Sealaska Shareholder Honored as Top 40 Under 40
Thursday, February 27, 2020
Alana Peterson learned the value of hard work at a very early age. When she was just 10 years old, she worked alongside her father, who was an artist, selling hand-painted wood trinkets to tourists.
Throughout her life, Peterson has grabbed every opportunity to work, to help others fulfill their dreams, and to improve the local economy. Her resume includes several unique experiences that has brought her all the way from the southern coast of Peru, to the Eastern Seaboard of the Lower 48, and now back in her hometown of Sitka, Alaska.
At the moment, she has what could reasonably be considered three full-time jobs: owner of Sitka’s iconic Backdoor Café; owner of the Fisheye Organic Café, also in Sitka; and executive director of Spruce Root, a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution supporting economic development in Southeast Alaska through loan capital and support services to existing business owners and prospective entrepreneurs.
Her drive, unique skill set, and willingness to share her expertise with others recently won her recognition as one of Alaska’s “Top 40 Under 40” by the Alaska Journal of Commerce.
Peterson has always had an innate impulse to achieve. Beginning at 10 years old she had a paper route, delivering the Daily Sitka Sentinel every day after school with her brother, and the two reveled in making a game out of how quickly they could complete their route and get home to watch TV. “I was always driven to make a dollar,” she laughed. During high school she spent four years working at Subway, which she credits with teaching her a lot about responsibility and motivation that she still uses today.
“I was working and doing sports and trying to get good grades and I think a lot of people, my teachers, were telling my parents, ‘You shouldn’t put so much pressure on her,’ but it wasn’t them, it was me,” she said. “I knew if I wanted certain things, I had to work for them.”
Peterson earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Charleston Southern University in Charleston, South Carolina. Immediately upon graduating, she signed up with the Peace Corps and was sent to Peru, where she served as a small business development volunteer for two years.
In 2011, she moved back to Alaska to accept a job with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska in a similar business development capacity, but quickly grew frustrated that despite the relative riches of the United States compared to Peru, it was just as hard or harder to create meaningful change in local economies. She decided to leave the workforce to get her master’s degree in business. She saw it as a ticket up the professional ladder and hopefully a path to a more impactful role.
It was during her master’s degree program at Northern Arizona University that she discovered and honed her aptitude for team building, working diligently with cohort members to draw out their strengths and get things done. She moved back to Sitka after the program and went to work for Sealaska subsidiary Haa Aaní, LLC. At the time, Haa Aaní was getting Spruce Root off the ground and building a network of collaboration and connection throughout the Southeast region to support sustainable economic development.
When she started working at Haa Aaní/Spruce Root in 2013, one of her main responsibilities was as program director for Sustainable Southeast Partnership, which is a network of organizations working to build food security, energy independence, local input in fisheries and land management, and local business development.
It might be easy to look at her resume and think Peterson was single-mindedly driving toward her current role from the time she was born: her early work experiences, her education, her Peace Corps role, even her tutoring jobs in college, all contribute to her ability to provide business development expertise to residents of Southeast and to run her two businesses.
But she said the main thing she would want young people contemplating their futures to know is that you don’t have to have it all figured out when you’re young. “You don’t have to know what you want to do. … You should spend all of your earlier years, your late teens, your 20s, just trying stuff out. You’ll figure out what you like by experimenting.
“So many people go down these paths without really knowing themselves. Doing internships and working gave me more knowledge and experience about who I am and what I like. Every experience is worthy, even jobs you hate — if you hate something, that’s valuable information.”
How she manages everything she’s got going on — she’s also the mother of two girls, ages four and eight, and is expecting a son in the next few weeks — is, under the circumstances, not just a hackneyed working-mom question. She’s quick to point out that she doesn’t actually “do it all.”
“I have a really good team of people at each place,” she said. “I love entrepreneurship because I love working with other people and building teams.”
The time she spends on her entrepreneurial ventures is mostly dedicated to hiring and team building. “More different, less same,” is a principle that guides her hiring. “When people are too similar, that’s where conflict arises,” she said. “A lot of what I focus on is the individual. Does that person’s skills and abilities fit with what we need on the team? I want them to fit in well but I don’t want it all the same.”
She’s also deeply committed to the community of other business owners, particularly women, in Sitka and throughout Southeast. She met her business partner in Fisheye Café, Caitlin Way, through Spruce Root. Way refinanced a loan and received business counseling through Spruce Root, and the two connected over their shared interest in entrepreneurship and a commitment to improving the local community. Peterson said they both knew they wanted to do something together at some point in the future, and jumped at the chance to work together when Peterson decided to buy and re-envision the former North Sister Café in 2018.
Peterson is also a board member of the Sitka Sound Science Center and a member of the Outer Coast College board of trustees. Peterson is Tlingit/Raven of the Luknahadi (Coho) clan and describes herself as “a product of Sealaska for sure.” She received Sealaska scholarships for her higher education and did internships during college with Sealaska Corporation in Juneau and Sealaska Timber Corporation in Bellevue, Washington.
She’s optimistic about the future of Southeast Alaska. “We have all sorts of struggles, like any place. The state’s not doing great and that affects our region. But there’s so much opportunity here. Everything we need is here: we have water, we have access to food, we have land. There’s plenty of growth opportunity.”
Peterson said she thinks the combination of the abundance of resources, a changing climate and the beauty of Southeast will drive growth and make it increasingly desirable to new residents.
“That’s why I really believe in what I’m doing at Spruce Root. We need to maintain the culture and character of Southeast Alaska, and create and maintain local control so it doesn’t turn into another concrete jungle. … It’s expensive to live here but there’s so much opportunity for entrepreneurship.”