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From edibles to equity

Local restaurateur changed careers, not priorities

Posted: Friday, September 13, 2002

Whether it's a knife to cut vegetables or a manual to write a business plan, Deborah Marshall has spent her life in Alaska giving people tools.

As a founder and former owner of Juneau's Fiddlehead Restaurant, as director of Alaska InvestNet, a nonprofit organization focused on helping entrepreneurs finance their business goals, and as a foster grandparent to an 8-year-old boy, Marshall has found satisfaction in making changes in her own backyard.

"When we came to Alaska we were changing the world," Marshall said. She arrived in Juneau in February 1978 with her then-husband Scott Miller and sister Lydia Marshall. The threesome opened the Fiddlehead Restaurant, which specialized in natural cuisine, in June of that year.

"We figured if we could change people's eating habits, we could change the way people deal with the planet," Marshall said.

In her 21 years as owner and operator of the Fiddlehead, not only did Marshall, 50, keep Juneau residents well fed, but she helped many of Juneau's young people succeed at their first jobs.

"One of the greatest successes of the Fiddlehead were the graduates of the Fiddlehead that went on to start their own businesses," Marshall said. "And there were quite a few of them."

After 20 years in the restaurant business, which included the publication of a cookbook in 1991, Marshall decided to leave the restaurant and return to school.

"I decided in 1998 that I wanted to explore life after the restaurant business and see what I had to give back," Marshall said. She left the Fiddlehead in the hands of her staff and enrolled that fall in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In January 1999 she put her restaurant up for sale and the deal closed six months later as Marshall finished her degree.

"The Kennedy School gave me the courage to put the Fiddlehead on the market," Marshall said. "It put me in touch with what I'm good at and allowed me to position myself in the work force outside of my own business."

Marshall said she went back to school with the desire to return to Alaska and run for public office, work for the state or direct a nonprofit organization.

As it turned out, Alaska InvestNet, which was developed by the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation and initially administered by the Juneau Economic Development Council, was in need of a director soon after Marshall returned to Juneau.

"It was a natural fit for me," said Marshall, who was recruited for the position by Charlie Northrip, then director of the JEDC.

Northrip, who is in Bosnia for the year, said in an e-mail that Marshall's experience in setting up her own business, along with her political savvy and statewide contacts, was key in his considering her for the position.

As director of Alaska InvestNet, Marshall has put her knowledge of financing and managing a business to use. InvestNet's mission is to educate entrepreneurs and investors on financing a start-up business with equity, or investment capital. InvestNet also links entrepreneurs with service providers, such as accountants and management specialists, who can help entrepreneurs get started.

Marshall said young people starting businesses are key to the future of Alaska.

"Most successful start-up companies are started by people under 35," Marshall said. "Between 1990 and 2000, Alaska's 25- to 34-year-old population has declined by 21 percent." That trend, which Marshall refers to as "the brain drain," is the main challenge facing Alaska's economic future, she said.

"When we all came to Alaska in the mid-'70s it was a very attractive place for young entrepreneurs," Marshall said. "Now, 30 years later, the climate for young people going into business is much more difficult."

Difficult, but not impossible.

"Alaska is a creative place, and that's why I'm optimistic that we can improve the entrepreneurial climate up here," Marshall said. "Alaskans typically reward the kind of scrappy creativity that goes along with being an entrepreneur. It's what we value and respect."

Marshall has reason to be working to secure Alaska's economic future. Her daughter, Megan, is enrolled at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and her foster grandson, Billy Oleson, lives with her in Juneau. She would like them to be able to have successful careers without having to leave the state, she said.

"Investing in youth, investing in our own backyard ... that's really the theme that ties it all together," Marshall said. "We need to share the risk and take responsibility for investing in our youth. It's investing in life."

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.



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