MacroAdventure is a nine-month expedition from Alaska to Argentina – raising awareness of businesses making both a profit and a difference. Today, co-founder, Jo shares her lessons learned from the next generation of Alaskan social entrepreneurs.
Anchorage couldn’t feel further from London. Glance down a downtown road and you’re met by snow-tipped mountains on one side, and the shimmering ocean of the Cook Inlet on the other. Even on the warmest days, the wind stays cool – a gentle reminder of the glaciers nearby.
The pace of life here is much less frenetic than the 24 hour throb of London. People walk at a leisurely pace, and stocky SUVs cruise slowly along the city’s roads.
Perhaps the greatest difference is the endless sunlight. In the early hours of the morning, the sun dips below the horizon, leaving a few hours of dusky sky before it rises again. Having so much light makes the days feel long and winding. It feels like there is much less of a need to hurry when there is such an abundance of daylight in which to get things done.
It is ironic that this wild place, which looks and feels and smells so different to home, has taught us so much about how little really divides us.
The more entrepreneurs we interviewed over the last fortnight, the more we realised that people’s motivations for building a purpose-driven organisation tend to be very similar the world over. Giving back to a country they love, identifying a problem they know they can fix, leaving a legacy for their children. There is far more that unites us than divides us.
What has struck us most of all is the very personal investment each entrepreneur has in their organisation’s mission
We’re two weeks into our time here in Alaska – the first fortnight of a nine-month venture, MacroAdventure, that my partner Dom and I embarked on in mid-June. Our journey will take us along the Pan-American Highway from Alaska to Argentina. We have a mission to heighten public awareness of business as a force for good, profiling entrepreneurs across the Americas who are using their organisations to make a positive impact.
In many ways, Alaska is ideally suited for an explosion of what is known as social entrepreneurship – the use of business to meet both profit and purpose-driven targets.
Alaska’s years of benefitting from rich oil reserves are dwindling and the race is on to find ways in which the economy can diversify. Alaska’s remote location presents a whole host of challenges – such as how, in the face of very long winters, to secure a year-round supply of locally-produced fresh produce to reduce reliance on imports. Alaska’s entrepreneurs have seen these challenges as a call to action.
We spent time last week with Stephen Trimble, Founder and CEO of Arctic Solar Ventures, the only solar project development company in Alaska. He’s committed to building a company where social responsibility is integral and has spearheaded his company’s certification as a B.Corp. This certification process recognises for-profit companies who have met rigorous social and environmental, accountability, and transparency criteria. Arctic Solar Ventures is only the second company in the state to do so.
We asked Stephen why he chose to subject himself and his colleagues to the rigorous B.Corp selection process and his answer was this – he wanted his company to be held to the highest possible standard. It is this relentless pursuit of excellence which sets entrepreneurs like Stephen apart.
We encountered a similarly passionate and determined entrepreneur when we met with Jason Smith from Alaska Natural Organics. A keen chef, Jason’s frustration at not being able to buy good locally-grown fresh produce compelled him to explore hydroponics. Being able to successfully grow produce hydroponically would be a game-changer for Alaska, as plants can be grown in warehouses under artificial light and yields are therefore not weather-dependent.
As Jason and, his business partner, Bob showed us around their growing space, what really struck us was their very personal connection to what they were doing. Their decision to build the business was directly linked to their personal desire to be able to feed their families better food.
Alaska is ideally suited for an explosion of what is known as social entrepreneurship – the use of business to meet both profit and purpose-driven targets.
The importance of a personal connection to one’s work was again apparent when we spent time with Bill and Sasha Tsurnos of Chanlyut. This residential work programme helps non-violent ex-convicts to make meaningful changes in their lives. Programme Director Bill, who is himself an ex-convict and graduate of the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, believes the programme’s peer-to-peer model empowers men and enables them to discover a renewed sense of purpose.
The importance of peer support is also powerfully evident at Launch Alaska, the first cohort-based business accelerator in the state. We spent time with Lance Ahern, Managing Director of Launch Alaska. Ahern stressed the challenge of talent retention for young businesses in Alaska, and the crucial role which accelerators can play in getting young businesses investment ready.
We’ve been surprised by what we have found in Anchorage – the city has a small but flourishing start-up community, and a growing support network of mentors seeking to help young businesses to grow. Shortly we’ll be heading south to the next stop on our route, Vancouver, but we could easily have spent nine months exploring the entrepreneurial community in Alaska alone.
What has struck us most of all is the very personal investment each entrepreneur has in their organisation’s mission. The stories of the businesses we’ve explored in Alaska are rooted in the human stories of their founders. Whether in Alaska, London or Argentina, human motivations remain largely the same. At a time when politics in the UK is dominated by rhetoric about the issues which divide us, the last fortnight in this wild country has been a powerful reminder that what we share is much more powerful than what may separate us.
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