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Alaska: a mecca or myth for business women.

How valid is the Last Frontier's reputation as a hot spot for female entrepreneurs? The statistics show one story, and business women across the state tell another.

Money-making myths about Alaska -- even for women -- are thicker than mosquitoes in summer. Newspaper ads promise BIG BUCKS in construction, real estate, fishing. In labor halls, stories spread about the Alaska workers -- including females -- who rake in revenue as bartenders, oilfield workers and business owners.

Adding fuel to the fire, along come red-hot statistics. In its July 1991 issue, American Demographics carried a story called "Women in Business: Where, What, and Why." The article contained a women-business ownership rate list, based on 1987 census data, which divided the number of women-owned firms by the number of adult women in each state.

At the top of the list, with nearly 85 companies for every 1,000 adult women, stood Alaska. A sidebar entitled, "The Best States for Women Entrepreneurs," added, "Women in Alaska are almost three times more likely to own a business than are women in Mississippi."

But with any statistics, there are two sides to the story. On one side, women-owned businesses are booming across the country. According to other statistics:

* From 1980-1989, women-owned sole proprietorships grew 96.3 percent, compared to a 63.6 percent growth rate for all other firms.

* For the same time period, revenues for these women-owned businesses grew 145 percent.

* Women-owned businesses now employ more people than all the Fortune 500 companies combined.

You get a darker picture from the other side of the statistics. In the same American Demographics article, authors William O'Hare and Jan Larson also pointed out:

* Women entrepreneurs fail more often than their male counterparts.

* Employed women earn less than employed men.

* A higher proportion of businesses owned by women are small, with receipts under $5,000.

* The number of women going into business increases each year, but the number of women expanding their business grows at a slower rate.

So the question remains: Is Alaska a great place for women entrepreneurs? Because the state charges no business sales tax, details on male- and female-owned Alaska businesses are scarce. Other than wage differences reported by the Alaska Department of Labor, few statistics show the real story of the state's women entrepreneurs.

Facts and figures aside, women across Alaska know what it's like to build a business in this frozen frontier. Ask any of them about Alaska's money-making myths, and what will you discover? Read on.

"Is Alaska a good place for women entrepreneurs?"

"I think so," says Roxanna Horschel, owner of Anchorage-based ACME Fence Co. Inc. "Alaska is still young in the business world. There's a lot of opportunities for many people, including women."

In 1978, when her father started a fence company, Horschel offered to help him out. At the time, "there was a demand for more professional and service-oriented companies," she says. "All at once, I found myself really involved."

Today, between selling fences and playground equipment, ACME Fence Co. brings in $2 million a year and employs 25 people in the peak summer season.

"Alaska seems to draw very independent-type people," Horschel adds. "To start a business, you have to be pretty independent because you have to rely on yourself so much."

Out in Bethel, Diane Carpenter says, "I think the kind of women who are up here are more independent and enjoy challenges more."

Back in 1955, Carpenter and her husband Bob, a dentist, came to Alaska with the U.S. Public Health Service. "Seeking adventure," the couple homesteaded in Bethel and Bob toured regional villages, providing dental work. Diane, after retiring from teaching at the local University of Alaska campus, organized a series of career development programs for village high school students.

Renting out sleeping space in three empty buildings on their property created the Carpenter's second business, Pacifica Guest House, which opened in February 1989. The inn now employs 20 people and stays open year-round. "Women are accepted more as individuals up here. In Bethel, I felt a big difference in the way I have been dealt with as an entrepreneur," says Carpenter.

"Even though Alaska is described as being 'behind the Lower 48,' there is an advantage to its frontier quality," adds Stella Callentine, a Ketchikan-based charter business owner. "If a job needs to be done, available resources are used, including people that can do the job. If those people happen to be women, it's fine as long as they possess the skills or resources needed."

In 1979, Callentine and her husband took summers off from their counseling business to fish commercially. When they moved to Alaska full time a few years later, Stella alternated work as a psychologist with starting a charter business, Mountain Point Charter and Boat Rental.

"Women with courage and ingenuity may, in some cases, have more opportunity to initiate and compete with service businesses up here than they might in other parts of the country," she says.

"What kind of advantages does Alaska have for women entrepreneurs?"

Despite the independent streak in Alaska women, "we are such a family, we've got such a network here," says Jan Fredericks, director of the University of Alaska Anchorage's Small Business Development Center. "Because these networks are so strong and the community is so small, it would be difficult to turn down a business because it was owned by a woman."

Boots Adams, owner of The Trading Post in downtown Ketchikan, echoes those words. "It doesn't matter if you're a woman or a man. If you do right in these small Alaska towns, word will get around town, and that will promote you," she says.

Adams and her husband started The Trading Post, a small gift store, in 1967. Over the years, the couple built the shop into a treasure-trove that houses everything from a museum to diamonds. Today, in addition to pulling in thousands of customers each year, the business employs 20 people in its peak summer season.

Along with the tight networks, some women feel Alaska's lack of competition has advantages. When Tennys Owens and a partner started Artique Ltd. in Anchorage back in 1971, "We were the first gallery to represent artists as a regular, professional gallery. Our success from the beginning was because the gallery was something the Anchorage public was interested in," she says.

