Success Stories (Stories)

In 1979

In 1979, the Village People recorded the song “In the Navy.” A couple of the verses were, “If you like adventure, don’t wait to enter,” and “Come on and protect the motherland.”

Although only a lad of five years old, that is exactly what Michael Tipton set out to do. Mike was born in Agana, Guam, in 1974, which is where his parents were stationed—Mike’s father was in the Navy Seabees. Mike’s family moved to Africa for a couple years before finally settling in Oklahoma in 1979. Mike grew up in the Sooner state and graduated from high school in 1992, after which he joined the Navy.

His tour of nine years saw him aboard three nuclear submarines—the USS Tucson, the USS Boise and the USS Albany. He excelled in radio and satellite communications and ultimately was actively involved in US Joint Forces Command (SATCOM). When 9/11 happened, Mike was involved in troubleshooting presidential communication support for Air Force One.

After leaving the Navy, Mike worked at Schriever AFB, where he developed a communications support shop to support SATCOM, requiring him to travel internationally to train various operations with the process.

Being of an entrepreneur spirit, Mike took a step away from the safety of employment and started Integrity Communications Solutions. With a belief that “communications” was the number one problem facing the world today, Integrity was focused on the design, development and enhancement of new and existing communications throughout the world.

The innovative ideas and concepts of Integrity saw the business begin to grow contracting with military and government support operations that involved major changes, additions and diversifications of existing systems.

Integrity now has 36 employees, many of which are retired military with required security clearances, operating in engineering, design, development and training capacities. Headquartered in Colorado Springs, with satellite offices in Georgia and Maine, a large portion of their work centers around the training of military, civilian and government contractors to manage, operate and maintain the nations nuclear communications backbone structure. This support is provided to the United States and many of its allies. Throughout the growth of Integrity, Mike has always found time to meet with and offer advice to numerous different startup businesses as he is thankful for the success of integrity and is committed to give back to others. Mike has been very adamant about the help and support that he and the company have received from the Pikes Peak SBDC.

Special Senses of Place

Because her family moved so often, home décor was always a passion for Arielle Cobb. Her mom was in the military and relocated baby Arielle from Denver to Germany when she was just two weeks old. Okinawa followed as her next residence, and then eventually Colorado Springs for her high school years.

“One thing mom used to say was ‘home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling’” says Cobb. “It doesn’t matter what the walls looked like. It was about making it feel like a home.”

The lesson served her well, as she later married an Air Force man, now a member of the Space Force. They met in Florida, which led to a move to Great Falls, Montana, then another back to Colorado Springs. Three kids have come along to keep Cobb, now 36, busy as a mother. But she’s never lost sight of her early dream to own her own business.

“As kids, the other girls played housewife; I said ‘I’m gonna be the boss of a business.” She finally made that a reality in mid 2019. “When I told my mom, husband and friends I was starting it, they said ‘yeah, we were waiting for you to do that.’” With Wood Knots and Whimsy, a purveyor of stylish home and bath products, she’s taken on titles of founder, designer and curator.

Cobb says that aside from the itch to move every four years by habit, she’s always scratched another itch: to create. “It’s an outlet for me,” she says. She attended Johnson & Wales University and earned an associate’s degree in advertising communications, following that with graphic design studies at University of Colorado Denver and a bachelor’s degree in business management from Colorado State University-Global Campus. Over her years of study, she worked for several small businesses, such as a now-closed denim bar named Gloss at the Promenade Shops at Briargate. She cites its owner, still a friend, as a big mentor.

While in Tampa, Florida, she worked for L’Oréal SalonCentric as a replenishment analyst for 98 stores. In Montana, for a stint, she worked a job she didn’t love, just for the paycheck. It encouraged her to rededicate herself: “If you aren’t working for yourself, you’re working for someone else making their dream come true.” Still, she gleaned what wisdom she could, enjoying her coworkers and finding a model of how she wants to treat her future employees: “like family.”

