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Supporting Startups in Montana’s Wide-Open Spaces

August 2, 2017
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Supporting Startups in Montana’s Wide-Open Spaces
In her role as executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, Christina Henderson works to attract a diverse community of entrepreneurs to the state’s nascent startup scene. Photo by Thomas Kurdy/Ndigena
Meet the woman on a mission to share her state’s surprising entrepreneurial success stories.

When your husband works for the U.S. Forest Service, you’ll find yourself frequently moving to places “where there are a lot of trees and not a lot of people,” says Christina Henderson, a marketing executive who knows firsthand. She and her family would often land in rural communities where the local economy had been based on natural resource extraction and was now declining — communities like Missoula, Mont., where she moved in 2011.

But instead of giving up on these hard-hit areas, Henderson was more motivated than ever to help them, primarily by embracing anyone with an enterprising spirit. “I love the promise of entrepreneurship, what it can create, and what it can mean for a rural community,” Henderson says.

It wasn’t long before Henderson got onboard with a new initiative called the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. The organization’s main goal? To support local tech entrepreneurs — and tell the story of their unlikely success in an unlikely place far from the bubble of Silicon Valley. In June, Henderson, who says she wants to show people that the Montana startup scene isn’t “all taxidermy and saddle shops,” attended the Kauffman Foundation’s inaugural ESHIP Summit for ideas on further developing her community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

High Tech In The Rural West

The idea of a thriving startup scene out in Big Sky Country may come as a surprise to outsiders, but Henderson believes the state is benefiting from three broad trends. The first is the way that technology has eliminated geographical barriers. “It’s been a real equalizer for rural communities,” she notes.

The second trend boosting Montana’s local ecosystem is the creative class’s increasing focus on quality of life. “The kinds of people who come to Montana value other things besides climbing [the corporate] ladder,” Henderson says. “They’re still hardworking and ambitious, but we also value things like work-life balance.”

Henderson credits the $1.8 billion sale of RightNow Technologies to software giant Oracle in 2012 as the third prong sparking Montana’s startup ecosystem. “It’s essentially a unicorn in the middle of Bozeman,” Henderson says. “It changed the minds of Montana entrepreneurs in terms of how big you can scale a company in Montana.” RightNow helped create a pool of high-quality talent in the state — people who had experience growing a startup to scale. More than a dozen former RightNow employees have spun off or created new companies, and the headline-grabbing sale also helped draw the interest of venture capitalists. “It’s hard to underestimate the impact of that one success story,” she says.

Overcoming Barriers

Of course, the state still has plenty of challenges, namely access to talent and capital, Henderson says. “For decades, the story you get told when you graduate from college in Montana is that you have to leave the state to get a job.” And changing that notion will take time. While investors’ perceptions of the state are also changing, that shift is fairly recent.

Political divides — and a heightened partisan climate nationally — can also be a difficult bridge to cross in this purple state. “We have people on all sides of the political spectrum,” Henderson says. “One of my challenges is to maintain a nonpartisan association that brings people together around this common goal.” It’s crucial that political differences don’t ever block an entrepreneur from making an important connection or accessing the resources they need.

In a state that’s almost 90 percent white, building a diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem that’s welcoming to all is also a barrier. “We have candidates come to Montana who are of color, and they get off the plane and look around and go, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” says Henderson, adding that the ESHIP Summit helped her connect with other people around the country facing the same issue. “I really value underrepresented groups being included in entrepreneurship,” Henderson says. “I deeply care about that, and it’s not easy, and the people who have been trying to do it are really frustrated.”

That Small-Town Feel

As the executive director of the High Tech Business Alliance, Henderson’s main job is to support networking among entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs. “Folks who are launching a company need access to mentors, legal and financial help, and information about exporting,” she says. Companies with fewer than five employees can join the organization for free, attend events, and meet established entrepreneurs who can offer advice and practical help.

Montana’s small-town atmosphere makes this networking easier. It’s the fourth-largest state geographically, but with roughly the same population as Delaware. Entrepreneurs and investors are increasingly willing to travel relatively long distances to help each other, and elected officials are personally cultivating relationships with local entrepreneurs.

The rugged wilderness of Montana attracts people seeking adventure and risk rather than a comfortable existence. One local entrepreneur put it this way, Henderson says: “‘I’ll go backcountry camping for weeks at a time — I’m already willing to endure hard things to do what I love.’” That spirit of adventure matches up well with entrepreneurship, Henderson says. “It’s a bit of a harder life. There are bears in the wilderness. It attracts a heartier person, and I think that lends itself to entrepreneurship.

“You have to be a little entrepreneurial if you’re willing to live in Montana,” she adds.

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This content was produced in partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which works in entrepreneurship and education to create opportunities and connect people to the tools they need to achieve success, change their futures and give back to their communities. In June 2017, the foundation hosted its inaugural ESHIP Summit, convening 435 leaders fighting to help break down barriers for entrepreneurs across the country.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that companies with fewer than 500 employees could join High Tech Business Alliance for free. NationSwell apologizes for this error.

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