Given the ecological and cultural nature of Southeast Alaska, a strong, sustainable economy must include businesses created by its people and grown from the ground up rather than the more typical, trickle down, industrial approach.

Spruce Root, a Juneau-based nonprofit promoting self-reliance, helps Indigenous and other residents of the region transform their ideas into sustainable, profitable businesses through mentoring, coaching, technical support, funding and other supportive services.

A lot of meaning is packed into the organization’s name.

“The spruce root has been used historically by Indigenous people here for creating tools, art, solutions for harvesting goods, solutions for our everyday way of living,” said Executive Director Alana Peterson of Sitka.

“The ways the spruce root has been used over the centuries is really what Spruce Root, the organization, is trying to do. We’re trying to unleash the innovation that exists in our communities.”

The Tree People, a story passed along through the ages, sums up the Spruce Root mission.

“Basically, the lesson is, we all have to work together to hold one another up, to hold up this place. And we do that through our roots. Without one another, none of us would survive.” 

With an idea centered on bull kelp and food-resource sustainability, Matt Kern of Juneau applied to Spruce Root’s Pathway to Prosperity program, and was selected to attend its new-business Boot Camp. 

“That was a really transformative event, to take a step back and put together a comprehensive and thorough business plan,” he said.

He and two partners launched Barnacle Foods six years ago, and today the company supplies 150 stores around Alaska with salsas, hot sauces, pickles and seasonings made of bull kelp and other local ingredients.

“It’s been quite a wild ride,” Kern said. “Every day brings a new, diverse array of challenges, hurdles and rewards.”

Jack Finnegan of Ketchikan is a charter boat captain who’s also worked for years with people with disabilities. Due to the pandemic, he had a lot of free time to contemplate his future and starting thinking about how he could merge the two. If he could get a universally accessible vessel, he could get people out on the water for fishing, sightseeing, wildlife viewing, transportation and other activities. 

“The three-day (Boot Camp) was pretty intense but extremely helpful in making the plunge into the world of business building,” he said. “They are so generous with their information, knowledge and connections.”

He plans to launch Fishability in 2024.

“From a business standpoint, I see a real market opportunity, and from a community standpoint, I see real service opportunity. I feel pretty encouraged that I’m addressing a genuine need.”