Upon arrival back in Colorado Springs, she hit the ground running. But after six months, she hadn’t made as much progress as she’d hoped, feeling despondent when her husband returned from a deployment. He looked at her goal sheet, then took a marker and crossed out the date, changing the year forward. “He said, ‘I’m giving you the gift of time.’” She laughs joyously telling the story today. And when she finally launched a website, which now features 10 unique products — from custom-label glass soap dispensers to printed ceramic coasters and cool, wooden “donut” chip clips — she admits she just “threw it together… I wasn’t sure if I was doing what I was supposed to do.” So, in October, 2019, she learned of the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center and gave them a call to go over her business plan.

Consultant Tiffany Cox was the first to jump in with digital guidance. Months later came a single-day bookkeeping course, which gave Cobb a QuickBooks primer. “It was all so intimidating before, but they broke it down for me, so now I’m not throwing things in random categories anymore,” she jokes. And just this past month, she got one-on-one advice from SBDC consultant Janet Brugger, also the President of the Colorado Springs Black Chamber of Commerce. “I want to move into wholesale and expand my product line,” Cobb explains. “She had great ideas about how I could do it.”

“It’s extremely valuable to have people locally you can reach out to that are willing to take the time to help you and answer questions and tell you if you’re on the right path,” she says. “The SBDC has always been so informative. The people are all just so passionate about what they bring to the table. I love that. You feed off of that and it really helps you.”

To expand Wood Knots and Whimsy’s product line, Cobb says she has a notebook dating back to high school, filled with ideas. She’s just waiting for her third child to hit school age, so she can dedicate more than a few hours a day to growing the business. She’s already undertaken local collaboration with Ink and Mud Co. and envisions working with more local artisans. Some day she would like a brick-and-mortar spot, as well as participate in more markets.

Much more than helping customers turn their homes into special, intentional, comfortable places, she wants her business to thrive and create generational wealth for her children, two of whom have special needs. “That’s a part of my ‘why,’” she says, recalling an inspiration from Tampa. She and her mom had learned about some parents who helped their children launch businesses to help foster independence. “A young man with Down Syndrome owned a diner. Another person on the autism spectrum was running a hotdog stand outside of Home Depot. It touched our hearts.”

Which gets back to what Wood Knots and Whimsy’s all about: a feeling.

Visit woodknotsandwhimsy.com for more and also find Cobb’s products on Garden of the Gods Road, at Willowstone Antique Marketplace, booth 74.

Innovating Opportunity

Lawrence Wagner grew up in the projects of Cleveland, Ohio, raised by a single mom.

“I know what poverty looks like,” he says. “I went into the Army to escape that life. And that’s the passion behind Spark Mindset. We want to break the cycles of poverty. Everything I didn’t get as a child, I’ve created a program for with Spark.”

Spark Mindset is the social enterprise business that Wagner, now 51, founded in 2016. It takes a multifold approach to teaching STEM and cybersecurity that’s primarily aimed at minorities and members of disadvantaged communities. Programming includes a CyberSpace Academy virtual registered apprenticeship program for adults seeking upward mobility and jobs in a high-paying industry; high school programs that also earn certifications and lead to internships, apprenticeships and possible job placement; and free camps to introduce children to the tech field.

“Our program is the first federally registered, completely virtual apprenticeship program in the U.S.” he says proudly. “There’s nothing like it in the country.”

Classes and on-the-job training take place online, so with a fully remote curriculum, students, and employer-partners can be located anywhere. People living rurally, he points out, don’t have to leave their communities to find opportunities; they can stay rooted.

Wagner is glad, however, to have left Ohio (despite cheering all its professional sports teams on avidly). After his eight years in the military, he spent a decade in Georgia. While there, he initially attended community college in the mornings before working 12-hour shifts at a manufacturing plant by nights (while also coaching his son’s baseball team). Then he landed an internship to work in the IT department at a hospital; that was in the late 90s, when he couldn’t have known at the time it was the launch of a 20-year career that continues with Spark’s current growth.

