Starr and Jimmi Jensen of Yakutat and Sitka were one of two businesses chosen for the Path to Prosperity competition’s $25,000 award. The program promotes the development of environmentally sustainable and socially conscious businesses. (Photo provided by Starr Jensen)

The Southeast Alaska nonprofit Spruce Root has announced the winners of its annual business development competition. The start-up Coastal Heating and Repair out of Yakutat was one of two businesses chosen for the Path to Prosperity competition’s $25,000 award.

For the last couple of years, Jimmi and Starr Jensen and their kids have lived a migratory life. 

They’ve spent summers in Yakutat, where Jimmi has a commercial fishing boat. The rest of the year, they’ve lived in Sitka, where the job prospects are better. Jimmi works in heating and repair and Starr is a preschool teacher. 

Then early last year, they had an idea.

“We started thinking, what if we had our own business and we didn’t keep moving every year and we decided to stay home and give it a try,” Starr Jensen said.

Starting their own heating and plumbing business would let the Jensen’s live year-round in Yakutat, where they both grew up and have family. They also wanted to fill a need. When Jimmi was in town, he often answered calls from people in need of repairs. But they didn’t have any business experience, so when they saw a Facebook post for the Path to Prosperity contest, they decided to apply last minute.

“When we got the call that we were selected as finalists, I was just so shocked and grateful and happy and I was like yes, see Jimmi, they think our idea is a good idea,” she said.

The annual business development contest is in its eighth year and is open to entrepreneurs throughout Southeast. Finalists attend a three-day boot camp that addresses everything from marketing to business plans to how to better serve their communities.

“It’s our belief that businesses can make money while doing good for their community and the environment,” Executive Director of Spruce Root, Alana Peterson, said. “And so the program really promotes that.”

Over the years, Path to Prosperity has trained nearly 90 small business owners and awarded winners a combined $510,000 to build their businesses in sustainable and socially conscious ways.

This year, the contest was open to minority-owned businesses only. Peterson says that’s partly because of the requirements of this year’s funder, the Minority Business Development Agency. It’s also a fundamental part of Spruce Root’s mission. The nonprofit is something called a Community Development Financial Institution, which are designed to spur economic growth in underserved communities. Spruce Root’s target market is Native communities.

“That’s because they’re typically underserved when it comes to business assistance and financial service, not just in Southeast but all over the country,” Peterson said.

Peterson said Coastal Heating and Repair stood out partly because they had a great business plan. But also, it was a unique opportunity to add a needed business to a small, remote community and combat out-migration.

“It’s a service business that would just improve that community so much, and bring some people home,” she said.

Jensen thinks focusing on improving energy efficiency in Yakutat and adding traditional values like reciprocity to their business plan helped them as well. Starr is Tlingit and Koyukon Athabascan and her husband Jimmi is Inupiaq. 

“Being able to help our neighbors even when maybe they might not be able to pay us right away, just really wanting to work with the people in our community and help them,” Jensen said.

Coastal Heating and Repair won alongside Ketchikan-based Kaasei Training and Consulting, which focuses on revitalizing traditional knowledge of Indigenous plants and foods. 

Jensen said they plan to use the $25,000 award to get the business off the ground. They’ll purchase tools, build a small inventory of parts, and construct a workspace and storage shed. She and her husband are excited to return home and be near family.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.