Supporting Startups in Montana’s Wide-Open Spaces

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.


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.

California Is Going to Use Toilet Water to Grow Your Vegetables

By the end of 2017, toilet water and other wastewater will be used to irrigate a large swath of Central Valley farmland near Interstate 5, an area that is known as California’s agricultural hub because it produces more than 360 products.
“As long as we keep taking showers and flushing toilets, we can guarantee you water,” Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said to farmers at an August 2015 news event.
Treatment facilities in the two inland cities, Modesto and Turlock, will collect the water from sinks, showers, washing machines and toilets, and process it into what’s commonly referred to as “gray water.” Once the not-quite-drinkable H2O is clear of all solid waste, it’s completely safe to be used to water plants or siphoned off to natural wetlands.
By 2018, a $100 million pipeline is expected to transport the processed water to 30,600 acres of farmland roughly 40 miles south.
Two years ago, drought cost California’s state economy an estimated $2.7 billion, according to a study done by UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Water shortages resulted in $247 million in lost crop revenue in 2016.
The gray water should help drought-stricken farmers in the future, as new population growth in this region of California puts increasing pressure on the water supply and scientists predict that climate change could cause future droughts to be more drastic.
“Without something like this, the future for my son and grandson and family — we’re into this third generation — I don’t know if we can keep our business going,” Jim Jasper, owner of Stewart & Jasper Orchards, tells KQED.
California has been recycling water for more than 100 years. Los Angeles County first used treated wastewater in 1929 to water golf courses and parks, and the state has been irrigating farmland with it for more than three decades, according to the Pacific Institute. A 2009 survey (the most recent available) reported that 669,000 acres of California land was irrigated using gray water.
MORE: The Counterintuitive Solution to California’s Drought Crisis
Homepage photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The Sneaker Saint

The sneaker business has never been bigger than it is today. Since 2004, sales of high-end athletic shoes increased by 40 percent to nearly $55 billion, and the resale market generates more than $1 billion. Now, one former sneakerhead hopes to put a little soul back in the soles of homeless people and disadvantaged youth by gifting them a brand new or gently worn pair.
Watch the video above to see how Rikki Mendias, founder of the grassroots nonprofit Hav a Sole, uses his background in fashion photography and social media marketing to solicit sneaker donations to stock pop-up shops for his unique patrons.
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Mental Healthcare Resources Target Communities Left Behind, A Tech Giant Wages War Against ISIS and More

Rural America Finally Gets Mental Health Help, Governing
The absence of clinics, therapists and psychiatrists in our nation’s small towns have fueled incarceration, self-medicating opioid abuse and suicide. But developments like telemedicine and integration of mental health checkups into primary care visits have the potential to alleviate the psychic crises causing headaches in sparsely populated counties.
Google’s Clever Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits, WIRED
The search engine is trying a new strategy to fight the Islamic State’s aggressive online recruiting campaigns. Rather than creating or hiding content, Google simply redirects traffic to videos featuring Muslim religious authorities debunking ISIS apocalyptic theology and undercover clips showing the devastation for Syrian and Iraqi civilians.
Can a Montana Community Run its Own Forest? High Country News
In 2002, to prevent real estate developers from subdividing 142 acres of lakefront property, locals in one small Montana town pooled their money to buy the land for the community. After financial hardships threatened to put the parcel back on the market in 2014, an under-utilized government fund saved the shoreline, preserving the West’s rugged landscape.
MORE: This Common Sense Program Could Be the Future of Mental Healthcare Nationwide

Giving Mickey Mouse an Energy Boost Helps the Environment, How One Neighborhood Transformed Itself from the Country’s Worst and More

Want Power? Fire Up the Tomatoes and Potatoes, National Geographic
In Florida, scientists discovered that the tomato can be transformed from a lycopene storehouse into an electrical powerhouse. Considering that the annual surplus in South Florida could power Disney World for three months, is a new type of utility — one that’s fueled by food waste — in the state’s future?
How Cincinnati Salvaged the Nation’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood, Politico
Simply put, in 2009, Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood was the nation’s worst. When city government couldn’t provide a lifeline to the downtrodden area, a nonprofit private development company stepped in. Now, in just seven short years, the community is experiencing a blossoming transformation.
New California Law Could Keep Guns Away from People Like Omar Mateen, Reveal
After a mass shooting tragedy in 2014, the Golden State proved that it’s possible to pass sensible gun legislation. Its gun violence restraining order can prevent someone from purchasing or possessing a firearm for 21 days if law enforcement or a family member is worried they’ll turn violent.
MORE: The Surprising Second Life of Urine

Rutgers University Admits Unlikely Student Body, Journalists Use Reporting to Urge Politicians to Act and More

