Entrepreneur brings home national skills

Running a small business is tough, with national surveys showing high attrition rates. Homer certainly has turnover and challenges for entrepreneurs.

Adrienne Sweeney is one local business person who recently earned a formidable edge. This spring she completed a prestigious national program for business leaders.

Sweeney was one of 120 people nationwide to graduate in April from the Babson Cohort of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses. That’s an intensive entrepreneurship training program to foster job creation and small-business success via education, capital and business-support services.

Other Alaskans have participated in the program, but Sweeney is the first from the Kenai Peninsula, according to Lauren Riley from the Alaska Small Business Development Center.

Sweeney learned about the program from Homer’s Bryan Zak, through his work with the business development center. He encouraged her to apply even though she didn’t think she had the time. After a lengthy application and online interview, she was accepted.

As it worked out, the 10-week program meshed well with her schedule. It included two week-long visits to Babson College, a small private campus in Wellesley, Mass., that specializes in entrepreneurship and business administration studies. Goldman Sachs paid all the expenses, including travel. The other eight weeks were done online.

Sweeney hoped that the course would help her pursue growth and stability for both her personal and business families.

“I have so many people that depend on me; it’s important to me to be able to provide year-round jobs at livable wages while providing value to my community. I believe that one of the best ways to achieve that is through careful growth,” she said in an email.

She was surprised at how quickly people from diverse backgrounds connected and how much they learned from each other. She was also surprised that Alaska — with six enrolled including her — had the most participants of the 32 states represented.

Sweeney plans to continue working on skills she learned in the program. These include forecasting, negotiating, coaching, assessing opportunities and developing more efficient processes in operations.

She said she intends to practice them in the everyday operations at her family’s businesses.

She and her husband, Alex, own and operate the Driftwood Inn, RV Park and Charters, as well as AJ’ s OldTown Steakhouse & Tavern on Bunnell Avenue. Working in Homer’s Old Town is a return to Sweeney’s roots, which go deep in this area.

Sweeney is a fifth-generation Kenai Peninsula resident from the Walli clan. She traces her family tree back to the Linstrangs, who first came to the area in 1891 to work in fish processing. Her grandfather Bob Walli told her that he used to attend school in a building that is now part of the Driftwood. Her other grandfather, Hugh Watson, had the general store in the building that now houses the Bunnell Street Art Center.

She grew up hanging nets and started commercial fishing with her father when she was 8. She pursued a career in the maritime trades. While working for Crowley Maritime she met Alex. Later she worked for the Alaska Marine Highway, serving on various ferries including the Tustumena and Kennicott.

Sweeney left the sea in 2003 when her first child was born. That’s when she and Alex bought the Driftwood. In the years since, they’ve slowly expanded by purchasing other visitor-oriented properties in that neighborhood. They acquired AJ’s in 2011.

In the wake of the class, she wants to continue focusing on ways to add value for her guests, employees, community and family.

“I want to be able to pass on a tradition of a good work ethic to my girls,” she said.

“The experience really made me feel valued as a job creator. There are so many small business owners like me out there that don’t realize that what we do really does matter. … I am grateful to be counted among this small but determined group that works hard every day to create a culture for opportunity and success.” 

Sweeney recommends the program to other small business owners. People can find more information about applying at www.10KSBapply.com.