Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Paul Gladen, Director at Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana.

Paul Gladen, Director at Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana

Paul Gladen, Director at Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana

Who do you think of when someone says entrepreneur? Steve Jobs? Oprah Winfrey? Elon Musk? Mark Zuckerberg?

These are certainly the kind of folks Wall Street and the media like to lionize for changing the world on a massive scale. But these entrepreneurs and their businesses can perhaps seem at odds with the Montana way of life, especially in light of recent controversies at corporations like Facebook.

All of this raises the question of what a Montana entrepreneur and a Montana startup might look like. What kind of startup activity is achievable AND desirable in Montana?

To begin to answer these questions let me tell you about some of Montana’s latest cohort of emerging entrepreneurs: Jenny Sheets, Ari Ronick, and Sara Boughner.

Unique Montana Startups

Jenny Sheets is an MFA student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Montana. As a writer and educator, Jenny has set out to address the challenge highlighted in recent national research that approximately three out of four students cannot write “proficiently” at their grade level.

Jenny is the founder of Storysquares, a digital storyboarding app that helps 3rd-7th grade students write stories and reports, step-by-step, with confidence. She just won $21,500 in UM’s John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge, a program jointly run by UM’s College of Business and Blackstone LaunchPad that is open to higher education students across the state.

Sara Boughner and Ari Ronick

Sara Boughner and Ari Ronick are both Doctor of Physical Therapy students at UM. Sara is also earning a certificate in Public Health and Ari is an MBA candidate. They placed second in the John Ruffatto Business Startup Challenge with their startup Morphose Exercise Systems that is developing a 3D Avatar based app to help patients improve their adherence to physical therapy exercise regimens. This should result in improved recovery and reduced risk of longer term negative health consequences from sub-optimal recovery.

Education and healthcare may not be sectors you typically think of as hotbeds of entrepreneurship, but in reality entrepreneurship is incredibly diverse. Every business that exists today was once a startup — yes, even Walmart.

Community Entrepreneurs

When you look around your community and across the great state of Montana, you are surrounded by entrepreneurs. This could include anyone from ranchers to coffee shop owners, widget manufacturers to accountants. The vast majority of small and medium sized businesses are privately owned ventures, whose founders took a risk 5, 10, or 50 years ago, and keep taking risks every day. Many of these entrepreneurs did so because they thought they could create jobs and provide a better product or service for their communities. This is what it really means to be an entrepreneur.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Many of these entrepreneurs did so because they thought they could create jobs and provide a better product or service for their communities.”[/perfectpullquote]

Last year, Christina Henderson, Director of the Montana High Tech Alliance, and I participated in a research study funded by the Kauffman Foundation that interviewed ~30 Montana entrepreneurs. We were both struck by the recurring refrain of founders who said they started their business not to make money, but to create good paying jobs for their community.

Entrepreneurship is increasingly technology-enabled, as both Storysquares and Morphose Exercise Systems demonstrate. Sure, you might be thinking that Facebook, SnapChat, or the latest app on your smartphone may not be the most meaningful uses of technology, but that doesn’t mean technology can’t be harnessed as a tool to solve a whole host of problems, from optimizing farm operations to increasing access to healthcare in rural communities.

Entrepreneurship with Soul

When we look at the growing array of startups and technology businesses in Montana, many are using science and technology to solve problems in fields that are very much a part of Montana’s culture and fabric. The outdoors (OnX, TOMIS, Chilton Skis), food & ag (Cowboy Cricket Farms, Farmented), the environment (Sunburst Sensors), and arts and creativity (The Audience Awards, Submittable). These technology-enabled businesses are creating products and services used by customers around the world and channeling dollars into higher paying Montana jobs, which in turn get spent at “main street” businesses across our state.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Think of something quintessentially “Montana”, and there’s a good chance there’s a startup for that.” [/perfectpullquote]

Think of something quintessentially “Montana”, and there’s a good chance there’s a startup for that. Montana has a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, but it’s not Silicon Valley or Boulder, Colorado; and we don’t want it to be. At a recent community meeting discussing the tech startup scene in Missoula, we stumbled upon the phrase “entrepreneurship with soul” (leveraging the “soul” in MisSOULa). It seemed to perfectly capture what’s different and what’s powerful about entrepreneurship in Missoula and Montana.

So the next time you run into an entrepreneur, thank them for putting their heart and soul into making Montana the Last Best Place.

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