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Making a difference: an Alaskan hero.

Making a difference: An Alaskan hero

We Alaskans like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists. Keepers of the pioneer spirit on the Last Frontier. The harsh environment has made us self-anointed heroes.

Professor Stephen Haycox, a historian at the University of Alaska Anchorage, says devotion to this myth has foreclosed other perspectives that might serve us better. Besides, he argues, the myth is riddled with contradictions. Alaskans are really very dependent on others: big oil companies, the federal government, Outside investors and developers of every description. We've wrapped ourselves in a cocoon of self-deception. Lately, the land of opportunity and "North to the Future" myth has come under attack.

I give lots of presentations around the state. I talk about small Alaska businesses and what they're doing to diversify the economy by selling goods and services to the international marketplace. I talk about the guy in Juneau who's developed clothing items and acessories out of salmon skin.

I talk about the people who are developing a high-tech machine that grows new bone. The idea came from a Russian doctor who had to get creative because he lacked sophisticated surgical equipment. After I tell these stories (and there are more all the time), somebody stands up and says, "That's all well and good, but nothing's gonna replace oil."

These folks may be right in the short run. But their failure to see the importance of other stirrings in the non-oil economy could become a self-fulfilling prophecy - a new myth, one that obscures more than it illuminates. The implication is that our entrepreneurs are spitting in the wind; paddling upstream without a paddle, without a boat.

Meanwhile, the "nothing's gonna replace oil" credo is propounded more and more in the media and in some corporate board rooms and legislative offices. I've seen it stop conversations, bring the curtain down on speculation and imagination.

Luckily, I keep running into people who are living the Alaska myth - the time honored one in which the individual can make a difference. The other day I met Jean Wall at the World Trade Center's fax machine. Wall is president of Alaska Wilderness Gourmet, a company specializing in wild Alaska berry products such as jams, jellies, syrups and sauces. "Why are you smiling?" I asked.

She replied, "I've just sold my first order to a department store in Tokyo, and I'm faxing them my confirmation." The moment was especially sweet for Wall and her husband Gary. A couple of years ago they invested their life savings in the business, and started out with some family recipes and a bunch of handpicked berries cooked on the stove in their Anchorage home.

I asked her then whether it wasn't the worst time to start a new business. "It's the best time," she answered, exemplifying the Alaska myth. "If we Alaskans don't move into the international market now, the world may pass us by."

Since then, the Walls have moved their business into commercial quarters, bought a proper cooker and a fancy apparatus that fills the jars by the thousand. But it's still very much a family business. Production runs normally feature the Wall children and even Grandma and Grandpa. Wall employs a full-time assistant, and a half-dozen part-timers are on call to help with big orders like the one to Japan.

Much of the berry production comes from small Native villages, where local folks supplement their incomes by picking for Alaska Wilderness Gourmet. One village earned more than $40,000 in a single short season. All those salmonberries and blueberries and lingonberries give a big boost to the local economy. Co-operatives involving pickers from several villages are in the works. And Wall contracts with Native women to make traditional birch bark baskets as fancy packaging for the jam and jelly jars.

In addition, Wall is now buying sourdough starter for a new enterprise in Nome. So-called "at-risk" Native teenagers operate a store under the auspices of a local church group and with assistance from other businesses and the city. Kids who were headed down the slippery slope of alcohol and alienation today, thanks to the Salmon Berry Shop, are greeting customers at the door, writing poetry and reading balance sheets. They're also developing joint ventures with other entrepreneurs like Jean Wall. Some local adults who'd written the kids off are now their amazed clientele.

What do the Japanese think of all this? They seem to be doing backflips over Wall's products. Of course, it took tremendous patience. She has been looking for buyers for two years. There were several bites, but no buyers. All the while, Wall learned from each of the Japanese and modified her products and packaging accordingly.

An important realization was that entrepreneurs can't rely only on their own marketing skills or on the Japanese finding them. With help from the Alaska Governor's Office of International Trade, Wall attended a large trade show last March in Tokyo. She sold her own product. The Japanese buyers, eager to fill their shelves with exotic foreign products, quickly beat a path to Alaska Wilderness Gourmet's booth at the show.

Several months later, the deal was done. The Japanese were particularly impressed with the packaging - all designed and produced in Alaska. And the product had just the right sweetness for the Japanese taste buds. Wall did her homework.

Her experience pointed to some flaws in assumptions commonly associated with Japanese business behavior. First, it didn't take ages to develop close personal relations. The deal progressed with what for the Japanese is lightning speed. Once past this first sale, the Japanese came in numbers to visit her jelly-making plant. After the schmoozing, which Wall credits to her own sales skills and knowledge gained from classes at the Alaska Center for International Business, a long-term relationship is under way with the prospect of long-term sales.

Second, Wall had no trouble negotiating every aspect of the deal by herself with the Japanese buyers. Gender was not a factor, possibly because the Japanese represent a younger generation. Younger Japanese have fewer hangups about women in business.

Wall's story reflects a pure version of the Alaska myth: opportunity, hard work, independence, pursuit of a goal against all odds, transformation. It also reflects a myth that goes deeper into the American past, but one which the Alaska version devalues: love of community, affiliation and harmony with others. Wall is in a sense a hero of Alaska mythology. For as Joseph Campbell has reminded us, the basic motif of the universal hero's journey is leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer or more mature condition.

Do Alaskans need a new myth? No. We need to live more fully and creatively the ones we already have.

Dr. John Kim is executive director of the Alaska Center for International Business and professor in the University of Alaska Anchorage's School of Business.
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Title Annotation:Seize the Opportunity; Alaska Wilderness Gourmet
Author:Kim, John
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Aug 1, 1990
Words:1151
Previous Article:Seeking black gold.
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