Engineering citizens of change

Recent Rally Software community donation
Courtesy of Rally Software

How strong businesses can build strong communities.

With one of the highest concentration of tech workers in the nation, Boulder’s market is ripe with opportunity for local startups and entrepreneurial game changers. A 2013 study by the New Engine/Kauffman Foundation stated that Boulder has more tech startups per capita than any U.S. metropolitan area. Additional research by the TechAmerica Foundation found that statewide, the total tech-payroll was $15.8 billion in 2012.

Beyond economic prosperity, Boulder’s startup culture also shows a correlation between strong businesses and strong communities as evidenced by such organizations as the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado, a trendsetter for economic community-mindedness that has provided more than $2 million in community funding, benefitting Front Range area nonprofits.

The organization consists of a network of local entrepreneurs whose companies pledge at least 1 percent of their founding equity or a portion of annual profits to the community.

“[Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado] represents a new kind of giving — you don’t have to be wealthy to be a philanthropist,” says Morgan McMillan, executive director of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado. “The organization makes it easy for entrepreneurs to invest and to see an impact. Our model brings in younger folks, greener folks and people who have not built and sold multiple companies.”

“It’s important to get started early when it’s pretty easy to set aside a percentage of the company,” explains Ryan Martens, CEO of Rally Software and one of Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado’s founding partners and current chair of the organization’s board. Martens was named the Boulder Chamber’s 2014 Business Person of the Year in early March. The award honors both Rally Software’s economic impact as a market leader for software development and the tech company’s effective framework of giving back to the community. Martens says it comes back to the mantra of: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” Rally Software’s initial public offering (IPO) took place last year, debuting the highest-profile achievement on the New York Stock Exchange for a Colorado software startup in a decade, according to the Denver Business Journal.

Rally just donated 1 percent of its venture funding, totaling $689,000, to The Boulder Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, allocating 85 percent to The Community Trust Fund and 15 percent to Entrepre neurs Foundation of Colorado. This is the largest community contribution in the foundation’s history.

Rally’s philanthropic approach is based on a “citizen engineer” model, which means being aware of the applicability of employees’ skills beyond office walls and can lead to a desire to give back to the community.

“Citizen engineers need to be empathic and have an ability to explore areas and problems and solution spaces very quickly,” Martens says.

He promotes empathy, exploration, and execution — or the ”three ‘E’ formula — as essential for communities.

“The world needs engineers to take their skills and talents and use them to better their local communities, just like a doctor or a lawyer would go out and do pro-bono work,” says Geri Mitchell-Brown, Rally’s director of social corporate responsibility. “It has become Rally’s social mission to have a ripple effect. We want to inspire other companies. Many people don’t think of their professional skills and the value that those skills really could bring outside of their job function. … A company should think about ‘What is the best that we have to give?’” This also raises the important question of what values are sustaining software engineers’ lives before they pursue a career or a startup.

“There is more emphasis culturally, as well as within our classrooms, on the creativity and the building elements of being an engineer, which are enormously important, but probably not as much accent on the ethics of community-mindedness,” says Brad Bernthal, an associate clinical professor and leader of the entrepreneurial law clinic at the University of Colorado Law School. “Through EFCO, we have a platform that people are paying attention to.”

Some of the current community challenges include resolving how to effectively engage entrepreneurs in greater community needs — beyond just giving — and how to make invested parties feel connected. Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado is also exploring storytelling in the startup culture to achieve a better sense of what the community needs through nonprofit partners that are already in existence and to leverage the skill sets that entrepreneurs bring to the non-profit community.

“It works both ways,” McMillan says. “The community relies on the support of the business community and the business community relies on the local community to sustain a great business.”