U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet met with local leaders of women-owned small businesses last week at Catalyst Campus to learn how he can best support the Colorado Springs business ecosystem and empower female entrepreneurs.
During the round-table discussion, organized by Bennet’s office, about 10 leaders shared their thoughts about federal policies that affect their business, as well as the challenges and rewards of owning a company in Colorado Springs and resources they need to make their businesses grow.
“I’m a big believer in ecosystems having a lot to do with the success of new businesses, and I’m here today to get your perspectives,” said Bennet. “Results from these type of conversations over the last few years have produced legislation.”
Participants ranged from women who’ve had success in the manufacturing, technology and defense industries to Millennials interested in creating startups.
Bennet said wage growth remained an issue throughout the state — a statement echoed by many in the room.
“The companies [in which] you see the most job and wage growth are small businesses,” Bennet said. “Large companies tend to be more efficient and therefore pay less.”
Although Colorado’s unemployment rate ranks the fourth lowest in the country, the Democratic leader added he continues to meet people earning the same salaries they had 10 years ago.
Susan Edmondson, CEO of the Downtown Partnership, said Colorado Springs is becoming more attractive to Millennials because of affordable housing and high quality of life — but she said higher-paying jobs are needed to retain them.
“There is a lot of support for small business in this city with a great network of people.”
— Kathy Boe
“We are hearing downtown that more Colorado College graduates are staying in the city because of the quality of living,” she said. “We’ve started to change the culture in Colorado Springs, talking more about its vision for the future. As we understand what the Olympics mean to the community, what the defense industry means to the community and are starting to see more support for creative industries — I think younger people appreciate it. But the right positions have to go along with that.”
Katie Burlew, a business development contractor, said improvements are needed in both opportunities and compensation in the city’s tech industry.
“After I graduated college [in 2013] I didn’t have enough skills for the positions here, so I went to Denver and the roles I started in paid $15,000 more than the highest salary I was offered in Colorado Springs,” she said. “In fact, my second job in Denver was equal to an engineer salary in Colorado Springs, and I don’t write code — I’m a businessperson.”
Burlew received a Bachelor of Innovation in Business from UCCS, and said it’s the reason she landed many job interviews.
“I think I had far more opportunities than if I’d received a typical business degree,” she said. “When I was in college, I worked with engineers on projects for local businesses and just being able to say that when interviewing with a tech company is huge. Most businesspeople don’t understand tech, and there is a big divide there.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
The women provided suggestions to improve job opportunities and wages that touched on everything from job searches to investment dollars.
Debbie Balch, CEO and founder of market research firm Elevated Insights, said the city needs a communication platform that all businesses can rally around to attract and retain top-notch technical talent.
“We need that collaborative voice, communicating all open tech positions that are not Craigslist or Monster,” she said.
“We need to advocate what a beautiful place Colorado Springs is to live and get the message out, ‘Did you know our city has more female CEOs than any other city in Colorado?’”
Diane Snead, founder of tech startup Spiffy Goals, said Colorado Springs needs an influx of capital through resources such as Denver’s co-working space, the Commons on Champa.
“It’s a partnership with downtown Denver, the Office of Economic Development, Colorado Technical Association and about 20 to 30 private companies that are donating their time and money for this facility,” she said. “These are tax dollars going toward supporting the startup community, and we don’t have that in Colorado Springs to incubate the startup community.”
Spiffy Goals creates apps geared to small business. Snead quit her full-time work in corporate America to start the company because small businesses were getting left out of the tech boom, she said.
“In small business, we also need a microbusiness, consisting of a lawyer, freelance web designer and accountant,” she said. “Spiffy Goals is our first app that tracks smart goals for small businesses and right now we’re working on an app for networking and form processes.”
AMONG THE BEST
Despite lower wages, the city is ranked highest in the state for being the best place for women to own a business and has the highest percentage of women-owned businesses in the country, according to Danielle Osler, Bennet’s senior business adviser.
The women in the room agreed with the ranking.
“Colorado Springs is a great place to do business,” said Kathy Boe, owner of local defense company Boecore. “I started the company 16 years ago because I wanted to make a difference and create lasting careers — today Boecore has 240 employees. There is a lot of support for small business in this city with a great network of people.”
Colorado Springs has a high number of female entrepreneurs because they want to work their own hours, not because they can’t find jobs, according to Aikta Marcoulier, executive director of the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center.
“A lot of women we see at the SBDC want flexibility, they have a high level of education and want to do what they want to do and not work for another person,” she said. “In the last four years, I’ve noticed a lot of collaboration in Colorado Springs supporting women-owned small businesses.”
Lynette Crow-Iverson, founder of pre-employment screening company Conspire, said she started her own company because she didn’t fit the typical mold of a health care professional.
“I was a labor and delivery nurse and would rather tell the doctor what to do than be told what to do, so I didn’t fit that model personality-wise,” she said. “Since my personality didn’t fit in that box, I had to go out and create a role for me and fill gaps in the medical industry.”
And Colorado Springs shouldn’t be defined by national headlines, Edmondson said.
“The Regional Business Alliance is working on storytelling around our community related to workforce and place branding through a media company called DCI,” she said. “We want to create our own positive headlines, showing off what we have in Colorado Springs and its vision, instead of letting others tell our story for us.”