Among the events in Sitka organized by Galanin and Peterson for Alaska Startup Week was the screening of the award-winning “Dream, Girl.”

Here’s something that sounds counterintuitive: Alaska’s current economic recession is good for entrepreneurs.

Business owners Brit Galanin and Alana Peterson are taking the lead in Sitka for Alaska Startup Week. They told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (11-14-18) that Sitka — while a good place for entrepreneurship — needed a more collaborative and supportive environment for people taking risks starting up businesses.

“Write a business plan,” said Alana Peterson (l.) to the future entrepreneurs in the Sitka Chamber audience. “Even if you don’t follow it!” Peterson and Brit Galanin (r.) are not in business together, but they have offered each other support and mentorship. They want to foster a more supportive climate in Sitka for business startups. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Peterson owns the Back Door Cafe, the Fisheye Cafe, and is the director of Spruce Root, Inc., a business incubator and community development organization based in Juneau.

She says she got her start in business in Sitka as a child, painting eagles and ravens on the wood scraps created by her father, the carver Reggie Peterson. She describes her attempts at selling her wares to tourists as “a spectacular failure.”

Peterson says that, rather than being supported in school and in the community, she was sometimes gently discouraged from her interest in business.

I didn’t know that I could be an entrepreneur. I didn’t know that I was one. And then I also felt that maybe my drive to work hard was misplaced. I should have been working hard at school, and not at making money. And so I battled with that as I got older, and at some point it dawned on me that I was an entrepreneur. I had already owned a business at that point — I owned the Back Door — and I had worked with entrepreneurs at that point for a good seven years providing technical assistance. I had an MBA, I had an undergraduate degree in Business — but I never felt I was an entrepreneur until after I owned my first business — and it clicked in my head: Oh! I’m an entrepreneur!

Peterson urged the Chamber of Commerce to change the culture in Sitka around entrepreneurship, since startups and new businesses were a critical part of the economy, and critical to the vitality that Sitka projects to prospective residents.

Brit Galanin also was raised in Sitka, began her career shortly after college in Anchorage, and has since relocated back to her hometown.

Galanin told the Chamber that she realized early on that her brain was a business commodity, and she decided to become a consultant at the age of 21 “not really knowing anything.”

Galanin has since founded the Boardroom in Anchorage — a co-working space with 100 businesses sharing an 18,000 square-foot office — and the Element Agency, a marketing firm. The two businesses combined, she said, were now worth $5 million.

Galanin pointed to statistics showing a downturn in fish landings in Sitka, to stagnation in monthly payroll in other sectors, and to steady declines in school enrollment.

Galanin suggested that these were the perfect conditions for entrepreneurship.

Galanin – Entrepreneurship actually flourishes in a down economy. If you think about it: If the economy is healthy and good, and people have high-paying jobs they have less of a reason to go out and innovate. Right? They have less of a reason to quit their jobs, or they haven’t been laid off, and life is good. Cushy. We might try to move up the ladder, but there’s not as much of a reason for us — unless we’re super-motivated — to go out and stir things up. What we do see is when the economy is on a downward trend, that spurs innovation. For two reasons: 1) People are more desperate, or they’re more willing to take a risk. They’ve already seen that there’s more risk involved in their life, and they’re more willing to say, “Okay, let’s do something about this.”
Peterson – “What have I got to lose?”
Galanin – Or, “I’ve already lost it, and I’m putting all my chips in. I’m going to do whatever I can to get this idea to work.” And 2) It creates new problems. We have an aging population. Well, with an aging population comes new problems. Anytime we have a changing demographic, new opportunities emerge in the market.

Galanin and Peterson told the Chamber that the biggest hurdle to starting a business was fear: Fear of failure, or in the case of women especially a phenomenon called “imposter syndrome,” which causes you to doubt your own abilities.

Galanin reassured the many entrepreneurs in the chamber audience, “If you’re starting a business and creating a solution, you’re doing it because no one else has done it!”

Startup Week events are happening statewide in Alaska through November 18.