Zachary Barker is a Louisiana transplant, a certified economic developer, president of the Startup Support Center, and a proud member of the “chest of misfit toys” that is Colorado Springs Rising Professionals.
He’s also a firm believer that, for a city to stay vital, it must invest in its 20- to 40-year-olds — and it must ensure bad decision-making doesn’t hurt good people.
That’s part of why he left Lafayette in 2017, where he’d spearheaded major community projects like Innovate South and ArtSpark. And it’s part of why he decided to “find his tribe” in Colorado Springs.
Barker talked with the Business Journal about building entrepreneurs, rebuilding after the pandemic and giving the younger generation a seat at the table.
Where are you from?
I was born in Minnesota but grew up in San Diego. We moved from San Diego to Tennessee when I was a high school freshman. I lived in Nashville up until I met my amazing wife. I was 30 years old, and we got married. She’s from Louisiana and a medical doctor. We moved to Lafayette because her family was in Louisiana and she had a really great job opportunity in the medical field there. She’s an anesthesiologist … and she currently works for UCHealth at Memorial Hospital [Central].
I went to Middle Tennessee State University. I got my Bachelors of Business Administration — in marketing, specifically. The year I left Nashville was the flood. We had [the flood], I fixed up my house up, and then we moved. My house didn’t get smoked, but ... I worked on 2nd Ave., so the building I worked in had water up to the second floor, which was the floor that I worked on.
Tell us about the projects you were involved with in Louisiana.
We moved to Lafayette, Louisiana and I started a business called Acadiana Sports Leagues — an adult recreational sports and social organization where I worked full-time for two years. Then I got into economic development after being recruited as executive director of Lafayette Economic Development Authority’s entrepreneur acceleration program — it was this convergence of politics, marketing, economics, sales — all in one thing. It was all the things I was interested in, but in a job.
Most of the projects I did were with an economic development entity called Opportunity Machine, created by the [Lafayette] Economic Development Authority. Through Opportunity Machine, I helped start a regional conference called INNOV8 Acadiana — it’s since rebranded as Innovate South.
It’s kind of like [South by Southwest] for South Louisiana. It’s by no means on the same scale, but it has pitch nights and art competitions, featuring companies doing inventive things and matching them with other organizations. I was super proud it. I didn’t do it all, though; we had a team of people. And we crushed it. We worked with a company called WAITR. They’re a food delivery company focused on small-to-medium sized cities. They started with like three or four people, and a few years later they were on the New York Stock Exchange. I didn’t do much. I gave them a space and was a cheerleader, but to be a part of their journey was unbelievable.
The other really cool project I was part of is a program called ArtSpark. The idea was to spark artists into becoming full-time business owners. If you’re a muralist, a painter or a dancer, you may have a hard time understanding how to sell your product — because an artist is so good at their craft that they never really learned how to sell it or how to create business partnerships … things like that. So we ran an accelerator and taught them that: we literally taught them the art of doing business so that, in the end, they could operate as a full-time artist — as opposed to having these great, talented people who only did projects here and there because they had to have a ‘real job.’
Why did you move?
When we moved, Nancy — my wife — was a big deal at her hospital. I had a great job, and I was a significant part of building up the community. We left because the politics down there are a little rough. The smartest decisions are often not made. Like, they didn’t want to use tax dollars to rebuild schools that were built back in the ’40s. We lived in a place where it rains nearly 300 days a year and ‘You don’t want to fix the roof on a public school? What we’re doing here?’ A road that had 10 houses on it would get repaved, but a road with 10,000 cars an hour wouldn’t get fixed and would remain in disrepair.
A lot of it was relationships — who you know, and who knows who. Every community has that, but in a city of 200,000 people I’d see a lot of folks get hurt by bad decision-making. My wife and I did pretty well and were often not hurt by those bad decisions. We could overcome … because of our incomes — but unless you were in the top 5 percent of the income structure in that city, every bad decision multiplied upon you. I was looking at my friends, people I love and care about, get hurt. I’m genuinely a community-minded guy … worried about people who either haven’t had experiences to become resilient or don’t have the education and experience where they understand their real value, but rely on a system and depend on a job lasting.
To be in a community where top-to-bottom decisions were hurting others … and they’re not being fixed, I couldn’t sit with that anymore. That’s the biggest reason why we came here.
Why Colorado Springs?
My wife and I, neither one of us had a job lined up, and we didn’t know anyone here either. It should be known: Everybody in the South wants to move to Colorado … from Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. We’re all fascinated with Colorado. I think it has to do with the mountains, skiing and all that. My wife gets recruited all the time. So we had a conversation: If we move, where should we go? I suggested that we go somewhere where we can do stuff we want to do. I jokingly call Colorado Springs ‘Vacation Land’ — people come on vacation to go hiking, biking, some fly here to go skiing, you can go rafting … literally everything you want to do on vacation, except the beach, you can do here or very near here.
Once we decided that we were going to move to the Springs, I knew I needed to make friends and find my tribe. I came across the Colorado Springs Rising Professionals and Keith Willschau [program manager at Leadership Pikes Peak], who was a CSRP board member at the time, was creating and posting videos about stuff going on in the city. I started emailing him and he wouldn’t respond. I get it: I was just some random stranger claiming that I was going to move to Colorado Springs. Finally when I said, ‘I am arriving at such-and-such date,’ a definitive date, ‘and I’d like to get coffee’ — then it became real and he replied. I owe Keith a lot; he provided so many connections. He put me in touch with Jeremy Wimer, who — after hearing my story, my passions, and the work I did in Lafayette — asked if I wanted to be on the Rising Professionals board. Within three months of moving here, I was a board member of the Colorado Springs Rising Professionals. Not long after, I became President of the Board. Honestly, it was being assertive, knowing that I needed friends and a network here that put me in the position I’m in.
Talk about Colorado Springs Rising Professionals.
We are a chest of misfit toys, largely because a lot of the members are relatively new to the city — but also because we all have varied backgrounds, skills, and interests and we’re looking for ways to contribute to our community of Colorado Springs. It’s the responsibility of decision-makers in our community to make sure that you help younger folks choose to live here — you create a community where the next generation wants to stay and invest … where they see the worth and value of this city. When they start making decisions that make people think, ‘I don’t know if I want to live here. I don’t know if I can live here,’ then we have problems that need addressed. That’s part of why the Rising Professionals matter so much — because, inherently, systems are built for people who are more established or have more power. If a community loses its 20- to 40-year-olds when the previous generation retires or passes away, who takes their place? If you move back to Indiana, then you’re not here — then not only do I lose you, but I lose your talent. … [We lose] what you offer this community.
Many communities are not concerned enough with that 20- to 40-year-old range. We need to invest in them. When you come here and you want to volunteer, create culture, and be a part of community … that investment of emotion and heart is irreplaceable. Essentially, the whole point of the Rising Professionals is to give a younger generation a seat at the table, so we can competently take care [of] our community.
Tell us about Startup Support Center.
I build entrepreneurs. I help them figure out what mentors are needed, what kind of training is required, and what kind of financing is needed. It’s kind of a plug and play model. They pick what they want their success measures to be. I provide training and support focused on sustainable growth. My goal is to provide the training, tools and techniques for achieving their goals. When COVID hit, every contract stopped. Clients kept saying “We’re going to wait ‘til the summer. No big deal.” But the pandemic lasted so much longer than expected. Right now, I only have two contracts that were from this time last year — one is across the state of Colorado and the other is in Louisiana. I’m rebuilding.
What else is happening?
I just graduated with a master’s degree in economic development on May 7 from Murray State University. I decided to spend the pandemic furthering my education.