By: Stefanie Owens, Mine Fellow Cohort 1
Editors Note: The Mine supported Stefanie in attending Startup Weekend Anchorage with the goal of pitching her fellow project, One Giant Leap. Last minute rules prevented Stefanie from pitching the project (you could not pitch something that had previously received funding). Nonetheless, Stefanie’s Fellowship experience allowed her to greatly contribute to the weekend, where her Startup Weekend team won the “Non-Profit Award.” This fall, Stefanie is attending Carnegie Mellon to pursue her Masters of Integrated Innovation for Products & Services. While we hope she’ll make it back to Tulsa one day, there is no doubt that Stefanie’s possibilities of pursuing her dream to develop socially innovative products are endless!
I was one lucky ducky a few weekends ago to be able to use my Mine Fellowship travel funds to attend a Startup Weekend in Anchorage, Alaska. A good friend who lives there now has been trying to convince me that I can make all of my entrepreneurial dreams come true in the nascent waters of Alaska’s entrepreneurial scene with my ideas, so I dared to test it out and see if I could picture myself there. There are much fewer fish in the pond up in Alaska, with only 730,000 people in the entire state (i.e. only about half of the Tulsa metro area population, spread out over twice the size of Texas geographically). As you can imagine, this brings variable advantages and disadvantages to starting a business in such a remote, sparsely-populated location. There is no income tax, no sales tax, and the state actually pays a fee to citizens in order to entice people to live there and to make up for the higher cost of living — not exactly the lush economic ecosystem from which you’d expect entrepreneurialism to sprout.
All of these factors intrigued me to attend Startup Weekend and meet as many people as I could who could teach me more about this foreign business landscape. Through one weekend and the project that I worked on, I shook hands and exchanged multiple conversations with most of the major angel investors in Alaska as well as all three founders of the Alaska Accelerator Fund. These men taught me a great deal about the environment we were dealing with as I crafted a plan with my team to create a non-profit company focused on producing diverse economic development in Alaska (and away from the state’s current primary focus on resource extraction).
With the entrepreneurship scene in Alaska being so relatively young, there are simply not the resources or educational tools in place yet to foster an infrastructure of support to nourish these companies and people to grow. Our company, tentatively called “Founder’s Gumption,” aims to better prepare and vet entrepreneurial ideas at an early concept-testing stage in order to ready Alaskan entrepreneurs to pitch for their first round of funding. Using federal money (or perhaps private equity) to set up a company fund, we will give $5000 grants for entrepreneurs to use over the course of 5 weeks in order to reach 5 goals that should better prepare them to talk to investors:
1 – identify management talent and technique
2 – understand target market & competition
3 – connect with resources in the community
4 – prove their idea is sustainable & profitable
5 – complete their business plan & pitch
Through the program, our team will establish peer relationships with these entrepreneurs and be able to recommend their drive and passion to our investor network, and most importantly, can help young entrepreneurs be agile and change directions with quicker iterations that allow their ideas to succeed or fail faster. The coolest part about our project was talking to a variety of angel investors in the area who all agreed “we need something like this!” Pitching entrepreneurialism to entrepreneurs was obviously an easy sell, but it was rewarding to know that we laid groundwork for such a program to be set up, and planted seeds for change in the Alaskan community. Our company won the “Non-Profit Award” for the weekend, which was also an honor coming from judges like University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor Ed Hess (from Grow to Greatness fame, one of the most popular courses of all time on Coursera) as well and Denae Ringelmann, founder of Indiegogo.
Okay, so now comes the kicker (and I’m seriously not kidding). In general I have a problem with tooting my own horn, but I couldn’t help but notice that I was by far one of the most comfortable and experienced “entrepreneurs” at Startup Weekend, as well as the best presenter. To tell you the truth, I just used all of the approaches that The Mine taught me. This formulaic approach (plus a lack of “ums” in my 5 minute pitch) caught the attention of everyone at the event, and definitely helped my team have the cleanest, most put-together presentation of the whole bunch. It made me proud to be from Tulsa where I received such a good education, and gave me plenty of opportunity to tout The Mine Fellowship and encourage Alaskans to check out this really cool program straight out of Oklahoma.
It’s hard to say now whether or not I will end up back in Alaska after graduate school, but it’s a good feeling to have the beginnings of my own people network there. With the Anchorage startup scene being so young, there’s huge potential for impact and change through the entrepreneurs who are brave enough to try it. We’ll see where it ends up, however I am pretty happy to know that the toolkit I have in my pocket from my time at The Mine is one that is foolproof, and will definitely come in handy as I enter grad school later this month.