The Bootstrap Montana program was funded and founded by the our family foundation in 2008 to provide a helping hand to Montana businesses, where zero-interest micro-loans of $2,000 to $20,000 are provided to help rural Montana entrepreneurs grow their businesses.  The program is jointly run with the MSU Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship and has provided dozens of loans to  Montana entrepreneurs.

These loans help businesses at a crucial time in their growth.  They are meant to move the company to a new level where it can then generate enough income to be sustainable.

Meet Melanie Nelson of 5 Sparrows LLC in Kalispell.  A fifth generation Montana native, she started 5 Sparrows five years ago.  It is her second entrepreneurial venture, her first one being a drive through espresso business.  During the startup process of the business, 5 Sparrows received a Bootstrap Montana loan.  Melanie shared with me about her company and how the loan has helped her.

Q: What does your company do?  During the time I was running my espresso stand, I developed a first-to-market product.  Customers were asking me for a sugar free flavors that did not contain artificial sweeteners, so I made them.  5 Sparrows manufactures sugar free chocolate, white chocolate, chai and frappe powders that are naturally sweetened with stevia and xylitol.  We also have a regular, cane sugar product line.  The products are essentially cocoa powders that mix with hot milk.  They do not contain any coffee.  We sell to coffee shops and chains mostly in the Northwest but all over the nation and even to an upscale coffee franchise in Dubai.  We sell our products to a retail market nationwide through our website:  www.5sparrowsbrand.com.

Q: Why did you want to start your company?  I’m not good at following rules and I like to make things better.  I like to be creative and innovative.  My family is top priority and having my own company is a huge responsibility but it allows me to control my environment and schedule.

Q: How did a Bootstrap loan help your company? Having a first-to-market product is very hard because you have to educate the marketplace.  The Bootstrap loans have been essential to help us identify the best way to market to our customers.  We hired experts in social media, PR and exhibited at a specialty coffee trade show.  A lot of the things we tried failed.  Having the loan at zero percent interest for a year made it possible for us to try a lot of new things.  Having an entire year to pay it back made it possible for us to regroup and focus on the things that were working.

5 Sparrows’ revenue has doubled three of the five years they have been in business.  They have been in numerous blog posts and magazines and recognized and endorsed by local diabetes clinics.

Bootstrap Montana loans have empowered many small businesses in Montana to grow, creating better livelihoods for themselves and their employees. MSU continues to seek out likely clients for the loans.  Apply for a loan at www.bootstrapmontana.com or, to support the program financially, write a tax-deductible check to the MSU Foundation with “Bootstrap Loan Program” on the memo line.


ATG Group Photo - 2015

ATG’s staff photo from last year – they’ve already added several employees since then!

Missoula’s Advanced Technology Group Missoula Solutions Center was in the news recently, mentioning its projected growth in both employees and office space this year.  The article in the Missoulian highlighted the office’s strong expansion since its opening five years ago.

Tom Stergios, a Missoula native, opened the Montana ATG office in 2011 after working remotely with the Missouri-based firm.  He worked around the world in the tech industry before returning to his hometown to raise his family.  The Missoula Solutions Center is now ATG’s largest office, surpassing the ones in Denver, Cincinnati, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Dallas.

Tom loves Missoula and dreams of expanding the tech opportunities in Montana.  He actively recruits grads from U of M and is even reaching out to the local high schools, hoping to expose them to the tech and business needs that are out there and encourage them to pursue those pathways after school.

ATG is a great Montana success story of how high-wage jobs can provide so many benefits to their communities and state.  For example, Missoula’s ATG plans to add almost 50% more employees in 2016, bringing them to 100 local employees, and they provide salaries at almost three times the county’s average wage.  Many of their customers are out-of-state, so they are bringing new dollars into the state.  And one of my favorite parts of the article states that eight of their employees bought homes in Missoula last year.  That means the high wages they receive are going back into the community, creating better income for all different sectors.

You can read more about ATG here in an article by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance.

2016 BBER report

The Montana High Tech Business Alliance commissioned its second annual study of the high tech industry by the UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research, and found that high tech remains a key player in strengthening our state’s economy.  Last year’s study reported that this is one of the fastest growing sectors in the state and provided jobs that paid double the average state wage.  This year’s report supported that, with the following key findings:

  • Our state’s high tech industry is growing seven times faster than other sectors
  • Salaries in this sector are increasing 30% faster than those in other sectors
  • Wages in high tech are twice the average state wage
  • The industry expects to add more than 940 new jobs this year

High tech in the state is booming, and Montana is becoming known as a tech hot spot.  And this isn’t just happening in the bigger cities; towns like Dillon and Big Timber are seeing the results as high tech businesses thrive in their communities.  Along with this comes high wage jobs and opportunities for growth, allowing our kids and families to live and work here.

