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Denver Startup Week isn’t just for Denverites. It’s drawing people from across the U.S.

With attendees from nearly every state, the entrepreneurial event finds appeal among seniors, artists and outsiders

Aging association AARP sponsored this year's opening night party at Denver Startup Week. “As soon as people say, ‘Why is AARP involved in Denver Startup Week,’ we’ve won. We get to explain why,” said Bob Murphy, state director of 700,000-member AARP Colorado. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
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Vince Kadlubek brought a Meow Wolf crew to Denver Startup Week two years ago. They left  set on the idea that Denver would be the first place the Santa Fe, N.M., arts collective would expand its immersive art venue.

“I really wasn’t thinking about Denver as an expansion city. I was thinking about Austin and some other cities,” Kadlubek told an opening day crowd this week. “But when I felt the energy of my panel and everyone in the room, it convinced me, Denver is the place to go. People were so loving and welcoming, people were excited. It didn’t really matter that we were from New Mexico. That energy, it was like, yes, we’re going to Denver.”

The growing energy of the annual entrepreneurship event, now in its seventh year, has spread far beyond Denver. And beyond just entrepreneurs.

Organizers say there’s been an intentional effort to broaden the event beyond the city limits or typical young entrepreneurs. AARP sponsored the opening night party and participated in sessions related to aging.  A program hosting “ambassadors” from out of state attracted more than 400 applicants (only about 50 were chosen). This year, attendees represented every U.S. state but Delaware and Mississippi.

Who goes to Denver Startup Week? Obviously, it’s mostly Coloradans, according to data provided by event organizers. But California, Texas and Illinois represent pretty well. (Provided by Denver Startup Week)

“Denver Startup Week has really been built to be a celebration of everything entrepreneurial. Even though it’s hosted in Denver, it’s meant to be a beacon for the state and for entrepreneurs,” said Erik Mitisek, a cofounder of Denver Startup Week. “Whether you’re in Colorado Springs, Chattanooga or New York, the content goes outside of Denver.”

Colorado, of course, has the largest showing with more than 13,300 registered as of Tuesday, according to data organizers shared with The Colorado Sun. That was followed by California, home to about 200 attendees.

Texas, Washington, Illinois, New York and Florida have about 50 attendees each. Growing out-of-state interest led to the Ambassador program, now in its second year, said Conor Swanson, who heads up the program.

“We talked for a long time about ways to expose what we’re doing here and came up with the idea” for the Ambassadors program, Swanson said. “(The group offers) a diversity of thought, of location and of interest in Colorado. Over half the group indicated a professional interest in Colorado as a place they’re thinking about working or investing in.”

Denver Startup Week 2018
When: Sept. 24 to 28, 2018
Where: Downtown Denver with Base Camp at The Commons on Champa, at 1245 Champa Street
Register/detailsdenverstartupweek.org

Not Keta Burke-Williams, who traveled from Florida to attend the event. As a manager of marketing and business development at Carnival Cruise Line, Burke-Williams admits she’s too risk averse to be an entrepreneur and she had never given Denver a second thought. But the opportunity to learn more about business appealed to her.

After two days in Denver, her feelings on the city have changed, which she credits to friendly lunch conversations and visits to companies like Guild Education, a Denver startup that has raised about $70 million from investors. Guild helps corporate employers, such as Chipotle, offer service workers advanced education degrees.

Entrepreneurs openly sharing their tricks, tips and insights made the visit more than educational for the Miami resident.

“At Guild, they had great insight into controlling the story and the narrative of people you’re pitching to,” Burke-Williams said. “I work for a $15 billion company, but my team is very small so we have to be very scrappy. … Denver is on my radar now.”

Meow Wolf CEO and co-founder Vince Kadlubek told a Denver Startup Week audience that Meow Wolf picked Denver as its first city to expand the arts venue after attending the same event two years ago. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Meow Wolf hopes to start construction on a 90,000-square-foot building at 1338 First St. in the next four months, Kadlubek said. Like its Santa Fe venue, the Denver site, opening in 2020, will showcase the work of many artists, including about 500 from the Denver area. Meow Wolf plans to put out a request for artists’ proposals in the next couple of weeks, he added.

