Anchorage entrepreneur named finalist for national award spotlighting Black community leaders

Anchorage-based entrepreneur Jasmin Smith is a finalist for the inaugural theGRIO Hero award. The award spotlights local Black leaders having a positive impact on their communities. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

If you were one of the hundreds of people celebrating Juneteenth during Anchorage’s downtown festivities this month, you likely ran across Jasmin Smith. Smith is an entrepreneur, and was the coordinator for the Juneteenth celebration. 

Earlier this month, Smith was named a finalist by national Black media network theGRIO for their inaugural Hero award. The award spotlights African-Americans across the country who work on improving the Black community and uplifting their culture.

As a Black woman in a state with a relatively small Black community, Smith told Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early that she was surprised by her nomination.

Jasmin Smith: When I was first called, I thought it was spam. And so I didn’t answer it first. And then when I talked with them, I was like, “Oh, this is real.” And honestly, it feels really… it feels good. I think from a standpoint of being in Alaska and being of color and sometimes being of color in spaces where there’s not a lot of people of color, trying to amplify and like uplift is a little bit harder. And so the fact that someone saw that, you know, all the way in Alaska, that’s really special to me.

Wesley Early: What do you mean being in those spaces?

JS: Well, I think when you think about these kinds of awards, and cultural places and community, I think it’s easier to uplift your culture when there’s more people there helping you do it, right? Like if you live in a space or a community that is predominantly African American or of color, it kind of comes with the territory that you’re going to see culture. But I think when you live in places like Alaska or other places where we do have a diverse community, but it’s small comparatively, I think you have to work a little bit harder to acknowledge and be seen and have your culture uplifted. And that’s kind of the feeling I’ve always got with my work here in Alaska.

WE: And jumping off of that, I wanted to talk about two of your businesses. The first is Umoja Coworking. Can you explain how a coworking and incubator building works, and how you think it accomplishes the goals of supporting culture, collaboration, community and events?

JS: Yeah, so first and foremost, Umoja is Swahili for “unity.” And that was a big thing for me. And so we’re a coworking space and a business incubator space and cultural incubator space, purposely located in Mountain View, because it’s diverse and there’s a need there and the community is there. And so in those kinds of coworking spaces, not only are you helping people start businesses, but you try to focus on entrepreneurs of color, and people who don’t speak English, or just neighborhoods that have been historically not represented. And so in our building, we tried to not just start businesses, but also uplift culture, and infuse culture and language and heritage in what we do to build community while we build our businesses.

WE: Can you talk about some of the businesses that use Umoja?

JS: Oh yeah, let me give a shout out. So we have Pacific Communities of Alaska — love them. We have Legacy Painters Academy, Legacy Credit. We have got Dr. Mendoza. He’s an ESL doctor. He speaks English and Spanish, and so he does practice on site. We also have NAACP. So it’s actually cool. We have a combination of for-profits and nonprofits who use the building, and they just kind of synergize together.

WE: And the other business I’m curious about is Baby Vend, which is your company that stocks vending machines across the country with baby supplies. I’m curious about how that business got started, and if you have any advice for Alaska entrepreneurs looking for a national footprint like that?

JS: That business got started literally out of necessity. And my son doesn’t like the story now because he’s older. But it literally was started because he had a diaper blowout in the mall. And I had to engineer a diaper out of random supplies. And so I was like, “Oh, this isn’t going to happen.” And so I just started thinking about the idea of families moving and needing supplies. And I think for Alaskan entrepreneurs who want a national footprint, I think the first thing I would just tell them is believing they can have a national footprint. And like getting a mentor or some support on what it means to expand. So like, if you want to expand out of state, I would say start with one place and then kind of work your way out some more. And just letting them know, it’s doable, like you can have a national presence.

WE: And theGRIO Hero awards, it sounds like the top winner gets a lot of exposure. They say they’ll highlight the winners and try to get community members to support it. You have quite a large footprint already. And I’m curious how you think more exposure to your businesses… how you think that would help you sort of as an entrepreneur? 

JS: Yeah, I think two things. So like, I would love to, I guess have that award. But I don’t know if I want it necessarily for me, personally. I love the idea of people nationally knowing about Alaska, and our culture and our work and what we’re doing. So for me, it would be amazing to have that support go to my nonprofit, you know, like help and amplify and make a bigger footprint there because eventually we want to be out of state. But just thinking outside of myself, I’d just love for people to just see Alaska and just get curious and be like, “Oh, there’s a Brown woman in Alaska? What else is there?” And then maybe it’ll prompt them to be interested in learning more about us and just stop thinking it’s just dark and cold and all white. There’s more here.

The deadline to vote for Jasmin Smith for theGRIO Hero award is June 30.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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