For more than a decade, the Colorado Springs Business Journal has recognized young professionals in the community with an annual “Rising Stars” award. Through the years, those stars have gone on to be law firm partners, CEOs, executive directors and advocates for Colorado Springs.

We checked back in with four of those winners from earlier awards and discovered that they lived up to their potential — and then some.


For 13 years, Clarissa Arellano has combined her love of political science with her advocacy work for the residential real estate industry. As the government affairs, media and public policy director for the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, Arellano brings local policy to the state and national stage.

Now 42, she has expanded her role to include national-level policies and is particularly proud of the difference in making home ownership an option for more people — and in her outside interests in election policy and participation.

Recently, she took time to talk about her job, her interests and what’s she’s been up to since winning the Rising Stars award in 2010.

What do you do at the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors?

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When I started, I just covered public policy, but my background was at the national level, so I’ve expanded the job to cover government affairs as well. It’s the whole package as far as advocacy, at the state level, federal level. It’s a great gig — clearly, since I’ve been doing it for 13 years. It’s very rewarding.

What’s your degree in?

My undergraduate degree is in international diplomacy, and my master’s degree is in public policy. I have a doctorate in public policy and public administration. It’s a hybrid degree. So I have a social-science background. PPAR lets me explore some of the other public policy interests I have. I’ve always been intrigued by voter turnout. What makes people vote? How is the state counting them? How are polls interpreted?

What are you most proud of?

I’m very proud of my ability to position PPAR as a leader in a state advocacy role. Everything I do is to advocate on behalf of Realtors, through the state and local level, as well as the national level. There’s always room for improvement, but my job is to make sure PPAR is active in advocating on behalf of home-buyers and sellers.

What do you do for fun?

I love to play tennis, but these days I’m teaching my 3-year-old. I am working on balancing work with family — something I’ve learned since getting married and having a family. I’m working on stopping the phone from ringing all the time, and that can be difficult. Basically, I’m all about spending time with family and friends. I have this blended family that all gets together. I love it.

cari-davisCARI DAVIS

When Cari Davis was recognized as a Rising Star, she was the communications director at Memorial Health System, then a city-owned enterprise. Davis oversaw much of the communications process surrounding the decision to lease the hospital to an independent entity.

Then she took a different path — and worked in other countries for a few years. She recently took time to talk about her passion for social justice and health care.

What did you do after you left Memorial?

I worked abroad. It had long been a dream of mine — and I took the opportunity to work with Yale University to create a master’s of health care administration in Rwanda. I also worked in Ethiopia. My plan was to work abroad for a year, but building the kind of relationships needed takes a lot of time, so I decided to stay another year. It was a very different way of using my skills, my passion and my expertise in a very challenging environment. I started out to try to learn the language, to try to build relationships and to try to understand the different ways their university system worked. It was an experience that changed my life.

And since you’ve been back?

I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back to Colorado Springs permanently or just for a few months. The opportunity to become executive director of the Colorado Springs Health Foundation came open the first few months I was back. It is a great opportunity to really make a difference in health care in El Paso and Teller counties. I’m here for the foreseeable future.

What’s the role of the health foundation? 

We grew out of the Memorial lease to UCHealth. Each year, UCHealth gives the foundation a percentage of profits. This year, we made our first grants. We gave out 40 grants, the largest was $500,000 to Peak Vista Community Health Centers for its family practice residency program. The smallest was for $2,000.

Do you have any advice for young professionals just starting out? 

Pay attention to what you read, notice what you find interesting and consider whether these topics could or should be a focus for your professional pursuits. When I was in college and grad school, I developed an interest in social justice and health — subjects that have informed and inspired my professional choices ever since. For me, it’s not so much about the title or the pay, it’s about the opportunity to learn more and make a positive difference in whatever I do.


david-kunstleDAVID KUNSTLE

When David Kunstle won the Rising Stars award, he was working at Rothgerber Johnson Lyons as an attorney. Years later, the 47-year-old is now a partner in Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie, a firm with a national presence.

The Colorado Springs office still has 15 attorneys, but Kunstle says the merger with the Phoenix-based firm of Lewis Roca provides local attorneys with more experience and wider expertise.

Kunstle recently took time to discuss Colorado Springs, the practice of law and following in his father’s footsteps.

How has your job changed?

I became a partner in the firm, that’s the biggest change on my part. Our firm has changed quite a bit. We went from 75 attorneys mostly in Colorado to 300 nationally. And we are part of an intellectual property firm in Los Angeles. We have a whole lot more bench strength for clients now.

What kind of law do you practice?

I do transactional work. What does that mean? I do anything related to business transactions — corporate work, asset and stock purchases, real estate. We do some intellectual property work, and that’s becoming more and more important for all of our clients.

Why did you choose law?

I really chose business law; it was what I was always interested in. My dad still practices; he’s 85. He’s practiced in the Springs since the 1950s, and I always admired what he did and the way he did it.

What do you do when you aren’t working? 

I spend a lot of time at the Fine Arts Center. I’m vice chairman of the board. There are a lot of very exciting changes going on. The FAC is such a gem for the community and we all know that the arts is the key to attracting young people, which is a challenge for our city. Arts is at the center of that, and I think there is going to be a great opportunity for the Fine Arts Center to do more than it’s ever done before, thanks to the merger with Colorado College.

nancy-hixsonNANCY HIXSON

Nancy Hixson spent her early life in athletics, and always knew it would be a career path for her.

When she won the Rising Star award in 2001, she was working at the Colorado Springs Sports Corp. More than 15 years later, she is executive director of the Air Force Academy Athletic Corp., a nonprofit arm of the U.S. Air Force Academy.

She took time to discuss work-life balance, her love of sports and her role mentoring cadets.

How has your career changed?

I would say everything has changed in the last 15 years; I’ve had so many opportunities to grow and be challenged. I’m now a working mom. I have two daughters now, 13 and 10. The nature of my day-to-day life has changed so much — the work-life balance is a major, major player in my life.

From a career standpoint, it’s a combination of hard work, luck and timing. I look back on myself 15 years ago, and opportunities I took advantage of. I earned a Ph.D. since that time. When I reflect back over the past 15 years, it actually seems like an entirely different life.

How long have you been at the Academy?

I’ve worked at the Academy for 13 years. The nonprofit model started three years ago. I watched it from the very beginning — the evolution of the Air Force Academy Athletic Corp.

I was on the front end of that, and it was the biggest and most rewarding challenge of my career, starting with an idea to get the elements in place for high-level Division 1 coaches, all the way to part-time seasonal employees. After three years, I’m very proud of the work we’ve all done.  And it’s amazing to be able to come to work and be challenged. I still think there’s so much to do with this job, even after 13 years.

Why did you decide to stay in Colorado Springs?

It really is a combination of this is a really amazing place to live and work. It has everything you would want and need for a family. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve grown in my career and stayed here.

For a lot of people in this industry, to grow you have to leave. We’re especially lucky because my husband is in the same industry, so we’re fortunate that the city has something we can do for both our careers.

In my case, I’ve been lucky and blessed to progress along the way. I’ve never felt like I needed to explore other opportunities because I’m still challenged here.

Why did you choose sports?

I always knew this is what I was going to do. I played tennis at Southeastern Illinois University, and knew I wanted to be involved in sports. I wasn’t going to be a coach or an athletic trainer. I was interested in the business of sports, what it takes to run a promotion, how to market for sports, what it takes behind the scenes to be successful. I look back at all my time on the court, and everything I’ve learned. There are lessons I still use — every day — that I learned in sports. I’m fortunate to be able to do that for cadet athletes today.  n CSBJ