By Elise Ertl
Chaffee County in Colorado is the sort of place where you can walk into a restaurant and find yourself seated next to the CEO of a company down the road. Like many mountain communities, Chaffee County prides itself on a diverse range of industries from agriculture to outdoor recreation. Here, investors, mentors, and business owners alike have come together to help Chaffee County become the Rockies Venture Group’s Emerging Startup Community of the Year.
“Chaffee County is humming with energy and potential. It reminds me of other rural entrepreneurial hubs that have experienced tremendous growth and success,” said Taylor Grande, Executive Director of Startup Colorado, “And if that similarity is any indication of what’s possible for the future of entrepreneurship in the region, I’m excited.”
But this hasn’t always been the case for these small mountain communities that often feel isolated and disconnected from vital business resources.
“These entrepreneurs feel like they’re kind of doing this stuff on their own,” said Jake Rishavy, Executive Director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation. “But that really couldn’t be further from the truth.”
While Chaffee County’s entrepreneurial scene has grown significantly in recent years, it didn’t just spring up overnight. The groundwork for its foundation was laid years prior thanks to dedicated ecosystem builders and local business support organizations who saw what was possible for the region.
Laying the groundwork for ecosystem building
Wendell Pryor, former Executive Director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), said the economy was initially built in three phases.
The first phase established the Economic Development Corporation, which began by identifying the community’s strengths and weaknesses. The second phase began in 2016 when Startup Colorado hosted a full-day business resource assessment with more than 20 local business owners and leaders. The following year, Startup Colorado partnered with the EDC, local founders, investors and mentors to begin implementing that plan.
“This is when Chaffee County really got serious about the things we needed to develop as a community to become a thriving startup ecosystem,” Pryor said, adding that the initial assessment developed by Startup Colorado eventually became the blueprint for developing more strategic entrepreneurship initiatives.
The third phase was the creation of the State’s 15th Small Business Development Center in Chaffee County, which offers a variety of services to help entrepreneurs succeed, including: confidential consulting, connecting startups with existing businesses, and providing free or low-cost workshops and training. The Central Mountain SBDC organizes nearly 80 workshops per year, as well as two annual conferences — The Power of WE (Women Entrepreneurs) and the Outdoor Industry Summit.
“Then we help with access to capital,” said Jamie Billesbach, Director of the Central Mountain SBDC. “We help with lean business plans, as well as cash flow. We connect startups or existing businesses to capital, whether it’s local lenders, SBA funding, or OEDIT funding.”
Gaining momentum through targeted business development
The creation of the Central Mountain SBDC freed up more resources for the EDC to develop more targeted business development training.
In 2021, the EDC created the Ascent Accelerator program, a 10-week course focused on educating entrepreneurs on the resources available and supporting business growth. The program helps entrepreneurs understand their strengths and weaknesses, and pairs them with mentors and other experts within the community to overcome their challenges.
The inaugural program hosted ten local businesses. Each founder collaborated with mentors, made promotional videos featuring their business, and worked to support access to capital.
The EDC connected participating businesses with angel investors through their partnership with the Rockies Venture Club (RVC), which is considered one of the most active angel investor networks in the Mountain West. In the first year, ten angel investors provided funding for business development.
Rishavy said, “I think that’s just a great reassurance that these are ideas that resonate really well in communities like ours, and it’s starting to generate some real excitement and support.”
Building an entrepreneurial community
Matt Allen, DDS, is the co-founder of DifferentKind in Buena Vista, a health-tech startup that enables dental professionals to track patient experiences. Allen said the budding entrepreneurial community helped him not only access resources, but further develop his business.
“I don’t think I knew where to look for those resources,” Allen said. “Getting connected with the Chaffee County EDC and with Jake Rishavy has been kind of transformational…And I think what we’re all hoping to build here is people who believe in this as a place that can thrive in the future.”
For Kathleen Hamel, founder of Go Global English in Salida, the entrepreneurial community has served as a reassurance for her business. When she has questions or needs help, she knows she can always go to the community for insight.
Hammel has attended several SBDC workshops, including the annual event, The Power of WE. Nearly 100 people attended the event, which covered practical subjects like finance and capital as well as more inspirational topics, such as finding your purpose.
Hamel said, “For me, personally, I like connecting and networking with other people who are going through the same struggles. It’s just really empowering.”
Empowerment is part of Billesbach’s motivation for starting the event.
“Chaffee County has a tremendous amount of women-owned businesses,” Billesbach said. However, “Women getting loans is a very small percentage of overall loans. So it really was that I wanted to forward women, in general and in business.”
The SBDC workshops in Chaffee County don’t just support locals, they attract business owners from across the state to experience what the entrepreneurial scene has to offer. Entrepreneurs in Chaffee County benefit from supportive community that supports the entire entrepreneurial journey – from the practical aspects of business ownership to work-life balance.
For Allen, the Chaffee County entrepreneurial community encourages a holistic view of starting a business—giving back to the community and supporting a good quality of life for employees.
“People here believe in those things,” Allen said. “Silicon Valley has its defining features, and Denver has its defining features, but I think Chaffee County can be known as the place that builds companies that also have that kind of social impact and good.”