A University That Prioritizes the Students Who Are Often Ignored, The Atlantic
Traditionally, America’s colleges seek to attract the best and brightest to their hallowed halls. Committed to cultivating local talent regardless of status, New Jersey’s Rutgers University is bucking that trend, recruiting low-income, public-school graduates with mediocre GPAs and test scores — the very students that other schools shun.
A Plan to Flood San Francisco With News on Homelessness, New York Times
Can journalists advocate for a cause while remaining unbiased in their reporting? Next month, writers and editors from 30 Bay Area media outlets plan to do just that while collaborating on coverage focused on San Francisco’s homeless problem. The goal: To serve as a catalyst for solutions to the seemingly intractable problem.
This City Is Giving Away Super-Fast Internet to Poor Students, CNN Money
No longer are the poorest families in Chattanooga, Tenn., forced to visit a fast-food restaurant so their children can access the Internet needed to complete their homework. Two new programs are bringing citizens online in the Southern city, where 22.5 percent of the population lives in poverty.
MORE: Only 1 in 5 New York City Students Graduate from College. This College Is Going to Change That

Sin City Goes Green, Philanthropic Investments That Reap Incredible Returns and More

Behind the Bright Lights of Vegas: How the 24-Hour Party City Is Greening Up Its Act, The Guardian
It may be known as Sin City, but that doesn’t mean the indiscretions taking place in the Nevada desert must include harming the planet. A new leafy oasis now offers vacationers a respite from the bright-as-the-sun neon lights that illuminate the Strip all night long. The Park, which features native Southwestern plants, a 40-foot-tall statue originally from the Burning Man festival and large metal structures that keep visitors shaded and cool, might be the only actual green space amongst the seemingly-endless stretch of casinos, but it’s one of many ways that Las Vegas is reducing its environmental footprint.
How to Bet Big on the American Dream, The Atlantic
Despite politicians’ proclamations, the American Dream isn’t dead or even on its last legs. But how much philanthropic investment is necessary for low-income residents to have a shot at upward mobility? The nonprofit advisor Bridgespan Group examined how impactful $1 billion dollars invested in each of 15 different philanthropic ventures would be at reducing poverty. As with any investment, the payout isn’t certain. But with returns estimated at being between $3 and $15 for each $1 spent (not to mention a high probability of drastically increasing program recipients’ lifetime earnings), these are bets that seem to be worth taking.
New MOOCs for Rising Leaders, Stanford Social Innovation Review
Why is it that things are usually out of reach to those most interested? Social entrepreneurs often can’t afford or get to leadership development programs. But now, educational seminars are going to them, thanks to the release of two new MOOCs (massive open online course). Free video classes from Philanthropy U provide students insights from social enterprise greats such as the cofounder of; Leaderosity, which charges tuition, touts among its instructors leaders from The Presidio Institute. Both programs provide access to personnel development that’s desperately needed in this sector.
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The Duel in the Desert: Albuquerque Residents Fight for Workplace Rights

