At the 2021 UAA Business Plan Competition, Outdoor Studies major Kiana Till won $7,250 with the help of her business partners. Not bad for a senior project.
Kiana’s prize-winning concept is an Indigenous-rooted ecotourism company located in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The idea stems from Kiana and her partners’ lifelong connection to the region (also involved in the business plan are Karen Evanoff, an APU graduate and cultural anthropologist at Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, and Danielle Stickman, an artist, organizer, and yoga instructor).
For Kiana, Dena’ina family fishcamp along the Newhalen River has been part of her life since she was a child. She also worked as a fisheries intern for the Lake Clark National Park Service in 2018. “It was the first time I realized I really wanted to live out there,” she said.
In 2019, while guiding for a private company, she noted most Lake Clark visitors experience a heavy emphasis on Western history. She sought to change that, both in her tours and in her business idea. “I realized how many stories and experiences I have from sharing a life with Indigenous people,” she said. Incorporating Athabaskan core values and stories improved the experience for both her and her guests.
APU business courses helped Kiana shape her vision, and her company advanced to the finals of the UAA competition based off her business plan. Formerly called Telaquana Outdoor, the business is now called Qizhjeh Vena, meaning ‘a place where people gathered’ and ‘lake’ in the Dena’ina Athabaskan language.
On March 26, Kiana, Karen, and Danielle presented their concept to a panel of judges and more than 80 attendees over Zoom. Not only did they win the overall competition, they also tied for People’s Choice and earned an additional $500 from a private judge.
Qizhjeh Vena will offer guided experiences around Lake Clark to expose visitors to ancestral lands and modern Dena’ina people. Guests will be shuttled by skiff from Port Alsworth to a base camp at the mouth of Chulitna River. There, they’ll enjoy hiking, kayaking, backpacking, local food, and a chance to absorb the land, said Kiana.
Clearly, this is more than a class assignment. It’s also an opportunity to bring more Indigenous knowledge to national park visitors and to provide sustainable jobs in a region that needs them. Emboldened by her big win at UAA, Kiana is now applying for business competitions outside Alaska. She’ll spend her summer strengthening connections in Lake Clark communities and start creating a space for base camp facilities.
But first, she has to graduate. Kiana will earn a bachelor’s degree in Outdoor Studies this May. Transferring to APU, she said, “was the best decision I ever made.”
Click here to read more about the 2021 Business Plan Competition sponsored by the UAA College of Business and Public Policy