Lara Birkes decided it was finally time to put a roof over her head.
After coming to Missoula from Missouri to attend college at the University of Montana, then working for former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus in Washington D.C., working overseas in Morocco and Switzerland, and then finally coming to the U.S. and California, Birkes was done moving. She found her little piece of paradise in the Paradise Valley and began telecommuting.
“I love it because I’ve spent many years on airplanes and in offices,” she said. “This is a very refreshing change for me to be able to have a rewarding position and live in a place I love.”
Now as a telecommuter, Birkes wouldn’t trade her piece of heaven for an office.
Returning to Roots
Even though Birkes grew up in the Midwest, her grandmother was from the Paradise Valley. Her ties to Montana go back to 1895 when her great-great grandparents homesteaded along the Yellowstone River. It was these family connections that drew Birkes to the Treasure State, when she applied to the University of Montana.
“It was the only school I applied to,” she said. “I looked at a lot of schools, but after I got out of the car in Missoula I knew. It was the only application I submitted. That was in the summer of 1996.”
Despite growing up in the flatness of Missouri, Birkes said her family spent a lot of time in the mountains. They spent many holidays in Colorado and she learned to mountain climb with her dad. She knew she wanted to be in the mountains, and Missoula gave her mountains.
Telecommuting from Paradise
As a telecommuter, Birkes is an advisory board member for Eqogo, a benefit corporation and tech start-up. Eqogo’s technology reveals the environmental and social impact of products with a simple score, putting transparency in the hands of consumers, Birkes said. The app scores a product and lets consumers see what a product’s social and environmental impact is.
“It’s hard to buy products in line with our values. The intent of Eqogo is to make it easy for consumers to purchase more responsibly,” she said.
“The will to survive a century ago…now equates to the grit required to make a living in an unlikely place.”
Birkes said it wasn’t challenging to convince her California counterparts she could telecommute in Montana.
“I think that it’s a realization that many companies are having,” Birkes said. “Many companies are embracing remote workforces. It’s absolutely possible to achieve results despite distances. Our team meets in person with some regularity, and Zoom calls are effective at bringing us together on a daily and weekly basis.”
She added that as cities become more costly, a remote workforce could be a viable option for companies. She said a remote workforce can benefit employees by allowing a flexible schedule and show trust with workers.
In her free time, Birkes has made sure to get involved at the local level. She has joined the board of the Western Sustainability Exchange in Livingston, an organization cultivating partnerships with ranchers to sequester carbon through regenerative land management practices. She is also working with stakeholders in Montana to integrate sustainability principles into community planning, i.e., affordable housing, energy efficiency, and low impact transportation. Birkes has also started her own website, Ground in Common, to inspire new ideas and perspectives on issues facing the Mountain West.
“This is a very refreshing change for me to be able to have a rewarding position and live in a place I love.”
Just like others before her, Birkes has fallen in love with the spirit of the West and Montana.
“Montana represents a unique combination of natural beauty and resilience,” she said. “The will to survive a century ago, for example when my grandmother was growing up in Paradise Valley, now equates to the grit required to make a living in an unlikely place. In contemporary terms this means entrepreneurship. That spirit is everywhere. I’m impressed by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of people who are determined to live in the ‘Last Best Place’.”