Startup stories from the Y-K Delta

by Julie Gardella  |   

Workshop during a previous Best in the West competition in Bethel
Since its inception in 2009, the Best in the West business plan competition has supported entrepreneurship in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, awarding grant funding to almost 80 local entrepreneurs to start or grow their businesses. Pictured is one of the workshops during Best in the West in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Julie Gardella)

When Yvonne Jackson was awarded a grant from the Best in the West business plan competition, she had been operating Alaska Rural Professional Development for just about one year. Like many entrepreneurs, she got the idea for her business from a problem she was experiencing in her own life.

As the workforce development director at the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) in Bethel, Jackson was in search of an organization to provide professional development and computer skills training in the area. She wanted to make the high-paying, well-benefited government jobs in the region more accessible to the local workforce.

“I started looking for local vendors to provide [job seekers] with the skills and the training to become qualified for these job opportunities, but we couldn’t find it. And since we couldn’t find that, I came up with the idea that well, we speak the language, we can hire local, we know what they need, I can put this together.”

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Julie Gardella is the analyst and program specialist at the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development. She helped lead a number of the Best in the West sessions during the 2019-2020 competition. Gardella is originally from Massachusetts and moved to Alaska a little more than a year ago as part of the Alaska Fellows Program. She completed her fellowship with UACED and has stayed on in her new role. Before moving to Alaska, Gardella worked as the staff assistant for the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard Kennedy School. (Photo courtesy of Julie Gardella)

Best in the West has been supporting entrepreneurs like Jackson for over 10 years in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta region. Since its inception in 2009, the program has awarded grant funding to almost 80 local entrepreneurs, including Jackson, to start or grow their businesses.

Current or aspiring entrepreneurs in the Y-K Delta are eligible to submit a short business plan for consideration to Reyne Athanas, founder and organizer of Best in the West. Athanas then distributes the plans to judges representing the funding partners who evaluate the applications and select finalists. Over the next two months, finalists further develop their business plans, creating budgets, marketing plans and operational timelines, eventually pitching their venture to the judges who then choose which entrepreneurs will receive grant funding. Award amounts range from $2,000 to $8,000 and are based on both the business plans and pitches.

Some Best in the West winners use the grant for seed funding to start a new business, while others use it to expand an existing business, sometimes making the leap from a home business to a commercial location. Still others put their grants to good use to turn a hobby or family project into a business by investing in new or higher quality equipment.

In the past four years, staff from the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development (UACED) have worked with Athanas to design and lead business training workshops for participants in the program, covering topics such as customer discovery, break-even analysis and pitching the business. They also meet previous awardees to discuss lessons learned when launching their businesses, and are introduced to local and statewide resources available to small business owners.

Its mission is to serve the Y-K region by fostering local entrepreneurship to generate income, create jobs and empower residents to provide valuable products and services to the community through their businesses. Put plainly, “You take the money, you’ve got a business idea, you work on that business idea and you make it viable. That’s the major thing we're offering these small businesses,” says Athanas.

That’s exactly what Bethel-based beekeeper and 2018 Best in the West awardee Louise Russel is working on now. Russel operates Jones Family Apiary with her husband and kids. They began keeping bees as a family project and Russel thought if they invested in new equipment, they could create a sustainable business.

She and her family used their Best in the West grant to buy insulated hives for the winter to protect her bees from large temperature swings during the cold months, and an electric honey spinner to improve efficiency. The Jones Family Apiary received so many preorders for their honey this year, they sold out before the bees had even made any. Now they are trying to keep up with demand so their apiary can be a sustainable, profitable business producing a quality local product.

Like Russel, Bethel-based artist and entrepreneur Krystle Penaflor was also already making personalized clothing in Bethel when she decided to turn her hobby into Fireweed Craft Company. She received her funding in 2018 and used it to purchase a heat press, which has a much higher temperature and pressure than the iron she was using before, allowing her to press the vinyl cutouts she creates onto t-shirts or other material, resulting in a higher quality product.

Former participants in the program found not only the funding, but also the business training process and skill building components valuable.

Katie Basile found writing a business plan to be particularly useful for her photography and youth media business. She had been living in New York, but had recently moved back to her hometown of Bethel where she could focus on her passion: storytelling in the Y-K Delta. 

When reflecting on writing a business plan for Best in the West, Basile said, “It helped me nail down what my real focus areas are for work, and that is Y-K Delta, environment and youth media. Through that process I was able to look through my work, thought about my goals and came up with that, and that’s really true today.”

Best in the West empowers entrepreneurial community members to provide valuable products and services to the region, and salon owner Tracey Wilbanks is no exception. Her once home business, Windy Willow Hair Salon, became so busy she needed to start renting a commercial space to accommodate the demand. Though she is based in Bethel, she serves clients throughout the Y-K Delta; her salon is so popular that she is booked 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Wilbanks said she thinks her work helps people feel good about how they look. Her grant allowed her to keep her prices low, “so that I can help everybody because to me, self-esteem and feeling good about yourself helps wellness.”

Jackson, Russel, Penaflor, Basile and Wilbanks are just five of the approximately 80 entrepreneurs to receive funding, training and business support from the Best in the West over the past decade, 75% of whom the program estimates are still operating their business today. Founder and organizer Reyne Athanas’s work on the program has helped grow entrepreneurship in the region and provided an opportunity for those undertaking the challenge of starting and running a business to come together. The program’s future is uncertain, according to Athanas, due to funding and staffing but her goal is “keeping it going.” 

“Hopefully it continues,” she said, “because it’s successful.”


Read more about entrepreneurship in the Y-K Delta in the Best in West Business Plan Competition Awardees Share Startup Stories report.

A version of this story by Julie Gardella appeared in the Alaska Journal of Commerce in November 2020.

Creative Commons License "Startup stories from the Y-K Delta" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.