When your 4-year-old daughter is suffering from a 100-degree fever, common sense says that you shouldn’t have to choose between her health and your job. But that’s not always the case, so a coalition of New Mexico’s families is fighting for better treatment in the workplace.
It may be surprising to hear that low-wage workers can be fired for not waiting by the phone on their days off, when they’re expected to be on call in case their store gets busy. Some are unaware that workers have no guarantee of a regular schedule or paid sick leave. They have no idea employees can be scheduled for “doubles,” a swing shift that ends at midnight and an opening shift that begins early the next morning, cramming 16 hours of work in less than 24 hours. For members of Organizing in the Land of Enchantment, or OLÉ, a 5,000-member group that’s made up primarily of females, in Albuquerque, these challenges are a daily reality.
Kris Buchmann, an active member of the group, had to quit her retail job at an Albuquerque mall because childcare for her 1-year-old son during on-call shifts was costing nearly as much as she made working in the store. “I still had to pay a babysitter. Sometimes I would have to go pick her up, take her back to my house because she didn’t have transportation, drive to work, get sent home, still have to pay her and drive her home,” Buchmann explained to The New York Times. Buchmann asked for a more stable work schedule, but her boss refused.
OLÉ is working with Fight for $15 to raise minimum wages for fast food workers and the National Domestic Workers Alliance to ensure fair pay for home caregivers, but the thrust of its own grassroots campaigning is for broad workplace protections that would apply to every industry, transforming low-wage work from dead-end jobs to a stable profession. At the Albuquerque City Council, it’s pushing for the Fair Workweek Act, a proposed ordinance that would require employers to create work schedules three weeks in advance, compensate employees for last-minute changes, provide paid sick days and guarantee a $150 retention stipend for every two weeks a worker was on call but had no work.
OLÉ started in 2010 with an ambitious core agenda that touched on worker’s rights, affordable early childhood education, naturalization for legal residents and conservation of water and public lands. Their most significant victory thus far was passing a hike in the minimum wage, from $7.50 to to $8.50, in a 2012 ballot initiative that swept two-thirds of the vote.
That boost marked a “big step forward for low-wage workers in Albuquerque,” Matthew Henderson, OLÉ’s executive director, tells NationSwell. “Even so, I think everyone recognized that it is still pretty inadequate. Even with the minimum wage increase, there were a growing number of problems with low-wage work so we started thinking about how we could do something bigger that would affect more workers.”
The Fair Workweek Act intended to be just that, but thus far, it’s encountered strong opposition. It was always going to be difficult to get a nine-member City Council divided between five liberals and four conservatives to pass the bill. But before it was even introduced, Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican, promised to veto it, referring to it as “an impossible burden on small businesses.” That scared off at least one Democratic councilmember, who called for an economic impact analysis that would delay the measure for months.
With an election just around the corner this November, OLÉ is using voter pressure to their advantage. In case their legislative attempts fail, they’re also preparing to ask voters directly in the 2016 general election to support the Fair Workweek Act. They’ve already started collecting 14,000 signatures required to get the issue on the ballot.
Henderson has been organizing “folks who felt like they’re getting a raw deal” since 1994. He has advocated on behalf of mobile home park tenants and against predatory mortgage lending schemes. This may be his most ambitious battle yet.
“When we passed a minimum wage increase, it was clear to us that people of every class and political persuasion — no matter age or gender — everyone was with us. We didn’t have to persuade anyone. But still, we felt like it wasn’t really changing the conversation,” he says. “We have been trying to think of a way to talk about all the problems with work these days that is much broader than these single issues like the minimum wage.” That’s why the Fair Workweek Act seems like an important measure. It prompts conversations about work the average person isn’t familiar with, and its policies will affect more people than just the lowest of the low-paid workers.
“The economy has gone down a bad road that is making the employment of most Americans really challenging, unsatisfying and something that makes it impossible to really care for a family and raise it the way you want to,” Henderson adds. If OLÉ’s successful, they’ll truly raise the standard of living. Any full-time job, even with lower wages, would be enough to support a family.

The Common Sense Solution Keeping Dollars in the Hands of the Poor

It’s often been said that it’s expensive to be poor.
Take for example, a problem faced by social service aid recipients in Alameda County, Calif., who receive their benefits through an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card. The piece of plastic works like a debit card, but when cardholders use it at a bank outside their own network, they’re charged a transaction fee. Given that low-income people often have trouble finding transportation to get where they need to go (an in-network bank, for instance), it’s a sad reality that EBT card users in Alameda County racked up $60,000 in ATM fees in 2012; statewide, the cost was a staggering $19 million.
So in an effort to keep benefits in the hands of low-income families, Alameda County is setting up no-fee ATMs just where EBT card users need them: in the lobbies of social service offices.
Andrea Luqetta of the California Reinvestment Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for better financial services for low-income people, tells the Contra Costa Times, “Alameda County supervisors have shown incredible leadership with this. Other counties have taken creative steps, but this is the most creative and practical we’ve seen, and it’s the right thing to do.”
County Social Services Agency spokeswoman Sylvia Soublet agrees, “Paying a few dollars each time you use your card might not seem like a lot. But over the course of a year that can add up to a lot of money.”
Advocates of the program add that the no-fee ATMs will be a tool to help EBT cardholders gain financial literacy.
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How Old Computers Can Make a Lifelong Impact on Low-Income Kids

Between personal computers and the machines in computer labs, there are about as many computers on college campuses as students. But when these electronics become obsolete, what happens to them?
If tossed into landfills, they become a big environmental hazard. But the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) has figured out how to turn them into a solution that helps out low-income students.
The school’s program, Computers to Youth, runs camps for inner-city students, teaching them about life in college and how to refurbish old computers. At the conclusion of camp, each student takes home a computer.
Dave Newport, director of CU’s Environmental Center, tells KUSA that there are 10,000 computers on campus — all of which are regularly replaced. “We can’t give away enough of these,” he says. The program “helps protect the environment. It reduces cost. But the best part is, it empowers students.”
Basheer Mohamed, a sophomore engineering major at CU, can vouch for that. The immigrant from Sudan received a computer from Computers to Youth when he was in high school. Prior to that, his family couldn’t afford one. “Between us and more privileged kids, it was really hard to keep up with them,” he says. When he got his computer, he excelled in school, became interested in engineering and even researched and applied for the scholarships that now are funding his education.
What might he be doing if he never received that rehabbed computer? “If anything, I’d probably be going to a community college if not just working,” Mohamed says. “I don’t want to know where I would’ve been without it.”
Thanks to Computers to Youth, that’s one computer kept out of the landfill, and one mind sparked to great achievement by higher education.
MORE: How to Bridge the Digital Divide