Fort Carson had been Wagner’s station when he left the Army in 1996, so technically he was moving back in 2006 when he continued his education and took a job at Schriever Air Force Base, working for a government contractor in the missile defense agency. It was there, over the course of the next eight years he earned a number of his own certifications, and gained experience in network and systems administration, cybersecurity and project management. He went on to attend Leadership Pikes Peak in 2013/2014, which inspired him to become more community involved and became the catalyst for him desiring to be an entrepreneur, he says, noting he helped launch a nonprofit and the local arm of the One Million Cups networking group.

While on the topic of big numbers, Wagner’s stated goal is to provide half a million students and adults over the next 10 years with pathways to college and opportunities for high-paying cybersecurity jobs.

Two schools in New Orleans, where Wagner currently splits time, ran Spark’s pilot program in 2019, and the vision at the time was to use virtual reality (co-developed with University of Colorado Colorado Springs’ Innovations Program) to teach middle and high school students. “Then the pandemic hit,” he says, “so we had to scrap the whole model and go virtual.” Turns out it was a blessing in disguise, roundabout leading to a $500,000 federal grant and the aforementioned first-of-its-kind status nationally for virtual apprenticeship. Initially, Wagner was just envisioning working with the students, but contacts at the Colorado Department of Labor & Employment actually pushed him to think bigger: “they said ‘you have the making of an apprenticeship program for adults.”

Spark Mindset is only operating in Louisiana and Colorado now but should be in six states by 2022’s end, Wagner says. Following the successful pilot in New Orleans, they’ve expanded into five schools in the past year. And just this past August, the adult training program started with its first cohort in Colorado: 10 people between the Springs, metro Denver and one rural area. Louisiana’s will launch in February.

“Those are my major wins and milestones for now,” Wagner says. “It took five years to get here… like test flights prepping for going into space.” And it’s just the beginning, as Spark “won’t be just cybersecurity forever,” he says. “We want to become a leader in STEM education in fields like energy and healthcare as well.”

To get there, he says he’ll continue to utilize resources like the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center. Though Wagner didn’t take classes via the SBDC, he says he wish he had known about them as he sought similar resources in the Denver area. “They’re an untapped resource,” he says. “There’s so much I could have learned from them, the business nuts and bolts, when I was first starting Spark.”

He has since sought advice from SBDC consultants, for marketing mentorship, for example, and he says they’ve been instrumental in helping him learn of county and state grants that are ideal for Spark. “Aikta [Marcoulier, executive director] has been one of my biggest champions,” he says. “They’ve let the community know we exist, helped get the word out and get us in front of audiences. They’ve been a big mouthpiece for Spark.”

Specific to entrepreneurs, he suggests they should learn from the SBDC first before jumping into incubators and accelerator programs. He views the SBDC as a smart prerequisite.

Reflecting on his very different path to create Spark Mindset, he refocuses on the wider mission, to break the cycle of poverty. He says he’s determined to bring programming into Southeast Colorado Springs as soon as possible, perhaps in 2022 should grant-funding allow. He hasn’t lost sight of where he came from, his own disadvantage youth, and he’s structured Spark’s adult program so that even single moms could glean the education while keeping their jobs: remote classes are an hour and a half, three days a week, with another five to 10 self-study hours roughly. “You don’t have to be in a classroom somewhere for eight hours,” he says.

The average salary for entry-level positions in Colorado Springs in the field of cybersecurity is $75,000 according to the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s My Colorado Journey platform. Even during the internship and apprenticeship months of the training, which follows the initial eight-month certification program of the full 20-month education, participants are paid a decent, living wage. Veterans can use their GI Bill to go through the program. And most students can qualify for workforce grants through agencies like the Pikes Peak Workforce Center, says Wagner. “None of the cost falls on people in the underserved communities.

