By Christina Henderson
I’ve been to a number of great events in the last two weeks – the Early Stage MTStatewide Showcase in Bozeman with Frontier Angels; the “Crack the Code” Medical Technology Commercialization Panel in Missoula with Telos Partners; and the Montana High Tech Business Alliance Board of Directors strategic planning retreat in Butte. One theme that emerged repeatedly was the crucial role that Montana fans play in growing our high-tech economy.
Montana fans are folks who currently do not live in Montana but have a connection to the state and a stake in its success. Often they grew up here, have family here, attended school here, or vacation here. Sometimes Montana has just captured their imagination and is the state they want to move to when the right job pops up, their kids get older, or they are ready to retire. Here are three key ways Montana fans play an essential role in Montana’s high-tech economy.
1) Montana fans act as ambassadors.
When we launched the Montana High Tech Business Alliance in 2014, one of the first people who reached out to me with enthusiastic support was Kurt Burgess, a California resident, Butte native, and active member of the Montana Ambassadors. Burgess has been involved with a number of entrepreneurial ventures in the medical technology space and currently leads business development and operations for Telos Partners.
Burgess’ Ambassador work has developed key strategic relationships and economic development opportunities between California-based corporations and the state of Montana. Burgess helped organize the “Crack the Code” seminar in Missoula on September 27, bringing national executives like Samir Bhattacharyya, PhD of Johnson & Johnson, to Montana for the first time and giving expatriate Montanans a valuable networking opportunity back home.
In 2013, Burgess was named Outreach Montana Ambassador of the Year by Governor Bullock for performing “exemplary service to assist in building successful business bridges to Montana by organizing special events to bring together constituents.” Five years later, he hasn’t stopped.
2) Montana fans help Montana companies.
Julie Penner has lived in Boulder, CO since 2006 and serves as Director at the Techstars accelerator there. She was born in Billings and grew up in Helena before heading off to the Ivy League to earn a bachelor’s degree from Brown, and then back west for a J.D. and MBA from the University of Colorado.
Penner has many family members and friends living in Helena, Bozeman, and Missoula. While speaking on a panel at the Early Stage Montana Showcase on September 22, she highlighted the knowledge and capital available in the pool of Montana fans who love having reasons to visit the state.
“You guys gave us an excuse to get on a plane and expense it to our companies and come to Montana, and there are way more of us you can get here,” Penner said. “That virtual Montana population that’s not only looking to live here, but also looking to give back here.”
Penner suggested locating venture capitalists who love to ski, inviting them to a pitch event, and then hitting the slopes at Bridger or Big Sky.
“They want to be in Montana,” she said. “You’re not trying to pitch Omaha. This place is really special and you have that to your advantage.”
Penner also recommended looking for unconventional opportunities to funnel more capital into the state, such as tapping parents in the Bay Area whose children attend Montana universities as potential investors in Montana companies. It gives them another reason to visit their child, Penner said.
3) Montana fans are a key source of talent.
Kelly Schwager grew up in the heart of the Bay Area tech scene. Her mom was an early employee at Intel, and her dad worked for IBM. Schwager launched her own tech career in communications and marketing, holding leadership roles with global firms like Streetline, SAP, Symantec, and VERITAS, and ultimately serving as Executive Vice President at PR firm Edelman’s Silicon Valley office.
Six years ago, Schwager and her husband moved to Columbia Falls, Montana, when their youngest son graduated from high school. For seven years prior, the couple and their two sons made an annual pilgrimage to ski Big Mountain in Whitefish.
To achieve their dream of living their vacation lifestyle on an everyday basis, Schwager took her job remote, and then transitioned to another remote position as VP of Global Communications for Oracle. Her husband, a restaurateur in the Bay Area, reinvented himself as a park ranger for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
Schwager now serves on the Montana High Tech Business Alliance Board of Directors, leveraging her connections and experience from the Bay Area to help grow Montana’s tech sector.
“Tech is my passion, but the lifestyle I love is here,” Schwager said.
She sees folks like herself as a key source of future talent. Her hope is that her own children, who are pursuing tech careers in San Diego and Seattle, will find the right job opportunities in Montana someday.
If you know a Montana fan who would like to get more connected to our high-tech community, forward them our newsletter. Encourage them to check out MTHighTech.org/Jobs for open tech and manufacturing positions in Montana, or point them to our Companies to Watch lists for the most exciting companies in the state.
About the author: Christina Quick Henderson is executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship, management and organizational behavior in the College of Business at the University of Montana.
About the publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.