Stephannie Finley Fortune went from being a big thinker in the small town of Strafford, Mo., to a Capitol insider, moving to Denver two days after graduating from high school, then building a career in politics and public policy in Washington, D.C.
After traveling the world, serving on President George H.W. Bush’s advance team and working as chief of staff in the 3rd Congressional District and for Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, Fortune made her way to Colorado Springs in 2006 and got in the local game.
She plugged into conversation, joined boards and took on roles in development projects, such as the City for Champions and regional leaders trips.
As executive director of University Advocacy and Partnerships at UCCS, Fortune said she’s excited about the new momentum in the city and helping shape Colorado Springs into a vibrant and resilient community.
“I see an upslope with great promise, connectivity and opportunity,” she said. “Having our small businesses, startups and innovative culture grow and flourish now more than ever is really changing the business climate. There are now pockets of energy everywhere, making stuff happen in a very exciting way.”
This week, Fortune sat down with the Business Journal to discuss her passion for Colorado Springs, challenges ahead and the importance of this year’s election.
How long have you lived in Colorado Springs?
I moved to Colorado Springs 10 years ago. I was working for the lieutenant governor and was recruited to come to Colorado Springs and serve as president of governmental affairs and public policy for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce [now the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance].
How did you get into politics?
When I moved to Colorado, no one told me how lonely it would be — not being connected and having any friends. Up until that point, I’d lived my life very social and in the thick of things.
I was 17, in Denver and was like, ‘How do I meet people?’ I had a cousin who said, ‘Let’s join Young Republicans and meet wealthy men.’
I was young and didn’t care about meeting men, but was interested and loved Ronald Reagan. She never joined but I did and it changed my life forever.
I became involved in a U.S. Senate campaign and when that campaign ended, I was offered a job at the state Capitol.
I went to the Capitol and worked for the majority leader. It was an incredible experience because I also started doing advance for President Bush and was able to go to Australia, Italy and Chile, helping set up his trips and be the on-site person when he was there.
I was able to work for the state Legislature and was chief of staff for the 3rd Congressional District for six and a half years; it was amazing. It was such a privilege to be in D.C. representing Colorado. And we never took it for granted — we took it as an awesome responsibility and it was important to us to expose people to their government.
When did you begin working on a college degree?
When I started working in public policy for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, because I didn’t have a degree, I lost out on a promotion. So at 38, I enrolled in classes and started working toward a degree in organizational communication and strategic leadership.
I’d always planned on going to college when I was young, but my parents and siblings never attended, and right after high school I started working in politics.
Why are you passionate about Colorado Springs?
I think the people here are extraordinary. Never have I experienced this — where people dig in, roll up their sleeves and start working on problems. They’re problem-solvers who care, want to make a difference and have an impact.
And there’s been a shift in intentionality that I just love. There is more intentionality about what it means to recover from two fires, a flood and the downsizing of the military. People here want to figure out how to respond to that and how to make things happen.
How would you describe the city’s business climate?
I think we went through a rough period. I think with our civic organizations and political leadership struggling, the community felt the impact of that. I think we took a bit of a downturn. Now I see an upslope, and I’m very thrilled with what’s going on in the business community. I think small business is critical to our advancement and bringing companies here is critical. So taking these larger companies and celebrating the fact that we have companies expanding and moving here is wonderful. And the beauty is that it’s multi-generational — it’s not just the powers-that-be who are leading everything.
What’s new at UCCS?
We just started building a partnership between UCCS, United Way and District 11, talking about building champions to work with students who don’t have family champions — someone in their life who is encouraging them to go to college, graduate high school.
Two weeks ago, I went to Washington, D.C., and visited America’s Promise [Alliance], founded by Colin Powell. It’s incredible, and what I learned is that we’re on the right track, working toward getting kids to graduate high school, get into college. We saw example after example in Baltimore, Dallas, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
We’ve organically grown this partnership and I received major validation when I visited America’s Promise — so we’re going to call it Colorado Springs’ Promise.
What is your biggest challenge?
I have a health challenge right now, but I’m determined to fight and get on the other side of it. I have the most wonderful husband, Kent Fortune, who when you meet and marry for the first time at 52, you don’t take lightly. I have a tremendous support system, and people have rallied around me like never before. So it’s rally time.
I’m going to remain passionate about this community and work like crazy to have great things happen but also take care of me — and my husband.
Because of this challenge, I feel like I have greater clarity about what is important in life, what I will spend time on and what matters. My faith is deep and important to me; now I have a different lens and it’s positive.
What is your next goal?
Uniting together as a community with one plan and one vision of how we’re going to go after funding, public policy and join together in a common vision. That’s what we saw through all of the regional leaders trips — one united vision elevating us to the next level.
How can the city better collaborate?
By not being in our own little bubbles. When you widen the aperture and allow cross-collaboration, it’s so much richer. We can do so much more with it and sometimes don’t have to have the funding for it.
Putting collective energy together transforms it into something more powerful and effective. That’s collaboration and partnership to me. It’s not just the conversation.
What do you think is most significant about this year’s election?
We will always have elected officials — that is never going to change. The question is: How do people engage in that so they can elect the right people to get the things done that they care the most about? People shy away from politics, and I think that’s very dangerous. People who run for office are good people — for the most part — and we need to support them because they have a tough job.