PUBLISHED: 4:23 PM on Wednesday, August 1, 2007
New programs are luring more Alaska Natives into the world of business
Businesses start with a hunch. Darlene See had a hunch she could sell Tlingit weaving and other Native artwork to thousands of tourists who now visit Hoonah every year.

Large cruise ships are expected to make a total of 79 port calls to the village of 900 this summer alone.

"Everything changed when Icy Strait Point (tourist attraction) opened a few years ago. Suddenly we had a much larger market," she said.

The artist opened a shop called Gut' Shu Wu with her aunt in a restored cannery near the cruise ship dock.

Her aunt sells native medicines on one side of the store and artwork by See and other designers is on the other.

Lindsay Terry's wife had a hunch there would be a market for a company that wanted to pick up recycled goods in Juneau.

She persuaded the 23-year-old to start LT Recycling.

It collects paper, boxes, plastic bottles-just about anything that can be recycled-from other local businesses. In operation for about nine months, LT counts 75 customers.

"None of my friends are in business for themselves and no immediate family members here in Juneau had small business experience. I wasn't sure I could do it," he said.

Terry, who's Tlingit, turned to the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska for help.

The organization has a micro-enterprise program to assist people with know-how and loans.

The initiative is based on the work of Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi college professor who began arranging small loans for people near the university where he taught in the developing nation.

That was in 1976. Today the Grameen Bank he founded has loaned $4 billion to 93 million people around the world, according to bank records.

"We offer training in writing a business plan, accounting concepts and information on regulations," said Liana Wallace, CCTHITA's Business Development Program specialist in Juneau. Terry calls the assistance a "life-saver."

He said the training helped him through the legal issues of starting a business.

CCTHITA with the Douglas Indian Association plans to offer business startup classes to entrepreneurs this fall.

Southeast Alaska natives have a long history of trading. Records of European whalers who arrived on Alaska shores two centuries ago describe trading with people in native villages.

There are also records of Tlingits traveling to Washington, California and Canada to sell goods more than 200 years ago.

Today, on a per capita basis Alaska has some of the highest numbers of native entrepreneurs compared other states, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Per person, they generate more revenue than native small business owners in most other parts of the country.

Alaska Native corporations are classified as small businesses even though they may have a few hundred or a few thousand employees.

New programs being developed around the state focus on helping individual native entrepreneurs, not local corporations, turn their ideas into companies. For the second year, the Alaska Federation of Natives, Anchorage, is running a Marketplace competition for rural residents interested in starting a business.

Its goal is to stimulate economic development in small-town Alaska through competition and innovation. Participants are required to submit a business idea and thoughts about how it would be turned into a company. Winners are given seed funding and help from business experts. About two-dozen of last year's entrants were awarded grants worth up to $50,000. This year's winners are expected to be announced in the fall.

The competition caught the attention of Hoonah's Lisa Andersson, who is in the throes of starting a new business in the village.

"It's really helpful to have access to funding and people who have experience running a business," she said.

Andersson entered a different competition offered through a new entrepreneurship class at the University of Alaska Southeast. The online class is designed to be convenient for people who can't easily get to the city, but have access to the Internet. Rick Wolk teaches it:

"The goal for the course is to build a business plan that would show $10 million in revenue per year by the fifth year of business. It's easy for people to start a lifestyle business and say 'I'm going to start a coffee shop or pizza place,' but it really challenges them when you ask them to scale the business that large. They start having to think about doing business in the lower 48 and internationally."

Andersson said the business plan competition helped her set expectations for what type of company could succeed in a rural village.

Her plan envisioned a seafood processing plant called Hoonah Sea Cuisine.

Although she won second place for her concept, she's decided to open a business in another field.

She said the up-front capital investment for seafood processing was dauntingly high. She was also discouraged by the tremendous cost of shipping from Hoonah.

Instead she's opening an art supply shop.

"I see the need because we have a lot of artists. I'll be carrying felt, abalone buttons and things like that to supply the local artists making ceremonial regalia," she said.

If the business is successful in the village, Andersson said she'd like to expand it into a mail order operation.

And that optimism, mixed with money, know-how high energy and a good hunch is key to business success anywhere.