Ryan Martens on Councilperson Macon Cowles’ Ignorance of the Boulder Startup Community

Like many here in Boulder, I felt that Boulder City Councilperson Macon Cowles’ recent remarks about our startup community were both ignorant and offensive. A group of entrepreneurs posted an OpEd this weekend responding to those remarks in the Daily Camera (it’s worth nothing the diversity of those entrepreneurs vs. Councilperson Cowles’ flatly incorrect characterization of Boulder entrepreneurs). Ryan Martens – a long time Boulder entrepreneur and community activist – felt the same way and asked to borrow this spot to post some of his own thoughts on the diversity of the Boulder entrepreneurial ecosystem as well as the many ways that entrepreneurs in Boulder are giving back to our community. His post follows.

I was very discouraged to see councilperson Macon Cowles’ comments from Boulder’s city council meeting the 2nd week of August. “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.”  His over simplified view that Boulder’s entrepreneurial community is the direct source of an affordable housing shortage is grossly incorrect.

Why attack the startup community? It is even more disappointing given the significant impact a collaboration between the City of Boulder and local startups could have in addressing complex social issues that face our whole community.

I’d counter his comment with facts:  The startup community is very present in positive ways in many aspects of Boulder.

During last year’sflood, startups pulled together to fund relief and contributed more than $200,000 and hundreds of volunteer hours during normal work hours.  Most participating startups weren’t even making a profit at the time.

The Entrepreneurs Foundation at the Boulder Community Foundation has contributed more than $2 Million for local non-profits during the past two years through donations of stock options at the time of initial offerings (a circumstance unique to startups).

I want to see our community working and collaborating at a level where we are increasing the economy while addressing issues around environmental sustainability and social equity. It is actually the social mission of my company, (a business I started in Boulder 11 years ago and now employees 250+ in Colorado) – to create Citizen Engineers who use their skills to do just that.  The lack of affordable housing issue has been brewing here just like it has in many strong economic cities in America.  It is complex issue tied to the income gap, a booming economy and smart growth strategies that started in Boulder the 1950’s with the blue line and the greenbelt. (Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge supporter of these land management solutions and benefitted greatly by learning from the architects of these models while I attended CU in the 1980’s – Thank you Al Bartlett!).

Thanks to the growing activism of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, programs such as Better Boulder are forming to help address the housing problem with a systemic approach.  I would encourage the City to reach out, to collaborate and be open to talented people who care about this community working towards creative solutions.

New programs such as Code for America Fellowship program is one such opportunity to reach out towards a creative solution.  This program places two or three full-time technologists on staff with a city government for a year specifically to engage the local citizenry to build a Brigade.   The Brigade goes on to develop solutions for municipal efforts.  Denver has benefitted from Code for America fellows and the City has applied again for fellows for 2015. Boulder’s startup community and my company support these efforts to wrestle with systemic issues such as affordable housing, while increasing citizen engagement in government through civic hacking.

I know the startup community well through work with the Entrepreneurs Foundation, Startup Colorado and other regional efforts, I have helped actively build community capacity along the Front Range and created a venue for corporate giving to Boulder’s Community Foundation.

Starting a contentious dialog by blaming a single component of our community isn’t constructive and doesn’t inspire solutions.   Let’s not take steps backward as a community in our level of engagement.  I know the startup community is here to work hard to make it better for all.

Please remember that community is not something we create, but something we need to recognize we are already in, that takes nurturing.


Ryan Martens

CU Grad, 1988 & 1991

Founder, Rally Software

CEO, Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado

Board Member, Startup Colorado

Prior-Board member Colorado Conservation Trust, Friends School and Knight Foundation

  • Thanks for putting the spotlight where it belongs Ryan; on the plethora of positive activities our entrepreneurial community engages in!

    One of the more rewarding things I was lucky enough to participate in recently was bringing Gnip’s EFCO donation full circle in our sale to Twitter (http://www.xconomy.com/boulder-denver/2014/07/01/gnip-twitter-datalogix-and-vc-rounds-top-colorado-stories-for-2q/)

  • I don’t see where the Councilperson’s comments are that far out of line.

    When was the last time anyone here hired a black person, someone with a criminal record, or an Iraq vet?

    When was the last time anyone here hired someone who was on food stamps?

