Sam Elliott never imagined being anything other than an athlete. But after breaking his back in two places as a teen and then later leaving the UCCS golf team, he found another passion. Elliott, a 20-year-old junior from rural Iowa, overcame his social anxiety with help from the UCCS Entrepreneurship and Innovation Club, which he now serves as president. He is also on the board of Peak Startup, which is gearing up for Colorado Springs Startup Week, and is the junior teaching assistant for a freshman networking course. Elliott spoke to the Business Journal about accidentally finding a passion and degree path in innovation, making a name for himself in a new part of the country, and his vision for the future of Colorado Springs’ startup culture.
First, can you tell me a bit about yourself?
I went to school and grew up in Iowa. From a young age I loved sports, and that is all I cared about. I thought that I was going to play sports for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, when I was 15 years old I ended up breaking my back in two different places. That completely threw me off, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. … Through that, it really damaged my social skills, and I went into high school not being interested in anything. Then, after my freshman year of high school, my father pressured me into playing golf. … Then I graduated high school and started looking for colleges out of state to go play golf for. I was going to go to a school in South Carolina with an absolutely amazing golf instructor … but a week after my visit, he called and said “I’m sorry, I just got a job opportunity that I can’t pass up.”
I was lost, and I had no idea what I was going to do. It was the summer before my freshman year of college and I had no idea where I wanted to go to school. All I knew is that I wanted to play golf. Then I received a voicemail from the assistant coach at UCCS saying, “We’d love for you to come out and play golf with us this fall.” That month was crazy. I came out and started playing golf, but I just wasn’t enjoying it and I decided to step away from the team. Then I ended up accidentally signing up for an innovation class … I wasn’t even in the Bachelor of Innovation program! I was undeclared at the time, but I fell in love on the first day of class.
What was the transition like from socially awkward kid to confident teacher?
I’ve done a lot of work in the past two years to improve my skills. One thing was getting involved with Peak Startup at the Pitch Nights downtown at Epicentral, which is when I got exposed to other entrepreneurial and innovation organizations. I’m really bad at five-minute speeches and presentations because I tend to ramble, but I told myself that I was going to pitch my mobile app and really put myself in an uncomfortable situation. I didn’t do so well during the first pitch … next week I came back and absolutely killed it. So going from socially awkward to teaching a class and motivating students is one of those situations where I just have to put myself out there. I had never taught a class before, so it has been a new experience for me. But that experience has helped me grow, which is really all I’m trying to do right now — grow and take advantage of as many opportunities as I can get right now.
How did you get involved with Peak Startup?
When I became president of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Club, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I knew where the club needed to go, and I knew the potential. That’s when I ran into Peak Startup, right after the two organizations had merged. Then, toward the latter half of last year, we got hooked up with Nick Lee, who is a professor here on campus. He heard about what we were doing … and we ended up agreeing that every president of the club should be a member of the board of Peak Startup. That really made sense and it was really kind of a milestone for us. It has been a great learning experience.
How do you think that moving to Colorado Springs has affected your career path?
In Iowa, I would live in the shadow of my father. My father is a great golfer and he owns and operates a family business that sells municipal equipment — garbage trucks, street sweepers, sewer cameras and things like that — which is very successful and has grown to a large market share in the Midwest. … I’m glad I’m here in Colorado Springs, because we’re trying to prove ourselves as an entrepreneurship city. I like the challenge of putting this city on the map as a center for innovation, and a lot of things are on the way that I just cannot believe.
What do you see for the future of all of this?
Our mission is to build an entrepreneurship community within the city, and part of that is building one here on campus. We share the same mission, just with different audiences. I have a vision of Colorado Springs as a city for innovation. n CSBJ