First Class Graduates from CITC’s Indigenous Set Up Shop
A graduation celebration was held at The Nave, the former Lake Spenard Baptist Church converted into meeting space and art studios in 2019 by Cook Inlet Housing Authority, whose offices are next door.
A new batch of entrepreneurs are staking their claims in Alaska’s business frontier. They are the first graduates from Indigenous Set Up Shop, a partnership of Anchorage Community Land Trust (ACLT) and Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC).
Boosting Native Ownership
The cohort of twelve who completed the seven-week course include business operators looking to expand and novices in need of skills and networking to turn their concept into reality. Joy Komakhuk makes and sells skin care products—as well as gloves, slippers, and jewelry—under her FSH RVR brand. Fashion designer Bobby Brower sells her parkas and fur hats at Alaska Native Heritage Center, but her goals are much grander. Felicia Potter wants to add clients to her home healthcare service, and Crystal Garrett is re-starting her Arctic Dawn massage and wellness salon. Then there’s Paul Mark, who took the course to learn how to launch a game console repair shop, where he hopes to also test and review new gadgets.
One thing the graduates have in common is that all are Native, per the terms of a grant from the US Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency. CITC sought the $300,000, two-year grant as a way to bridge an ownership gap. Although 20 percent of the state’s population is Alaska Native, just 3 percent of business owners are.
ACLT has been trying to turn those numbers around with its Set Up Shop program, focusing its assistance on underserved neighborhoods like Mountain View and Spenard. Entrepreneurs of any ethnicity have been welcome to the program since it started five years ago. All they need is a vague idea for a business to apply for one of the fifteen seats available for each session.
As a spin-off, Indigenous Set Up Shop is a little different. ACLT Program Coordinator Zach Lane explains that guest speakers include more artists, since they have the experience most relevant to the majority of students. The curriculum is also more culturally relevant.
The final class session, on the night of graduation, is about the nuts and bolts of financing. Jeff Tickle, general manager of Cook Inlet Lending Center (CILC, pronounced “silk”), offered tips for applying for business loans. CILC is a subsidiary of CITC’s sister nonprofit, Cook Inlet Housing Authority, and started in 1998 mainly to service home loans. Only after ACLT approached five years ago did CILC consider branching out to small business lending.
“Our focus was so much on home ownership that we saw an opportunity to think more ‘community development,’ more holistic, and take a plunge into the small business lending world,” he says. That started in January 2020, and CILC managed to approve just two loans before the COVID-19 pandemic redirected the agency’s efforts toward emergency relief grants.
Since then, CILC has returned to business loans, financing entrepreneurs who might not have perfect credit. “What Cook Inlet tries to provide is that alternative to being able to access traditional capital at your local credit union or big-box bank,” Tickle says.
Tools in the Toolbox
Trainings began at CITC’s Super Fab Lab in Muldoon, where ACLT Director of Operations Radhika Krishna (right) led an exercise for Crystal Garrett (left) and Donna Thurman (center), who is developing a medical device business.
Financial tips are exactly what Joy Komakhuk was seeking from the course. “I’ve done financial statements before for big companies, and I wanted to clarify what it would specifically be for small business,” she says. Komakhuk has been selling arts and crafts at markets, as well as a stinkweed salve she originally created for her son’s eczema, and now she aims to tap the vein of e-commerce.
Alice Glenn already has an audience for her podcast, Coffee & Quaq, so she came to Set Up Shop to learn how to market her own java brand. Demaris Hudson and Lulu Demantle are looking to social media to create a presence that will convey their Yup’ik and Athabascan cultures. And jewelry maker Caleigha Gotthardt came for real estate advice to open a workshop for her Hrafen Designs label, since a basement flood this spring cramped her home-based fabrication.
CITC is furnishing its own maker space for small businesses. Renovations begin this week at the Super Fab Lab, formerly the Burger Fi and Body Renew in Muldoon. When the space is complete by February, it will contain tools for prototyping and stations for crafters to crank out inventory. Artist Isiah Thompson, designer Sherri Adams, and jewelry maker Dena Drake made connections at Set Up Shop that will let them take advantage of the resource.
CITC says greater access to technology supports Alaska Native and other individuals pursuing innovative ideas and business opportunities. The nonprofit assists in another small way, by giving each graduate a photo to use as their professional headshot.
Crystal Garrett says she came away with something else: “I have a little bit more direction and understanding, and I have the resources I need.” And Felicia Potter says the training gave her confidence and enthusiasm she didn’t have before.
Slots are already filling up for the next session that starts in October. Another two or three sessions will be held in 2023, in addition to ACLT’s regular Set Up Shop program.