The company also returned to Denver Startup Week not only to help kick off the event on Monday, but participate in about a dozens sessions throughout the week.

“While we’d like to say there’s a market everywhere for us, the reality is the brand is stronger in some places than others and because of the regionality and connective components between Denver and Santa Fe, it made us realize that our brand is incredibly welcomed in the city and the state,” Kadlubek said.

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AARP got involved partly to support entrepreneurs over 50 years old. But a bigger reason was to get its message across that entrepreneurs of all ages need to be thinking about this older consumer.

“As soon as people say, ‘Why is AARP involved in Denver Startup Week,’ we’ve won. We get to explain why,” said Bob Murphy, state director of 700,000-member AARP Colorado.

He pointed to an AARP-commissioned study by Oxford Economics on the impact of the longevity community, or people age 50 and older. It put the impact at $7.6 trillion a year in the U.S., making it “the third largest economy on the planet” after the U.S. and China,” he said.

In Colorado, the impact of older adults on the state’s economy is $135 billion, according to AARP.

“Increasingly, a lot of older Americans need a lot of services, and who better to look at what older Americans need than entrepreneurs,” Murphy said. “More specifically, what are those kinds of businesses? Obviously, healthcare and telehealth and for us at AARP, family caregiving. Over 40 million family caregivers in the U.S. are doing it for no compensation but out of love and they’re doing it at great financial, emotional and sometimes physical stress.”

Several sessions at Denver Startup Week focused on aging, including one focused on tapping into that trillion-dollar economy, another on the future of caregiving, and another on investors who support startups supporting that population.

For those who couldn’t make it out to Denver this week, some sessions are being streamed online and archived. But it’s hit and miss. Interviews with several entrepreneurs were recorded and are online (at dswlive.intelivideo.com) courtesy of Intellivideo in Broomfield. Event organizers suggested following the #DENStartupWeek hashtag on Twitter to gain insight from tweets and see videos.

Erik Mitisek, who co-founded Denver Startup Week in 2012, pumps up the audience at the first keynote during the 2018 entrepreneurial event’s opening day, September 24, 2018. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun) 

Denver may be one of the largest Startup Weeks, but several others in Colorado also exist. Boulder Startup Week was first, holding its inaugural event in 2010. But now there are also events in Colorado Springs, Longmont and Fort Collins.

“It’s terrific. It showcases what they’re doing. And there’s some really great work happening in Aspen, Telluride and, in particular, Frisco, which has a few coworking spaces,” Mitisek said. “Our intention is to truly be the entrepreneurial conference that is welcoming, inclusive and celebrates entrepreneurs at their core. If we’re successful, it’ll showcase the best in entrepreneurship.”

Rising Sun

Resources for Colorado entrepreneurs:

Colorado Business Resource Book — A plethora of links, contacts and advice for starting a business in Colorado. Provided by the state’s Small Business Development Center Network. More: coloradosbdc.org/resources

The Commons on Champa — A public facility that is part of the Downtown Denver Partnership. Offers event and office space to startups, plus city and state resources on starting a business, tax credits, patent and trademarks and other resources. More: thecommons.co

Mi Casa Resource Center — Offers bilingual consulting, training and business development workshops to women and minority business owners. More: micasaresourcecenter.org   

Colorado Enterprise Fund — A non-profit lender offering responsible lending practices and business advising to borrowers. More: ColoradoEnterpriseFund.org

Colorado Venture Summit — Annual event to expose investors from around to nation to Colorado startups that need funding. More: coloradoventuresummit.com

Rocky Venture Club — A place where entrepreneurs in Colorado can pitch to local seed funders. More: rockiesventureclub.org

Suggest another startup resource? Tell Tamara Chuang at tamara@coloradosun.com 

This story was corrected on Sept. 28 at 4:55 p.m. to accurately identify the state of Mississippi as one of the two states with no registered attendees for the event. Apologies to the state of Louisiana.

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