A lot of people are in poverty because of a lack of access and opportunity… You have to be hungry. I can’t give you the hungry, but if you do have the drive, I can give you the access and opportunity.”

A Very Sweet Start

“I used Leading Edge™ to literally launch my business,” says Lori Morrissey, owner of Lori Lynn’s Cookies & Cream, a food truck specializing in tantalizing ice cream sandwiches and lavish from-scratch pastries, based out of the Tri-Lakes area.

Morrissey had run a cookie delivery business locally named True Mountain Bakery between 2016 and 2019, and was ready to level-up. Shortly after the pandemic took hold in early 2020, she was searching online for business classes to help her achieve a transition into another form of getting her cookies into customers’ hands. She discovered the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center and its nine-week Leading Edge™ program, for which she prepaid and later earned grants to fully pay herself back.

In rapid procession, she took the class in August of that year, established an LLC in September, graduated in mid November, that same month flew to Houston, Texas to purchase a former postal truck (which she lovingly named Marta), and hired a lead baker in January of 2021. By May, Lori Lynn’s Cookies & Cream truck was on the road, and in the five months since she says she’s already generated more than $70,000 in revenue. Mind you that’s with only limited, evening and weekend service, as she still holds a day job with a PR agency that specializes in healthcare strategy and marketing.

The truck has already enabled the hiring of six part-time employees, too. Four of them are 15 years old, gleaning their first job experience, allowing Morrissey a form of immediate give-back: “It’s important to me to train them and teach them a good work ethic and things like how to schedule and communicate with a boss; we work hard and earn every penny, but it’s a fun environment.”

As a mother of three daughters, Morrissey had already done something similar inside her family, helping the girls create Three Sisters Baked Goods, selling her cookies to neighbors back in 2008. She has been baking since age five, cheered on by her grandfather, who gave her honest feedback on her young recipe development and instilled a belief in her that she would be selling her cookies professionally some day. “Connecting with people through cookies has been a thread through my whole life,” she says. Her business tagline today is “connecting people, cookies and ice cream.” For her, it’s not quite religion, but it’s definitely a “comfort hobby” and “my go-to coping mechanism” — to make (and eat!) the sweet treats. She says at any given time at her house there’s at least two or three types of cookie dough frozen into balls, ready for baking on a whim. In total, she’s developed around 30 personal recipes over the decades with more coming now that the truck’s in motion. Each month, there’s a rotating flavor of the month, such as a new brown butter pecan cookie that debuted in November.

Utilizing The Cupcake Doctor’s location of Austin Bluffs Parkway as her commissary, Morrissey has created several gluten- and dairy-free and vegan recipes to cater to those with dietary restrictions. (Her GF and DF cupcakes are also sold at Colonel Mustard’s on the Springs’ west side.) Lori Lynn’s Cookies & Cream offers delivery, pickup and catering services too. And she’s hoping to move into a brick-and-mortar spot as early as spring, 2022, as well as get a second truck on the road at some point during the year.

But backing up, Morrissey’s well aware she wouldn’t be off to such a smashing start without the help of the SBDC and its many consultants. During the early weeks of the Leading Edge™ class, she developed her business plan with assistance. “I had the great recipes,” she says, “I just needed to figure out how to make everything connect for the business… I went in thinking I was going to open a brick-and-mortar bakery, but we ran the numbers and realized I would have to essentially be a cafe and serve meals to cover my costs. In talking with my instructor, Mark Bittle, I quickly realized that’s not what I wanted to be doing.”

Between her vision and input from family and Bittle, the notion of a food truck began taking shape. She traveled to Waco, Texas, where her brother lives, and he introduced her to a similar ice cream sandwich truck concept named Pokey O’s. The owner was generous with mentoring her and allowing her to tour his operation, learning the basics such as the necessary refrigeration components, scoop sizes and much more minutia. That experience put her in a great position once she returned to the SBDC class to finish crafting her business’ framework.

