Attracting Smart People To Your Community Accelerates Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurial communities grow up around smart people.  Whenever someone in state or local government asks me what they can do to accelerate entrepreneurship, I always tell them to put as much money and energy as they can into education.  If you build a broad base of smart, inquisitive, curious people that are long term members of your community (e.g. they don’t move somewhere else), you’ll be delighted with the results over a long period of time (think 20+ years).

Richard Florida, one of the most thoughtful writers and thinkers about entrepreneurial communities, recently identified Boulder as the “brainiest city in the US.”  Richard Florida’s first book, The Rise of the Creative Class, is a must read for anyone that cares about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial communities.  It forms the basis for his body of work around the notion of a creative class and has influenced plenty of my thinking in this area.

To get a feel for the data and description that names Boulder as the Brainiest City in the US, there’s a quick slide show (that I can’t embed) that has the following data on it.

  • Computer Math Degree Recipients: 7.84 percent
  • Science Degree Recipients: 3.15 percent
  • Graduate and Professional Degree Recipients: 24.22 percent

This reflects nicely on my post about Entrepreneurial Density from a week ago.  25% of the population in Boulder has a graduate or professional degree.  Don’t forget that about 20% of the population of Boulder are undergraduate students.  That’s a remarkable number.

I’m heading to Chicago early tomorrow morning to participate in a two day event around this years Excelerate program.  Monday is Angel Excelerator 2010 and Tuesday is the Excelerate Demo / Investor Day.  David Cohen and I are doing a talk together and we get to watch our friend Dave McClure juggle 500 hats.  There are plenty of smart people in Chicago – I look forward to spending a couple of days hanging out with some of them.

  • Head to Hyde Park, Chicago then! Great Place- pity their comp sci department is stuck in mathland!

  • Brad, from several on or two of the Techstars videos I watched, it seemed that many of the startups were by entrepreneurs who were moving to Boulder because of the program. Since I didn't watch all of the videos and based on your stats above, my question would be, what percentage of the startups that Foundry Group has invested in and separately what percentage of the Techstars startups, originated fm Boulder entrepreneurs?

    • Foundry Group has invested in two companies and we are about to invest in our third. None were from Boulder, although one of the teams is from Colorado.

      About 50% to 75% of the TechStars teams each year are from out of Colorado. And about 50% of the ones from out of state stay in Boulder after the program, although this year I think all but one of the non-Boulder teams stayed in Boulder.

  • Ian Peters-Campbell

    I work in SV and live in Santa Cruz (Boulder West) but in my teen years (the 90s) I lived in CO, though further south in the Springs and Teller County. I moved to CO after having been in a Tag/Magnet program in the DC area in the 80s, and found myself in Woodland Park with no advanced programs, no computer lab, nothing but lowest common denominator education. I wound up so bored and bullied that i got kicked out of multiple high schools and wound up with “the bad crowd”.

    I eventually got into Job Corps in California, got my GED, went to community college, UC Santa Cruz, and have had a great career in startups and grad school in Carnegie Mellon. But frankly I was very lucky. I grew up with a lot of advantages (my parents both have ivy league degrees and I grew up getting to read and learn a lot. I had a lot of people willing to help me get my life together. I had Job Corps willing to help me out and send me to community college. But I did get a late start, age-wise on my career, and I have a LOT of brilliant, creative friends who wound up in incredibly negative situations that they weren’t able to dig themselves out of (up to and including prison and death).

    Maybe CO has changed, and maybe Boulder is different than CO Springs and Teller County, I hope so. Once in a while I toy with the idea of moving back out there, but the idea of raising children in CO is terrifying to me. May seem weird, but my personal experience coming up was so negative that it is hard to overcome.

    Anyhow I hope CO has changed its ways. There are a lot of brilliant, creative kids in the small mountain towns who could really, seriously change the world if they got a tenth of the support and access to resources that kids coming up in the bay area get.

  • Keenan

    Brad sounds like the U.S. before we became so anti immigrant. Now we are turning away the “really” smart people, by making it so difficult to stay or come here.

    There is a macro element to your post that is VERY pertinent to this country.

    Well done!

    • I completely agree about the macro element!

  • How much did the TechStars program contribute to boulder's entrepreneurial density, do you think? (Learning about Techstars-type program in Lexington KY … a top-10 educated city looking to build entrepreneurial activity as well)

    • TechStars is important glue as it's something that engages the entire entrepreneurial community on a specific project for 90 days a year. The actual number of new entrepreneurs that come to Boulder via TechStars directly is about 20 per year (although there are plenty that come indirectly – as a result of the reputational dynamics around TechStars.)

  • I'd be interested in your thoughts on why the level of entrepreneurial density and being the "brainiest" hasn't resulted in more venture capital in the area. Smart money usually follows smart people so for me it seems a bit inconsistent when I see these other metrics. Other than BV, Sequel, Foundry, very little activity locally.

    • Actually, there is plenty of VC in the market – much of it coming from out of state / out of region VCs. I continually hear the complaint throughout the US that "there isn't enough VC here." It's not a "Boulder statement" – it appears to be a continual statement. Then, in contrast, there's the angel investor statement that "we don't need VC money here – we've got it covered." And, of course, smart entrepreneurs know that more of both is a good thing!

  • betoiii


    Would love to know how much the large university in your town (also present in Austin) helps the entrepreneurial community. Is it instrumental, or merely a piece of the puzzle?

    • CU Boulder is mostly useful in that it continually brings a steady stream of fresh, smart, young people to Boulder. There are plenty of entrepreneurial activities across campus, but it's merely "a piece of the puzzle."

  • I am in the Pennsylvania Northeast where entrepreneurship may be an avenue for many young people to pursue. The notion of building on a base of "smart, inquisitive, curious people" intrigues me. I call it the "Indiana Jones Theory". There is another resource that can also be tapped and that is our youth. I belong to the local Youth Ventures ( board and incorporate it into my college courses I teach (both technology and business). At this age it may be a little late. However it is geared for inspiring the spirit you speak of but with social impact. Depending on what part of the country you are you get the sense many young people don't consider this as an option but prefer to be given the traditional job, work 9-5, and then retire after 40 years. Most have a very rude awakening.

  • LenWilliams

    Very good article, I agree that a lot more money should be put into education. Although some may say that being Bill Gates was more genius than formal education, or becoming the Facebook co-founder Zuckerberg did not actually mean using the information acquired at school, I still think formal education has its important role in forming successful entrepreneurs. And successful ideas do not work alone, besides business capital they also require excellent managers, specialists, developers etc, so it is true that these entrepreneurial communities grow around educated intellectuals. Boulder has been considered America's best city for internet start-ups, a great destination for tech companies due to the prestigious university of Colorado, with lots of software engineers graduating from it and the research labs such as the National Institute of Standards & Technology. And, thanks to great venture capitalists like you, new businesses have been helped to launch there.