You can view the full BBER report here.  To stay updated on high tech in the state, visit the MHTBA website and subscribe to their emailed newsletter.


Check out this current project happing in Montana:

Led by America Campaign founder and Montana Code School co-founder, Devin B Holmes, companies and foundations across Montana have come together to support the screening of the documentary CodeGirl in Missoula and Bozeman.

The film follows young women from around the world ages 9 – 19 who participate in the annual Technovation Challenge to build an app that addresses a problem in their communities. This inspiring documentary highlights girls’ ability to not only write code but also create and pitch a business solution. Since 2010, nearly 5,000 girls, ages 9 to 19, from 60 countries have submitted apps to the annual Technovation Challenge. Most of these competitors did not have any prior coding experience but had a passion to build an app and help their community.

“While screening this film in Montana will help us raise visibility about this competition, our main goal is to encourage young women across Montana to compete” said Devin B. Holmes. “Given that men currently dominate the technology world, this is a wonderful opportunity for girls to work together, learn new skills and realize they are capable of flourishing in the technology field.”

In 2015, Montana fielded one team from Missoula, Team Missoulavation, who will be present at the Missoula screening to talk about their experiences and encourage their peers to join 2016 teams. Come join middle & high school-aged girls from around the world as they try to better their community through technology and collaboration.

This is a great opportunity to empower the girls in our state, giving them the chance to code, work on a team, and serve their communities, all at the same time.  Plus, this exposure to coding can encourage them to pursue it further as a career, opening many doors to a high-paying job that can be done right here in Montana.

Last weekend the Missoula screening had 150 girls show up to view the movie, and 10 girls have already signed up to join Technovation teams for 2016.  If you missed the showing in Missoula, come to the February 14th screening in Bozeman.  You can register for free tickets here.

Jamison and family

Jamison and his family

We’ve occasionally highlighted people involved in one of the many programs out there providing better opportunities for high-wage jobs in Montana. The Gianforte Manufacturing Scholarship is one such program, providing scholarships for veterans and low-income individuals pursuing manufacturing or industrial education at a two-year college in Montana.

Meet Jamison in Kalispell. Jamison went to college for two years and graduated with an associate’s degree in science. Wanting to stay in the area, he worked in retail for many years, during which he got married and had two daughters. However, he didn’t see his job in retail providing for much advancement. “They like you to travel around to work in different store locations in order to be promoted, but I didn’t want to live anywhere else. My parents are here, my family is here, and we love it here.”

He considered going back to school and getting into a trade. He learned that manufacturing is a growing industry and decided to enroll at Flathead Valley Community College’s machinist program. With the help of the Gianforte Manufacturing Scholarship, he received his Machinist Tech 1 and 2 certificates in one year.

Now Jamison is employed at Proof Research in Columbia Falls, where he is enjoying his job as a CNC operator/Machinist. “I definitely feel that I can provide for my family and advance with Proof Research for many years to come.”

So far 278 Montanans have taken advantage of these scholarships.  The manufacturing sector is growing and provides many opportunities for high-wage jobs, and we are proud to support the students who are gaining the skills to enter it. Together we can enable our friends and family to find jobs that will allow them to keep living and thriving in Montana.

Check out this recent article from NBC Montana about the high tech industry in Montana!  It’s great to see that things are continuing to expand here.

The high tech industry is a great pathway to create high-wage jobs in all of Montana (and move us up from nearly last in the nation in average salaries).  The internet really does remove geography as a constraint.

Plus, the benefits reach far beyond the tech crowd, both to the other non-technical employees of the business (i.e. sales, marketing, admin… these are actually the majority of employees in most tech companies) and to the surrounding community whose businesses receive income from these high-wage earners (like construction workers who build their new homes, local schools where they enroll their kids, and stores and restaurants where they make purchases).

Whether you start a high-tech company, expand an existing one, or telecommute from Montana with a national firm, you are creating more income for your family and community, and opening doors for future workers in the industry to not have to leave the state to find a good job.  High tech is making Montana’s economy more diversified and robust, and providing more opportunities for our family and friends to find good jobs, right here in Montana.

wordcloud 2015

As we reflect on 2015, I am very grateful to all of the hardworking individuals in our state who are working to create better opportunities for themselves and the future generation.  There has been tremendous progress in just the last twelve months toward higher paying jobs in Montana and the benefits those bring to their communities.

The word cloud above reflects topics of discussion in 2015, with words highlighted by frequency of usage, to give you an overview of our focuses this past year.  My most sincere wishes to all of you as we look forward to a great 2016!


The Foundant Technologies team

As we highlight various programs that help to create entrepreneurs and high-wage jobs in Montana, let’s not forget the Bootstrap Montana Micro-loan program.

