Recently, at a Boulder City Council meeting regarding local challenges with affordable housing, Councilman Macon Cowles said Boulder’s startup economy brought a lot of very highly-paid white men to the city, and they were pricing out families and others. He then followed up with the statement “I don’t think that’s what people want.”
I am baffled by these comments both because our startup community is NOT made up of only highly-paid white men (as Nicole Glaros, Jason Mendelson and Rajat Bhargava explained in their Daily Camera opinion piece) and because I have seen the positive impact of the Boulder startup economy firsthand. I never imagined our city leaders would view our startup economy as anything but positive, but I’d like to explain why I see it that way. I hope this serves as a framework for our Boulder discussion and other startup communities facing similar adversity.
Why Our Startup Economy Brings Far More than Rich White Men to Boulder:
I have had the privilege of meeting with several hundred Boulder entrepreneurs and I am deeply ingrained in our startup community. I can emphatically say that the positive impact of our startup economy far outweighs the challenges. Here are just a few of the benefits I’ve experienced firsthand:
University Support: The University directly benefits from the innovation, investment and job opportunities the startup community provides. I experienced this as a student when my Leeds School of Business project helped me land an internship with Exclusive Resorts when they were a three guys in a basement startup. As an intern, I had the chance to meet Steve Case, the founder of AOL, who later invested in the company, and see the opportunities a growing startup can provide. Having the chance to see the company grow from three guys in a basement to several hundred employees was the best education I could have asked for.
As an investor, I’ve invested in a company called Tusaar, that spun out of the University of Colorado. Having startup investors and community resources in their backyard has been of tremendous value to Tusaar (led by a non-white male by the way) and to other university technologies like them.
Economic Diversity: Growing up in an auto manufacturing town in Michigan, I’ve seen what economic dependence on a single slowing industry can do to communities. Because startup communities attract the most cutting edge businesses, they are less likely to be dominated by dying industries. Our community has attracted everything from companies fighting cancer with nanotechnology to marketplaces for crazy vintage costume clothing. We’re much more resilient to industry slow-downs.
The Value of the Early-Retired: More mature startup communities like Boulder have a wealth of post-exit entrepreneurs who have time and money to invest in other startups and our philanthropic community. Organizations like the Impact Angel Group, MergeLane, Techstars, Social Venture Partners, and the Boulder Community Foundation benefit directly from the early-retired and as a result, are able to provide much needed services to our community.
Advocates for Diversity: Yes, it is true that I am sometimes the only female angel investor in the room and my startup CEO friend Sherisse Hawkins is sometimes the only African American in the room. However, even over the past few years, I have seen far more diversity in our community and when Macon commented that “I don’t think that’s what people want (referring to a town dominated by rich white men),” he couldn’t have been more right. Our startup community is working hard to increase diversity. I’ve seen this firsthand with my recent involvement with a new Boulder-based accelerator for women-led businesses called MergeLane. We’ve seen such a positive response to increasing startup diversity from our local and national startup community, that we’ve blown our projections out of the water.
Our startup community wants to be more diverse and there are a lot of people working on that. We just need some time to get there.
Advocates for Affordable Housing: After a short stint in slightly more affordable Denver, I moved back to Boulder with my husband in 2007 to start a company. To afford to live here on our startup budget, we had to buy a dilapidated townhome and beg my parents for a down payment. Had my parents said no or had I moved here in 2014 when my townhome would have cost significantly more, we wouldn’t have been able to make the move. I understand this and affordable housing is a serious problem.
However, affordable housing in a place with 300 days of sunshine and breathtaking views is going to be a challenge regardless. While I think we can make great strides to offer affordable housing, it is unlikely that the existing 2+ million dollar homes will go down in price. There are only a few demographic categories who can afford those homes – movie stars, C-level executives, inheritors of wealth and successful entrepreneurs. Which demographic is the most likely to advocate for short commutes and affordable housing? The entrepreneurs who need to attract top talent are certainly the most likely.
The Impact Beyond Boulder: Lastly, I continue to be amazed with the world-reaching innovation that Boulder supports. Our startup community is home to entrepreneurs who are delivering vaccines to developing countries, removing harmful metals from our environment, fighting Lyme Disease, helping tens of thousands of couples conceive, and the list goes on and on and on. Why on earth would we want to stifle that?
So….Boulder City Council, we, the startup economy, are a community of innovators and believers. We have resources and ideas. We have connections to funding and influential people. And we are willing to roll up our sleeves to help you.
We moved here for the mountains, but we stayed for the startups. Please use us as a solution rather than see us as a cause of your problem.
Startup community members, PLEASE join me in writing our City Council to let them know how you feel about this. Macon Cowles can be reached at CowlesM@bouldercolorado.gov and @maconcowles on Twitter. Our Boulder City Council can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.