Public Service and Ecosystem Building During a Pandemic
In late March, I had the unique opportunity to get involved in a special project aimed at helping small businesses across Colorado navigate through the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. Little did I know that this opportunity for public service would capture my head, heart, and imagination in such a way that I would ultimately launch and lead Energize Colorado.
I had just landed in Denver from New York City when I got the call from Brad Feld, Managing Director of Foundry Group, co-founder of Techstars, and long-time Colorado ecosystem leader. Because of his reputation as an investor and innovative community leader, Brad had been appointed by Governor Polis to the Colorado Governor’s Emergency Council for Economic Stabilization and Growth (GECESG). The Council’s charter was to develop a set of short-, medium-, and long-term recommendations to help Colorado’s small business sector manage the uncertain economic climate triggered by the pandemic. Would I consider serving on the Small Business team? The answer was an enthusiastic yes.
Prior to Brad’s outreach, public service was top of mind as a potential new professional chapter. After a Midwest tour of duty leading a public-private partnership where I helped catalyze the greater Cincinnati region’s innovation economy, I was eager to roll up my sleeves again and apply my learnings from that experience to a broader state-wide role. Who knew that the opportunity to realize my professional aspirations would manifest during a complex set of crises and economic uncertainties, all defined by a global pandemic?
From the GECESG to the Birth of Energize Colorado
On a Sunday afternoon, with Brad leading the discussion, my new colleagues and I gathered for the first time (on Zoom of course) to dig into the current situation. This newly assembled team—Erik Mitisek, Marc Nager, Abe Sloss, Renny Fagan, and Eric Drummond—carried deep passion for the State of Colorado along with expertise and strong networks across the state among rural and Front Range local business; startups; nonprofits; and women-, veteran-, and minority-led businesses. In the spirit of “Coloradans helping Coloradans” we set out on a journey that none of us had ever imagined.
Over the next months, as we served the GECESG and launched Energize Colorado, the work would demand every ounce of concentration, creativity, and collaboration we could muster. Launching Energize Colorado required speed, flexibility, experimentation, and significant activation across the entire state. We were willing and able to invest our time and talent to this once-in-a-lifetime volunteer assignment because we shared a passion for the State of Colorado’s entrepreneurial heritage and independent spirit. Since May, the Energize Colorado community (including 150+ volunteers) has launched four foundational initiatives:
- Mentorship: The Mentorship Initiative connects small businesses looking for advice with those who have been through it before and have come out on the other side. This includes industry experts and certified professionals (CPAs, attorneys, etc). Since April, over 300 small businesses have collaborated with a mentor. We have over 200 mentors in our database that have volunteered to support Colorado businesses.
- Mental Health: Our Mental Health Initiative shares relevant mental-health content and services with Coloradans, as well as matches patients and groups with therapists for free or reduced-cost sessions. Since June, we have made over 200 free therapy sessions available and had 500+ viewers of our Wellness Wednesday webinars.
- Reopening Guidance + PPE: Our Reopening Guidance and PPE Initiative provides reduced-cost and certified PPE and business templates that offer best practices, direction, and information on how businesses can restart operations safely and effectively. Over 800,000 units of PPE have been delivered to small businesses. Additionally, through the City of Denver we have provided 4,000 free kits to minority-owned businesses.
- The Energize Colorado Gap Fund: We have raised $25 million from public, private, and philanthropic sources to help small businesses with less than 25 full-time employees—including sole proprietors, small businesses, and nonprofits—economically impacted by the pandemic. The Energize Colorado Gap Fund offers support through grants and loans, up to a maximum of $15,000 in grants and $20,000 in loans for a possible combined total of $35,000 in financial assistance. Preference is given to underserved small businesses including those that are majority-owned by minority, women, or veterans; those located in rural areas of the state; and businesses that have not been successful in obtaining funds from other federal, state, and local assistance programs.
As we enter month six of Energize Colorado, we are clear that the vision for our work has a trajectory of three to four years. It is not a 90-day “crisis project.” As part of that longer-term vision, I’m eager to share my learnings and inspiration with you. I’ll share how the current complex and interconnected crises we face are impacting our state’s economic ecosystems, as well as how clear values and pragmatism have helped us engage volunteers and deliver impact in a time of unprecedented instability. I’ll also explore how embracing curiosity has been key to effective problem solving and how seeing challenges through a wide lens—taking in diverse inputs—has been essential for our team to overcome the obstacles inherent to building economic resilience and inclusivity during these times.
Thanks for following along. And thanks for sharing your learnings, as well.