Rural businesses in Colorado will soon take part in a unique competition. Business owners will pitch their ideas, with the best one winning funding for the execution of their vision.

Think “Shark Tank” meets rural America.

The Greater Colorado Pitch Series allows any company located in rural Colorado to apply for a range of funding from $50,000 to $1 million in available investment. Advocates for the contests say it’s a viable way to get people interested in entrepreneurship, particularly young people who may have left their communities and are interested in returning and starting a business. 

This year, the event will incorporate an audience engagement platform that allows those attending, both live and virtually, to engage in the event. During the pitch presentations, audience members can use the app to provide feedback on the pitch, make connections for the founders, and engage with one another.

Don Albrecht, director of the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University, thinks the idea is a good one. 

“There’s still limited opportunity for … the farmer on his tractor that gets a good idea,” he said in an interview with The Daily Yonder. “But also there’s been companies built that have a string of PhDs who go after these kinds of funds and still it’s really hard for the farmer on his tractor to compete for these kinds of things. If it’s something where you can go directly to possible investors … it sounds fabulous to me.”

Meanwhile, Don Macke with e2 Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, which is hosted by NetWork Kansas, a nonprofit dedicated to developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem, said such economic development activities make it easier for young people to return to rural communities they may have left. 

“These [pitch competitions] kind of represent a broader wraparound strategy that if you’re doing business competitions or pitch competitions, you also have the opportunity to have these larger conversations, either at a personal level or at a community level with young people,” he said in an interview with The Daily Yonder, adding that that might include finding out what they’re passionate about and want to do with their lives. “If you then begin to build some of these other pieces around it, the community can optimize positive outcomes both for young people but also for the community.”

At NetWork Kansas, the organization created the Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge Series, Amara Kniep with NetWork Kansas said in an interview with The Daily Yonder. This year, NetWork Kansas had over 1,000 students take part in more than 50 competitions across the state, she said

“This is an opportunity to engage with young people, depending upon the targeted ages,” Macke said. “That’s really important. There’s a connection between engagement and ultimately, maybe a decision to stay or come back. So that’s important. This kind of activity can be a great community-building role in terms of engaging multi-generations in a fun activity,”

He said it also opens up the idea that entrepreneurship can be a career track. Because of that, people might make the choice to return to their rural roots. 

“Now that I’ve worked for somebody, I’m ready to buy a business or start a business, and you can begin to see those longer-term outcomes,” he said. “So kind of having that perspective that this isn’t an immediate solution to the economy, but it’s a really smart long-term investment.”

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