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Running a business

Emma Privat and Claire Neaton are sharing the natural bounty of Alaska

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating the stories of the amazing women in small business that are conquering male-dominated industries and working to #breakthebias.

Name: Emma Privat and Claire Neaton

Location: Homer, AK

Business: Salmon Sisters 

What does your business do/offer?

Salmon Sisters celebrates coastal heritage, wild places, ocean stewardship and Alaska seafood through quality products and design. We use our business as a platform to tell stories of Alaska’s sustainable fishing industry and the fishermen who harvest wild food from the sea. In our retail shops and webshop, our offerings include outdoor gear and fishing lifestyle apparel, sustainably harvested frozen, smoked and tinned wild fish, and Alaska-made goods. 

Why did you decide to start your own business? How did you get started? 

We started Salmon Sisters as we were graduating college. After realizing how hard it was to find jobs that let us disappear for months at a time to go fishing with our family in Alaska, we decided to commit to building our own business that could be flexible around the fishing seasons. 

We grew up working on boats, and our summer fishing jobs were how we paid our way through college and saved money to start Salmon Sisters. Emma studied art and design in school, and Claire business, so we put our complimentary skills together and began making apparel for the women in our fishing community. From there, we built a website, and local shops started carrying our designs. Eventually we built our first small shop in Homer, Alaska in a converted shipping container, and have since grown into a larger retail presence that offers seafood, gear and local goods. 

What is the biggest lesson you learned in the first year? 

We learned how important mentorship is. Small business owners in our community took time to share their knowledge with us, and showed us how to set up important systems that we still use today. Looking back, it was gracious of them to take a chance on us, and it inspires us to slow down and help share what we’ve learned with others starting out on their own business pursuits. 

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a business owner? 

How important caring for your customers is, listening to them, learning from them, and creating long-term relationships together. We’ve learned so much from our community over the years.

What is an aspect of running a business that you needed to learn more about when you started? How did you learn about it?

Emma felt like she needed a better foundation in design for the branding and product development she wanted to do for Salmon Sisters, and went back to grad school at the University of Washington for several years after undergrad. Claire needed to learn more about bookkeeping and organizational structure. We found the expert help we needed with accounting and used mentors in our local community to start configuring the organizational structure of our business.

How does running your own business make you feel?

Proud of how far we’ve come and overwhelmed by how far we still want to go. Limitless possibility but limited time. Busy, excited, tired, inspired, fulfilled. It makes us feel like life-long learners where everything is a resource and a tool. It makes us appreciate our team’s hard work to help us realize our company’s vision and values every day. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome as a business owner? 

Finding the sweet spot between growth and sustainability, control and delegation, saying yes and saying no. 

What are your proudest moments? 

We donate a portion of our sales through our Give Fish Project to feed our community wild seafood harvested by Alaskan fishermen. We give fish to the Food Bank of Alaska, which is distributed around the state and helps fill plates for hungry Alaskans. To date, we have been able to donate over 300,000 servings of healthy wild fish. 

Other highlights were being named Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, publishing our first cookbook, and seeing our gear on Alaskans every day!

What are the next big plans you have for your business?

Last year we invested in a warehouse and fish processing facility in our hometown, and are working hard to convert the building into Salmon Sisters headquarters. Our long-term goal is to have a small-scale seafood processing operation and fish market, with retail store, community, and team space. We are also working on our second cookbook and developing more delicious value-added wild seafood products. 

What are three things that you feel have contributed to your success as a business owner? 

Determination, positivity, and growing up in an entrepreneurial family. The riskiness of doing our own thing and starting our own business never defeated us, because we’ve always been surrounded by independent small business owners—our parents included. Our family and community has always supported us, and being able to work together as sisters and partners has given us double the grit for getting through challenges and hard times. Growing up fishing together taught us that with determination and positivity, most hard things can be overcome. It’s how we’ve always operated and can owe much of our success to. 

What challenges do you feel are unique to female small business owners? 

It can be harder for women to value their work and time, and to feel like their work and time is valued by others. Many female founders are paving the way and may not have role models, mentorship, or examples to follow. It can be so difficult to set a price for what is fair—especially when you’re starting out, especially for women—to convince others that their work is a business and not a “hobby” or a “project.” It can be harder for women to strategize growth and find funding without female mentors or investors in their field. 

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There is an understanding in Alaska’s fisheries that women are just as capable, quick, and skilled as men are on deck—[and that’s] thanks to the tough ladies who paved the way and set an example for younger generations.

What is it like working in an industry that some might see as traditionally male-dominated? Have you come up against any bias? 

There are many women involved in Alaska’s fisheries, though the industry is traditionally male-dominated. Some of these women have been our biggest role models over the years and many of the female peers we grew up with are captains of their own boats and have all-women crews. It seems that more and more young women are fishing with their families, whether they’re working during summers off from school, or starting a life working with their partners. 

In general, there is an understanding in Alaska’s fisheries that women are just as capable, quick, and skilled as men are on deck—thanks to the tough ladies who paved the way and set an example for younger generations. As women working on the water, however, we are always rooting for each other out of admiration and commiseration for the experience we share. This is one of the most rewarding parts of our business—offering a community platform to share fishing stories and celebrate our fellow salmon sisters. 

Is there anything you want other women to know about working in your industry?

If you want to try fishing, find the right boat, captain, and crew. Get referrals from other women in the industry, find a mentor to answer questions, and do your research to know what kind of world you’re stepping into. Fishing can be intense and challenging work, both physically and mentally, but on the right boat and with the right people, it’s rewarding and fun. 

There are also many opportunities in the fishing industry off the water that are a good place to get to know the industry. Marine trades, marine biology, resource management, and seafood processing are all sectors that give a glimpse at the ecosystem of our industry.

What advice would you give to other women starting their own business? 

Take advantage of the resources available for starting small businesses in your local community. Take the time to write a business plan. Get help immediately with book keeping and financials so you know your numbers and can make adjustments when something isn’t working. Build systems so you can grow your team and teach people why you do it the way you do it. 

When you’re having a tough day, who or what inspires you to keep going? 

Remembering that we’re creating something resilient and beautiful that serves our community. Whenever there is friction, we are learning and growing stronger. Whenever things feel heavy, we have still built a life that lets us go outside, be by the ocean, see the mountains, and feel connected to the seasons, our family and community, and the wild places around us. 

How can female business owners support one another and their community? 

Cheer each other on! In our industry we like to say “A rising tide floats all boats.” Little things can make someone’s day—an encouraging text, a random email, a card in the mail. Support another female’s business with your dollars or spread the word to your community. When you see another female business owner hustling and creating beauty in the world, let them know that you see it. Running a business is so hard, but feeling supported by your community makes it all worth it.

To learn more about Salmon Sisters and support their business, visit their website or check out their adventures on Instagram.

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