My Course Correction Blazing a Trail

Blazing a Trail

Alaska native Carol Howarth, โ€™88, came back home to help startups take off.

When Carol Howarth, ’88, was growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, there was only one industry to speak of. “It was a resource extraction state,” she said. “Everything was about Prudhoe Bay and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. We had world-class construction, but it was all related to oil.” As a child Howarth felt limited by the jobs she saw around her. “I literally thought I could be a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher,” she said.

Decades later, as a founding manager of the 49th Fund, Howarth is doing her part to change that. Her fund invests exclusively in companies doing business in the last frontier. Her hope is to help diversify the economy before the inevitable day when oil will crash. “We have our drug, and our drug is oil revenue. No one will do anything about it until we hit rock bottom,” she said. “It’s time to stop waiting.”

Howarth loved growing up in Alaska because of the proximity to wilderness. “Every weekend we’d load up the car and go skiing or hiking or exploring for fossils,” she said. “We’d walk to school in the dark, where in my peripheral vision I was always on the lookout for moose. It was just normal to me.” But despite that love, she hadn’t always intended to return to her home state. Of the options she felt she had available as a teen, she chose law, heading out of state to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, to study economics and art history in preparation for a law degree.

After college, however, she decided against the law, following her interests in manufacturing instead.

She switched gears, heading to Chicago Booth on a scholarship in the hopes of digging deeper into the field. “Most people were going into investment banking, but I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world to help make things,” she said. An internship at Frito-Lay headquarters in Texas, however, cemented her interest in the field. After graduation, she worked for the Dayton, Ohio-based Mead Corporation and a German technology company in Atlanta and Germany before coming back to the States to work with dot-com startups in Seattle in 1998.

Traveling back and forth to Alaska to care for her sick mother, she met her now-husband and decided to stay in Anchorage, teaching business courses at local universities and working with startups. But her experience working with these new companies was frustrating: unlike her experiences in Seattle, where the companies were in close geographic proximity to established angel and venture capital, she found it next to impossible to raise funds for companies in Alaska.

“These companies had great ideas, but the capital was not there,” she said. “You’d go to Seattle and make the rounds with VC firms, and they’d say, ‘Sure we’ll do it—if you move here.’” Committed to staying in Anchorage, she decided to start a fund that would focus on Alaska-based startups, partnering with cofounder Jamie Kenworthy, who had previously led the state’s technology development fund. She leaned heavily on her network of Booth classmates to learn how to put together a fund, drawing upon federal matching grants after the Great Recession to launch the $4 million fund, in 2014.

While they both personally invest in the fund, Howarth and Kenworthy run it as volunteers, seeing it as a public service to the state as much as an investment opportunity. One of the pieces of advice Howarth got from her fellow Booth alumni was that the market was too small to specialize in any one area, and so they have cast a wide net in the kinds of businesses they support. Among their five investments so far are a virtual-reality game, a smart bed pad for hospitals to detect fluids, and an all-weather riding-gear company. Recently, the fund invested ground-up in a 3-D printing center, in order to encourage manufacturing in Alaska.

More and more, Howarth said, she is seeing entrepreneurs who are able to work remotely drawn to the state's wildest frontier. Not long ago, she met two software developers from Seattle who set up shop inside large, yellow, insulated tents in a remote wilderness area in the Chugach Mountains. “They are in there programming, and then they go backcountry skiing for their break,” she said. Howarth can relate, as she relishes the active lifestyle Alaska provides, even in the relatively large city of Anchorage. “I can just grab my bike or cross-country skis, and in a half hour I can be in the mountains, in a wilderness area where bears and moose come wandering through,” she said.

By committing to spurring new companies in the area, she is hoping that the next generation might see more opportunities than she did when she was young—and will be able to stay in Alaska, to be inspired by the environment as well as by a career they love. “I’d like my daughter and nieces and nephews to know there are opportunities up here to do something cool if they want to,” she said. “I don’t want their vision to be limited by lack of options.”

—By Michael Blanding