    When was the last time anyone here picked up someone from off the street and made a difference in their life?

    When was the last time someone here went into poor, disadvantaged neighborhoods like 5 Points and worked with kids to teach them computing?

    Startups make white people, their friends, and the VC’s, rich. The Councilperson is right about that.

    Until you folks can write about the differences you’ve made in poor people’s lives, not indirectly — “we funded Amazon, poor people use Amazon…” — directly, I don’t see where you have higher ground.

    Until you can write about the people from the inner city you hired and they now have homes, an education because of working for you, you come off as nothing more than snooty liberals who can’t take it, when someone calls you on your bs.

    You all seem to have a cow when someone disagrees with your worldview. So? Let’s hear about the Hispanic and Black people who work for you. Let’s see their pictures and hear their stories. Let’s hear about the high school dropouts who work for you. Let’s see pictures of you working with kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Let’s hear about it. The world is watching…

    • I recently attended a tech gathering. A friend was there, he was chatting with a tech titan (tt) from Boulder. We started talking. tt was convinced that life has never been better and it’s all because of tech. His thesis was life is good for him, therefore life is good for everyone.

      But he’s rich, living high off the hog in Boulder. Tech insiders are doing well, getting phat mostly off of apps the world really doesn’t need. Most of them are getting rich off of yours and mine data.

      Is life really good for the rest?

      It’s a gross generalization to say that tech is making the world better. In fact there’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. I love tech. But I’m not a homie. I’m critical of tech, too.

      Apps that put companies against each other in a price war are great for consumption are the domain of the well off. But they don’t do the person in the ghetto any good, because they can’t afford consumption. And the people in California are now paying for years of consumption.

      If tech companies are doing all they claim, why are all their employees blue bloods or insiders? Why aren’t tech companies hiring people of color, Iraq veterans, of those from the hood? Why aren’t tech companies opening offices in economically depressed neighborhoods?

      Tech is driving the evaluation of a good or service to price, or a “like”, nothing else. A company could offer great benefits and salaries to its employees, be a great steward of the planet, provide outstanding service to its customers. But if the price they charge is higher, they can’t make a go of it. Why? Tech. Tech arms consumers with apps that don’t factor how great the company is, it’s all about price – they drive the user to make the decision on price, nothing else.

      There’s collateral damage here, people. Employees are paid less, benefits are cut. Why? Because price, is the only way most companies can compete nowadays.

      And it all started with free. The High Cost of Free.

      What’s the solution? Young people in tech. They led us here, they can lead us out. In fact it’s their responsibility.

      Young people are mostly obsessed with the wrong ideals. And yes, it tracks back to tech. The world doesn’t need another app that’s about distraction and data mining. Instead, what the world needs are more people like Kshama Sawant, the City Council person in Seattle. Or the two young film makers who made Cowspiracy. Edward Snowden. Linda Sarsour, Ayaan Hirsi and Safa Al Ahmad, women who are risking their lives to get a message out.

      I’m so tired of hearing from tech “We’re changing the world”. Really? How? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that tech is killing more jobs than it creates, by far.

      People in tech will change the world when they start opening up offices in depressed neighborhoods. When they start hiring people of color, Iraq vets, people convicted of victimless crimes, and the disadvantaged.

      It’ll be a great day in tech when VC’s gauge their investment by apps the world really needs, nothing else. When VC’s evaluate an investment by a business that is built to last — not built to flip. When pocket slides center on how many people are now going to realize the American dream, who otherwise would not have, all because of this new app or thing. It’ll be a great day in tech when young people are turned off from working for companies where the hook is free and the customer is the product being sold.

      If tech companies really want to change the world, they need to start putting up. Otherwise, it’s all bs. While Seth’s 1% thing is nice, I doubt it’s going to make any difference. Instead, what will make a difference is when we start investing in our poorest neighborhoods; funding businesses and economic development, providing training and helping neighborhood citizens be part of the American Dream – instead of looking up at it on a bill board. Instead of the Tesla, go start a free class in 5 Points where anyone can learn math, or how to use software. Instead of hiring blue bloods or your friends, go take 5 people off the street. Give them stock options, train them. Now, you’re changing lives. Otherwise, you’re just making rich people richer.

      Young people in tech should start realizing that “to whom much is given, much is expected”.