From its fledgling foundation, the gallery today employs 14 people and also operates a publishing company, a wholesale art distributing company, and an airport gift store.

Lack of competition especially helps businesses in the Bush, says Diane Carpenter. In Bethel, "It's not so easy to drive 10 to 15 miles down the road and find something cheaper. It makes it easier to get a business started," she says.

"What kind of challenges does Alaska have for women entrepreneurs?"

Business challenges follow two trends for Alaska's female entrepreneurs: One set of obstacles can hit anyone, male or female, who goes into business; the other set of challenges seems to confront women entrepreneurs more than men.

Marketing is a major challenge for all businesses. According to Sheryl Bailey of Abram Abraham Productions & Management in Anchorage, "Without marketing, you can't get your volume sales and you can't make it (your business) profitable. Banks want you to have a track record."

Five years ago, with help from her sisters, Linda Pennywell and Brenda McBeth, Bailey started publishing an annual Alaska resource guide titled "African Americans in Alaska." The 40-page booklet includes a calendar of community activities, a list of community service organizations and a directory of local businesses. With a little national advertising, the small company distributes the guides locally, with an eye on statewide circulation by 1994 and nationwide distribution in the future.

Marketing, says Bailey, brings community recognition, which helps establish your enterprise as "a thriving, legitimate business, not just a hobby." Without that recognition, growing your business "is really hard work," Bailey says, "and I don't know if it's harder for women."

As a woman in construction, Roxanna Horschel at ACME Fence Co. says, "I found it difficult for many people to take me seriously. I'm often tested and expected to prove myself. That's OK with me. Anyone should be able to prove themselves in their field anyway."

Tennys Owens at Artique Ltd. adds, "The challenge for women entrepreneurs is to run the business in a manner which is respectable and honest. But I don't tend to think in terms of men and women, but in terms of good or not good business people."

Another common entrepreneurial problem -- lack of business experience -- became the hurdle to cross for Jane Atkinson, sole proprietor of Alaska Green Goods, a retail store of recyclable products in Fairbanks. "I think my work with nonprofit organizations and doing things on a shoestring basis was very beneficial to me," she says. "I see other people pumping so much money into things."

Overcoming fear became one of the greatest challenges for Ann Goessel, owner of Beads and Things, a Fairbanks Native gift store specializing in beaded items. An Athabascan born and raised in Stevens Village, Goessel began making beaded craft work at an early age. She started selling her work at local fairs in 1970, opened her Fairbanks gift store by July 1987, and in 1992, succeeded in placing a piece of her artwork in the prestigious Smithsonian Christmas catalog.

Every step of the way, "I was scared to death that I wasn't going to make it," Goessel says. "I'd ask myself, 'Can I do it? Can I manage by myself?' Now I've done it, and I've done it again, and yet I'm always afraid."

Other Alaska business women encountered challenges they believe are unique to females. At The Trading Post in Ketchikan, Boots Adams discovered, "Males don't even realize they're looking down on women. I didn't know it until my husband died. Then I knew what women were facing."

Gearing up The Teaching Store in Anchorage gave Jane Niebergall a unique perspective about "the good old boy network." While teaching school with her husband on an island near Aniak, Niebergall started an Alaska educational catalog. As the catalog expanded, she realized that the business could grow even further with a base in Anchorage. In the fall of 1992, she opened The Teaching Store on Northern Lights in Anchorage, filling it full of materials -- including Alaska-made products -- for school teachers.

Looking for bankers and other experts to support her business, Niebergall says, "You can't just drop into the good old boy club ... You have to scope out the men and determine how to deal with men. If you don't have money or demeanor or skills of the good old boys, you really have to work at it."

"What advice would you give other women interested in starting their own businesses in Alaska?"

Take risks: "Don't be afraid to do something new or be afraid of doing things wrong," advises Diane Carpenter. "I would rather do something challenging and make a mistake than have to do the same thing over and over."

Organize: "First, have an idea," says Tennys Owens. "Then learn something about business basics ... maintain high standards ... be adaptable to change ... treat your employees with courtesy and kindness ... and strive for a balance between your business and personal life."

Be honest and have a good attitude: "Be honest. Especially in Alaska, it will get around," says Boots Adams. "And it's your attitude ... greet everyone with a smile. Never worry about competition."

Work hard: "I would tell my best friend to think about it hard before going into business ... If you just want to work for yourself because you think it will be easier, don't do it. You're going to have to work twice as hard," says Roxanna Horschel.

Market: "Get community commitment and support behind you first. It will make things run smoother," counsels Sheryl Bailey. "Then advertise."

Network: "Get acquainted with people in the community who can provide information and referral assistance," says Stella Callentine. "Joining business organizations like chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, American Business Women's Association, etc., provides good contacts, opportunities for networking and moral support."

Keep at it: "Someone told me once I had the determination of a bulldog that had got ahold of someone's sleeve, and the harder that person tried to shake loose, the stronger I would hold on," adds Horschel. "For anyone starting a business, that's what it takes: a real determination to see the business succeed."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Woodring, Jeannie
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Aug 1, 1993
Words:2071
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