Producer, Amiun

Business savvy comes naturally to Anton: his father is president of the Iñupiat tribal government, his mother ran her own company, and his brother went to Columbia University and became a financial analyst.

His sister Rachel Edwardson, by contrast, is more of a creative type than a business type. “My head does not work in that way,” she says. “I really wanted to make films!”

Rachel has two films on Netflix right now, and both were nominated for Peabody awards. She has experience in TV and documentaries, with multiple credits in Australia, where she splits her time. Her media brand, Amiun, is growing into narrative projects, as well. She received NSM assistance in its first year, 2009.

“The resource that set me up then is still supporting what we’re doing now, what I’m able to do, and what I’m able to offer young makers,” Rachel says. Like her brother, she wants to build a local workforce. Two grants in 2009 and 2013, totaling $25,000, helped her train more than 100 people in the last decade, though only a handful remain in the filmmaking field.

Rachel considers herself lucky to have received family mentorship in business, a skill set that NSM added to.

Nageak, too, hopes that boot camp will supplement her skills. “I already have a working background in accounting and customer service,” she says. “I would need assistance on finances—where or how.”

So Much to Learn

The needs of North Slope residents set NSM apart from similar programs around the state, and its form is still evolving.

“Historically, the marketplace program worked with the [UAA] Small Business Development Center to provide training for entrepreneurs after they received a small business grant as an awardee,” explains Mary Miner, vice president of community development at McKinley Alaska Growth Capital (MAGC).

Starting in 2019, more training was provided before, not after, the grant. “Instead of doing it post-award, we’re providing that technical assistance pre-award to help ready the entrepreneurs to feel confident and have the resources and skills to write a business plan,” Miner says.

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Even that schedule was too front-loaded, though, so more work was done in advance of the 2023 boot camp. For instance, in July semifinalists were introduced to a financial projection model. That training was courtesy of Spruce Root, the nonprofit that runs the Southeast counterpart to North Slope Marketplace, called Path to Prosperity.

The boot camp in August involved sessions at the Iñupiat Heritage Center and field trips. For example, Miner says previous classes went to the NAPA auto parts store in Utqiaġvik to learn inventory management.

Training continues after boot camp with a workshop on branding by Anchorage Community Land Trust, which runs a counterpart to NSM called Set Up Shop.

Nothing wrong with the apparel, accessories, and assorted souvenirs sold at Stuaqpak, except that—as Frieda Nageak sees it—they could better reflect the local character of Utqiaġvik. From that observation, the seed of a business was planted, and North Slope Marketplace is helping Nageak nurture the idea.

Patricia Morales | Alaska Business

The most helpful training, based on Rachel’s experience, was tax preparation assistance. “It was such a great step up to have that kind of mentorship,” she says.

Ronette Panningona, a 2019 awardee for her Arctic Rose Beading business, agrees. “They got us together with mentors, indigenous mentors, that have a small business similar to our own. We were able to ask them anything and have that connection for a lifetime,” she says.

Panningona had no business background before NSM, so boot camp was very informative. “Learned what EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization] was, and that is helpful to know for any sort of business or corporation, especially your small business,” she says. Panningona also learned what factors go into setting prices for her items.

Finalists have until November 3 to submit business plans. Contest judges look for feasibility, the value proposition, the quality of finances and personnel, and the social impact. “Businesses could be from different sectors, different industries, but we want our judges to be able to pick up a business plan, get immersed in that business, and understand the entrepreneur’s plan and passion for their business and how it will benefit their community,” says Miner.

Up to three winners will be announced next February.

A Service for Shareholders

In addition to finalists from North Slope communities, the boot camp cohort includes a tax preparation service in Sitka and craft shops in Palmer and Wasilla. Grant awards went to an Anchorage art gallery in 2018 and an Anchorage jewelry maker last year.

“We at ASRC are pleased that the work Alaska Growth Capital does to support the North Slope Iñupiat continues under their new ownership. Our shared commitment to enhancing Iñupiaq cultural and economic freedom was a cornerstone of the acquisition process.”

—Rex A. Rock Sr., President and CEO, ASRC

The proprietors are all shareholders of ASRC. According to the rules, “The NSM competition is only open to ASRC shareholders who are 18 years of age or older by the annual application deadline” (excluding ASRC employees or board members). Applicants may reside anywhere, but bonus points go to proposals that benefit the North Slope region directly.

The program was conceived in 2009 to share ASRC’s vast commercial success with its wider community, a direct stimulus of Iñupiat-owned businesses.

