Shannon Kashevarof put off starting her own business for years. And it took a series of life-changing events to finally give her the push she needed to open Butterfly Boutique, a unique maternity clothing and accessory shop, in Anchorage.
Raised in Galena, Kashevarof and her husband lost their home, which they had rented out since moving to Anchorage, in last year's devastating flood. Soon after that, her father passed away. And so launched her path to live life to the fullest and finally open her own business, a venture she had been mulling over for some time.
Kashevarof's connections in the state run deep, with friends and family scattered throughout the North, and she solicited help when deciding what exactly she would carry in her small store.
Going through two pregnancies of her own, Kashevarof knew there was a real lack of fairly-priced, high-quality, functional clothing for pregnant women. So she pored over catalogs and websites for months prior to her November opening. Business has been good, she said, especially around the holidays.
"At first I was really scared, but I'm just happy that I tried it," she said.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses represent 96.5 percent of all employers and employ 53.1 percent of the private-sector labor force. In 2010 there nearly 70,000 small businesses -- defined as a business with less than 500 employees -- in the state, with around three-quarters of those being nonemployment businesses, or businesses that have no additional employees.
And while her venture might not exactly be profitable yet, Kashevarof is optimistic the store and idea behind it will catch on. She acknowledged this is the age of the Internet, and that it's easy to click away and order clothes online, but she's hoping that most women in the market for maternity or nursing-friendly clothes will want to get the small-town, costumer-service-oriented experience at her shop.
Working in her aunt's store in Galena helped Kashevarof understand the value of good customer service. Being kind and helpful goes a long way, she said.
The boutique offers quality clothes, many made with soft, organic cotton, for women who are anywhere in their pregnancy, and even some unique clothes and jewelry for women who are not expecting.
Her mantra is that most women who are pregnant are already most likely not feeling great, so why add insult to injury with a frumpy frock?
"You already feel down enough, and so you don't want ugly uncomfortable clothes on top of that," she said. "During both pregnancies, I struggled to find clothes that were attractive and comfortable. There's just not a lot out there."
Sure, expectant mothers can go to one of the big box retailers and buy cheap outfits, but most women want fabrics that feel good, not itchy or scratchy.
So when it comes to selecting what she'll sell, Kashevarof is very, very choosy.
"I look at functionality, price, quality, and I've selected a few (items) that someone can wear whether they're pregnant or not," she said. "Your skin can get sensitive when you're pregnant, so the pieces here are very soft."
Most of the clothes and accessories she sells are made in the U.S., and she leans toward organic fabrics. She can also special order items and ship to the Bush.
While there are plenty of funding opportunities for rural Alaskans and Alaska Native entrepreneurs, Kashevarof instead decided to fund the venture herself, with her husband, but with a background in grant writing, she said she's open to applying for funds down the road if necessary.
"If the business continues to show promise after a year and we need some additional capital, I can request it."
According to the Small Business Administration, self-employment in Alaska has greatly improved over the last decade and female self-employment fared the best compared with other demographic groups.
But even with quality products, a niche market and a solid business plan, she knows her undertaking a gamble.
"I know it takes a while to get established, but if I didn't do it, I would have always wondered."
Find Butterfly Boutique at akbutterflyboutique.com
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.