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Cultivating an entrepreneurial environment

Denver, Colorado

Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado shares insights into the development of the state’s entrepreneurial environment.


Risk-takers, prospectors, dreamers and doers have forged Colorado’s history, and I count myself as one of them. Just over 25 years ago, after being laid off as a geologist, I along with group of dreamers started the state’s first brew pub, which catalyzed the rebirth of lower downtown Denver. As Governor, I have worked tirelessly to make Colorado the best environment for others to take risks as well – to dream, to do and to succeed.

Recovering from the unemployment wrought by the Great Recession has been challenging, but progress has been made. This progress has been, and will continue to be, led by entrepreneurs.

As entrepreneurs create things of value and attract new customers, new jobs are created and opportunities grow.

Immense value is being generated in Colorado. The state is consistently ranked among the top five states for entrepreneurial activity – see here and here as examples. We know that startups are major contributors to new jobs in the economy, and Colorado’s level of entrepreneurial activity is a key reason it has had one of the fastest job growth rates in recent years.

Colorado’s entrepreneurial activity is largely occurring on its own.  It is self-organizing and happening from the bottom up. Importantly, the kinship among Coloradans and their welcoming attitude toward outsiders is connecting networks of people and institutions throughout the state. As a result, entrepreneurial communities are burgeoning.

Though government cannot create this activity, it can help cultivate the rich environment that helps entrepreneurship thrive.  Startups tend to come into being, and to find success, in communities that do a good job of nurturing and supporting entrepreneurs. This has been a key focus of ours in Colorado.

To support entrepreneurs, government can play the role of connector and facilitator – within and across industries – and with anyone or anything that can help them achieve success.  My staff’s research on entrepreneurship has confirmed that one of the most important ingredients for entrepreneurial activity to flourish is networks where entrepreneurs can collaborate, find investors and employees, share information and learn from others.  It is through connections that entrepreneurs sharpen and accelerate their ideas so they can turn them into new products and services for customers, and ultimately create opportunities and jobs for others. 

To help connect people and catalyze Colorado’s entrepreneurial activity, we have created the Colorado Innovation Network, or “COIN”. COIN is a physical and virtual network to promote entrepreneurship and innovation and cultivate relationships within Colorado and globally. It engages the community, elevates Colorado’s innovative economy, cultivates relationships, and inspires action as it energizes business leaders and entrepreneurs. Among other activities, COIN is supporting efforts of local communities across the state to find ways to accelerate innovative businesses.  It has sponsored a cross-industry collaboration between the energy and information technology industries – a “mashup” – to connect energy companies needing help to solve technology-related business problems.  

Government can help by encouraging and celebrating entrepreneurship. We need to continue to highlight all the organizations and events that connect entrepreneurs, innovators and investors.  We celebrate privately-organized events like Denver Startup Week, the New Tech Meetups, the Kauffman Foundation-sponsored 1 Million Cups gatherings, and the hundreds of other groups and associations that are bringing people and ideas together every single day. We also welcome the interest of external partners in Colorado’s startup success, such as the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network that launched in Colorado this past summer. We should continue to teach and research entrepreneurship at our universities, especially through the expert coordination of places like the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado Law School. Furthermore, we should continue to host more events like Go Code Colorado, an initiative between my office, the Secretary of State and other state agencies that brought together entrepreneurs to compete to solve business problems by building apps to make public data more accessible and user-friendly for businesses.

Government can also work with entrepreneurs directly. Most importantly, we must partner with entrepreneurs and listen.  My administration is working directly with businesses through our key industry networks. These networks were convened for 14 of the key industries driving Colorado’s economy to create and implement a strategic plan for the particular challenges facing their business community. These strategic plans are developed and implemented by the industries themselves so they remain highly attuned to their needs. The key industry networks are also helping our state government understand opportunities to leverage our state’s economic strengths by collaborating across industries, something that will be critical to success as the economy moves forward.

Government must also ensure it provides a supportive business environment for entrepreneurs. We have streamlined telecommunications laws in Colorado, implemented policies to promote the expansion of broadband to underserved areas of the state, simplified rules and regulations facing businesses and created initiatives to help promote the state’s advanced industries. These changes will encourage applied research collaborations, foster technology commercialization, and provide support for startups.

Colorado is a welcome place for entrepreneurs, and its economy is one of the fastest growing in today’s information – and technology-based economy. Coloradans have achieved this through a rich fabric of industry, people and entrepreneurial atmosphere.  The state’s physical beauty and high quality of life helps to sustain it. However, a flourishing entrepreneurial environment where ideas, talent and capital flow takes time to cultivate; while some areas of the state are further along than others, we believe that every community in Colorado, big or small, can cultivate it. With continued collaboration and support across sectors and industries that allows ideas to come to fruition and add value, the opportunities for the future are boundless.

Governor John Hickenlooper was elected in 2010 after running on a platform to make Colorado the best place for entrepreneurs to grow jobs. Previously, he served as mayor of Denver dating back to 2003.