“If we want to nurture local businesses in villages, we need to be based in villages,” Rachel says. “It is important, if we want to get to the root of these incredible opportunities, to be there on the ground doing it.”

Last year, ASRC sold the subsidiary that operated NSM, Alaska Growth Capital. The business line was acquired by McKinley Management, becoming McKinley Alaska Growth Capital. MAGC moved out of the ASRC building in Midtown Anchorage and into McKinley’s offices in the JL Tower next door. NSM moved with it.

“I thought it disappeared,” says Rachel. “When I was looking for it last year to recommend it to people, I went to the ASRC website and couldn’t find it… I assumed they’d shut it down.”

“I gained confidence in myself and my business because of the things I’ve learned. I am also planning to expand to more than beaded accessories in the near future. My small business wouldn’t be possible without the opportunity given by NSM.”

—Ronette Panningona, Owner, Arctic Rose Beading

Not to worry; the transaction came with an assurance that NSM would continue. ASRC President and CEO Rex A. Rock Sr. offered this statement: “We at ASRC are pleased that the work Alaska Growth Capital does to support the North Slope Iñupiat continues under their new ownership. Our shared commitment to enhancing Iñupiaq cultural and economic freedom was a cornerstone of the acquisition process.”

Continued Influence

Although ASRC no longer has an ownership interest, Miner says the corporation remains involved in NSM. “Members of the ASRC network are part of our judging committee. We definitely get feedback from them,” she says.

McKinley was not involved in NSM before, but the transition has been smooth. “It doesn’t really feel like it’s changed at all,” Miner says. “I’m still interfacing with all my same contacts at ASRC, and they’re being very helpful, continuing this program for shareholders.” She adds that being part of the McKinley family of companies, including McKinley Research Group, opens the potential for new collaborations.

Taking a program for ASRC shareholders out of ASRC’s hands can be unsettling. “I’m a little sad this is not something offered by ASRC anymore,” says Panningona, “but I’m also excited to see what the future holds for NSM.”

Notably, MAGC is still partly under Native ownership. Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) had a stake in the acquisition. Through its Bristol Bay Development Fund, BBNC has experience with its own Path to Prosperity in partnership with Spruce Root. Now BBNC is steering its development fund interests into MAGC.

“We’re exploring what we could do in their region,” Miner says. “We’ve had some really good conversations with community economic development groups in the Bristol Bay region. That, to me, is the pre-work we need to do: what’s the need? I want to hear from them first on where we would be the best fit.”

The handover from ASRC might enable NSM to extend beyond the North Slope. “As we move forward, we’re open to also having marketplace programs for other regions of the state and shareholders in other regions as well,” Miner says.

Vibrant Communities

Since it began, NSM has awarded more than $1 million to more than fifty winners. Are they better off? Is NSM serving its purpose?

“I believe it is,” says Panningona. “I gained confidence in myself and my business because of the things I’ve learned. I am also planning to expand to more than beaded accessories in the near future. My small business wouldn’t be possible without the opportunity given by NSM.”

ASRC infused NSM with the Iñupiat value of benefiting the whole, so by lifting up individuals, the program builds vibrant communities.

“I definitely want to make a living,” Rachel says, “but I would also like to grow something for my community, which is not a classic cash economy business mentality.” By supporting her media productions or her brother’s IT company, NSM develops a workforce and diversifies the North Slope economy.

“Some of the entrepreneurs we will work with at our training are bringing products and services to communities for the first time and are extremely passionate and excited about starting their own business,” Miner says. “I’m excited to see how the new model can create this cohort, this community of diverse entrepreneurs on the Slope and around the state, adding to the diversity of our economy and adding their perspective.”

While a grant would go a long way toward paying for Nageak’s souvenir shop, the know-how she’s acquired in the process of applying and planning has brought it a step closer to reality.

It’s already worked for Panningona. “I encourage all who are thinking of starting a small business to apply and go through the boot camp,” she says. “Very informative, and such a great thing for our people on the Slope to have access to.”

Rachel, too, says she’s grateful for the support. “There are some hurdles I could not have gotten over without the help of ASRC and this marketplace grant,” she says. “Let’s learn from what we’ve done, learn what didn’t work, and move to Phase II so we can grow it.”

Neither ASRC nor McKinley are charities. MAGC is a financial institution with a community development mission. Making a positive impact is part of the business proposition.

“We are definitely a for-profit business,” Miner says. “We’re reinvesting our money.”

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