Aikta Marcoulier

In May 2012, Aikta Marcoulier applied for the executive director position at the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center at midnight — “I totally remember that” — and before she knew it, the job was hers.

Eight years later, the Iowa native has become one of the most recognizable faces in the region’s business community, and the Pikes Peak SBDC has emerged as a leading resource for both aspiring entrepreneurs and established small business owners.

The center’s client base has grown from roughly 180 annually as of May 2012 to more than 650. Marcoulier attributes this to the collaboration between the SBDC and its community partners — an initiative that many say began with her.

“I think when I started, collaboration started because leadership changed at the [Better Business Bureau of Southern Colorado] — leadership changed all over at the exact same time, and we were all people that are like, ‘Let’s do this together,’” Marcoulier said. “Which is awesome. … I think developing resources and knowing what’s out there and creating collaborations is absolutely necessary.”

Marcoulier has a bachelor’s degree in economics and psychology from the University of Iowa and a master’s of business administration in global management from the University of Phoenix. She sat down with the Business Journal this week to talk about the upcoming U.S. Census and what’s in store for the SBDC in 2020 and beyond.

What are your professional responsibilities?

My responsibilities are to create awareness of who the SBDC is. We’re not just local; we’re statewide and nationwide, so our connections are very deep when it comes to knowing federal agencies and what business resources are there. So reaching the small businesses effectively, and then understanding what the community needs [in order]  to create the programs that will live up to them … and are forward thinking and leading in the area of small business development. There’s a lot of different groups in town that we partner with, but we need to be the leaders because we have 40 experts for a reason. They’ve done it a million times. So my job, going back to that, is creating awareness, meeting the needs of the community and providing the resources.

How do the partnerships that Pikes Peak SBDC forms benefit the business community?

I truly believe in collaboration for the business community. … It’s OK to have multiple small business development agencies … and it’s OK to be considered competitors, but what’s the point of us all being here for the business community if we’re not aligning ourselves and working together? When a cool idea comes up, it’s OK to grab on and support that idea and say, ‘How can I help you?’ rather than trying to do it on your own. … We are all [working with] limited funds, we’re all going for the same grants, we’re all going for the same partners — let’s just come together for the business community, because if we’re going to rise to one of the top 10 places to start a business, we need to work harder at making it easy for small businesses.

How have you seen the Pikes Peak region’s small business landscape change since you took over?

… I think there’s been growth in tech and cyber, but I think sometimes an organization like ours sees growth based on what our capacity is to meet those needs and what kind of experts we have at the table. … We have a tech program we’ve branded over the last few years, so we’re working really closely on innovation and tech commercialization … and then we’re running the cybersecurity statewide program, so of course we’re seeing more areas of need of all businesses for cybersecurity, but also we now know of all the cybersecurity expertise our community has. We didn’t know, because that wasn’t our area of expertise at the time. Now we know how much cybersecurity expertise we have in this community, and those are all small businesses, and they all need strategic development — not necessarily cybersecurity ecosystem experts, but strategic development growth.

What are some of the Pikes Peak SBDC’s current areas of focus?

[One area] is to focus on our rural areas. … When you’re part rural and part urban like me — because we cover Teller County as well, and eastern El Paso County is rural — resource development and outreach [is] different. In Colorado Springs there’s meetup groups, there’s networking — there’s so much stuff you can just show up to. You have to do a little bit more research and outreach to certain areas of the rural community. … You have to make the effort to go there and understand the needs, because Falcon isn’t always coming to Colorado Springs for everything. … In Teller County, the demographics are different, the lifestyle is different, and the way you approach and teach in all the areas are different. When it’s readily available here, it may not be readily available in another place.

Any other areas the SBDC is trying to grow?

One of the big ones is working with the Department of Corrections. We started working with the Department of Corrections about a year and a half ago, with Solid Rock [Economic Development Corporation] and the Fresh Start program. We would go in the prison system and work with those who have transitioned out to help with entrepreneurial goals. Since then, that funding has been cut through their Transforming Safety grants, so we are working on creating a partnership … with the Department of Corrections so that we can actually create some pilot for the whole SBDC network with actually going into the prisons again and being part of their career development.

The educational development that they have for those in prison, entrepreneurial training is a piece of that … because so many times, that’s the only thing that they can have going for them. A lot of businesses don’t understand that justice-involved citizens are also great employees.

… So the Department of Corrections program is really important to us, and trying to figure out how to support our veterans more as they are active-duty, not just transitioning, is really important to us. … You’ve got to start changing it early.

Can you elaborate on that?

Well, it’s funny because justice-involved citizens and veterans are not the same thing, but … the simple way to say it, is once someone exits something they’ve done for a long time, it’s too late sometimes to show them that there is support. For a veteran, or someone getting out of prison, or someone exiting the university — whatever it is, it’s too late to say, ‘OK, we’re here for you,’ when they’re already like, ‘I’m leaving.’ … So making sure you get involved with our students early, our active-duty military early, getting in front of justice-involved citizens as early as possible — providing the education support early on is really important so … if they do want to be an entrepreneur or small business owner, at least they’ve gotten support, and on the exit out, they feel confident that they still have it.

… So what we want to do is intercept that a lot earlier [by] creating programs that are part of their educational process on the way out. Also, it helps with retaining people here in our community. We want people to stay. We don’t want all of our veterans to leave. We don’t want all of our amazing university students to leave to find a better job. We’ve got to show them that there’s support here for them — there’s jobs or small business development opportunities.

As co-chair of the Pikes Peak Area Complete Count’s business subcommittee, what are you doing to educate businesses on the 2020 census?

We’re really trying to educate the business community that although as a business, they’re not going to be contacted for the census, as an individual, they are, and it’s really important that our community gets counted for so many reasons. We’re helping the business community understand cool ways to get your employees to do the census. … You can have pizza parties, you can give them an hour off if they get it done on work time — you can do cool stuff like that, because the impacts can be huge for the community.

Also in the business community, know that we use census data for marketing purposes, or all of this stuff we use for business research — a lot of it is based on the census. … The business committee didn’t really show 10 years ago. There wasn’t great tracking to show how businesses were involved, and so we have a really great committee this year with representatives from all the chambers in the area, the Senior Resource Council — these business-like organizations are all part of our committee.