This program was funded and founded by the our family foundation in 2008 to provide a helping hand to rural Montana businesses, where zero-interest micro-loans of $2,000 to $20,000 are provided to help rural Montana entrepreneurs grow their businesses.  The program is jointly run with the Montana State University Business School and has provided dozens of loans to rural Montana entrepreneurs.

These loans help businesses at a crucial time in their growth.  They are meant to move the company to a new level where it can then generate enough income to be sustainable.

Foundant Technologies in Bozeman is one example.  The company was originally started with sweat equity in 2006 by Daren Nordhagen and Mark Larimer, after they saw the need for a software to manage foundation giving.  With their initial developers and some beta clients, they were able to develop the product and went live with their first customers in early 2007.

In 2008 the company got more aggressive with sales and marketing and Daren and Mark began attending some conferences and trade shows. They received a Bootstrap loan in mid-2008, which helped them hire their first sales representative and attend a wider variety of trade shows.

The loan gave Foundant the cushion to move ahead and grow the company, to a point where they could make some investments and meet some new customers that have been key to their growth.

Currently Foundant has around 45 employees, serves almost 900 foundations across the US and Canada, and recently launched a new product aimed to help non-profits with their grantseeking.  They also just moved into a new larger office space.

Foundant is one of many successful recipients of a Bootstrap Montana loan.  I’m proud to say that these loans have enabled many businesses in Montana to grow to a point where they can provide high-wage jobs for the owners and employees, allowing more and more people to stay in Montana for their work and still support themselves and their families.

Apply for a loan at www.bootstrapmontana.com or, to support the program financially, write a tax-deductible check to the MSU Foundation with “Bootstrap Loan Program” on the memo line.


codemt poster

This fall is the first semester for the CodeMontana program since it found its home at Montana Tech.  The program was started over two years ago by Rob Irizarry and myself, as a way to introduce junior and senior high students to computer science through a fun, interactive online program.  After reaching over 1,200 students, CodeMontana was moved to Montana Tech last April, where it can reach even more students.

Brian Koontz heads up the program as the Computer Science Outreach Coordinator for Montana Tech.  His new role allows him to tour the state, visiting high schools to promote CodeMontana and recruit students to the computer science field.  This fall he has visited nine high schools around the state, in communities of all different sizes, where he gives a short presentation on CodeMontana and Montana Tech and does a hands-on computer programming project with the students.

Currently CodeMontana has hundreds of students enrolled in the program, with many of those students participating in dual enrollment and earning college credit for the work they are doing.  The total number of enrollees has increased in the last two months, as Brian has worked with the state’s high schools to promote the program (see the poster above).  All students enrolled in CodeMontana are eligible for scholarships through Montana Tech.

Brian reaches students through other organizations too.  He attended the Girls For A Change conference in Bozeman recently, works with GEMS (Girls Excelling in Math and Science) in Butte, and is beginning to reach out to the libraries and homeschool networks statewide.

Studying computer science provides a path for students to a high wage job right here in Montana, and in the process creates jobs for many others in our expanding Montana high tech sector.

It’s exciting to see the increased interest and support in the computer science field.  Together we can encourage more of our kids to pursue this field and give them greater opportunities to stay in Montana and still work at a high wage job.  To have Brian visit your school, contact him via email.

Public schools have served Montanans for years, and they are filled with caring, hardworking teachers and administrators.  But education is not a one size fits all concept.  In some cases, a student needs a different school setting to achieve their full potential. Yet finances are often the prohibiting factor in parents being able to send their child to a school that would be the best fit for them.  That’s where ACE Scholarships Montana comes in.

The program provides financial assistance to K-12 students of qualifying families who want to have a choice in where their children attend school, and to date it has provided over $4,800,000 in scholarships to Montana students.

This fall marks the beginning of ACE Montana’s fourth year, with 750 Montana youth receiving scholarships this year at 56 partner schools around the state.  That’s 750 students who are able to attend a school that better meets their needs, setting them up for success in their school years and beyond.

Tabitha was one such student.  She was bullied through the first two years of high school, to the point where she was in danger of dropping out.  She lived with her single mother on a very tight income and was, as she put it, “the perfect target.”  She ended up receiving an ACE scholarship and was able to attend a small private school that made a world of difference, and now she is at college, studying petroleum engineering.

With these scholarships, we are seeing hundreds of Montana students succeeding in school where they might otherwise be struggling, and as these students graduate they are better equipped for college or the workforce.  They are more confident and prepared to support themselves and their families, and contribute to their communities.

One type of education is not right for every child.  Our goal must be to help every child reach their full potential.  ACE Scholarships are truly making a difference in our state by providing opportunities for students to attend a school that is the best fit for them.  To learn more about them, including how you can help support them, visit their website.

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