As Leading Edge™ students get priority over other clients working with the SBDC, Morrissey wasted no time in meeting with several lawyers to draft her employee handbooks and create a non-disclosure agreement, etc. An additional challenge at the time: she was in the middle of a divorce, and needed reassurance she wouldn’t be losing her business to it. She also met with SBDC financial planners to help structure a realistic 12-month revenue projection and “poke holes in my initial financial plan” she’d created prior. Darrell Fleck, an SBDC general business consultant who formerly owned a Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins franchise, “looked at my books and almost made me cry the first time we talked,” she says, laughing about it now. “But I’m happy to report that the last time I met with him he said I’m doing an amazing job!”

Another valuable mentor through the SBDC was consultant Christina Voreadis, co-owner of Go Fish Food Truck and also experienced in PR and marketing. Like Fleck, Voreadis’ directly relevant experience in the retail food world — and on a food truck in her case — proved indispensable. Via Voreadis’s professional recommendations, Morrissey connected with an area fabrication company named BN Fabrications to weld all the metal, plumb, run electrical and do everything necessary to outfit Marta for service. Next came a referral to local business Creative Consortium for her cute, slick banner wrap, built around a drawing of a cow one of her daughters created at age 14. Passersby can’t miss the colorful mobile unit, with bright pink and yellow accents.

Morrissey has continued to utilize the SBDC’s free services. They even helped connect her to a commercial Realtor to begin the hunt for an ideal brick-and-mortar spot. Simply put, she says, “They’re the best. I went from no idea to a complete business plan and a successful launch with a toolbelt full of tools, plus a great group of people backing me and cheering me on.”

Risk & Reward

Monique Flemings made the biggest risk of her life while experiencing homelessness.

To understand how she got there, it helps to first know that she’d started working at age 14, earned a bilingual literacy degree at Metro State University in her hometown of Denver, and originally wanted to be an English as a Second Language teacher. Low pay deterred her from entering the field, so she took a job in insurance. Over the course of many years, she moved from owning her own salon and an entertainment company into 17 years of nonprofit work. She struggled to be paid her worth, eventually taking a job as a field tech rep for ADT Security Services for a stable wage.

One of her last gigs in the nonprofit arena was as a transition coordinator for an agency in Denver that assisted Medicaid recipients in moving from nursing or long-term-care facilities to independent or community-living. She decided that was something she’d like to continue doing with her own company.

So, in 2013 at age 43, she’d had enough, and “fired my boss,” making a conscious decision to go without work so she could spend the time necessary to create her own job. “I knew if I stayed in a corporate job full time, there’d be no time to get my own business off the ground,” a dream she had during those corporate years, she says. She went through a divorce, became homeless, couch-surfed and moved her family in with her mother for a time.

Her mom moved to Colorado Springs in 2017 and she followed, still in need of housing assistance. Upon arriving here to pursue her entrepreneurial dream, a friend recommended she reach out to the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center. She did, and in August of that year, she earned a grant to attend an eight-week Leading Edge™ strategic business planning course with SBDC Facilitator Mark Bittle.

“The SBDC gave me the blueprint,” she says. “It gave me confidence in what I was doing. I didn’t have two words on paper when I walked in, but within the first couple months after taking their class, I had my first federal grant money in-hand. That class was pivotal.” She also took advantage of later business consulting with tax, legal and technical advisors via the SBDC.

Flemings is now the Executive Director of All Hands On Deck (AHOD) transition services, which took on its first two clients in October 2017. Flemings’ family loaned her money to front those initial clients (as there’s a delay in grant reimbursement from the State) and her mom assisted with providing services. By 2018 she was able to hire her first life-skills trainer, and today she’s at seven employees, despite the pandemic setbacks. AHOD currently assists clients annually across the Springs, Pueblo, Denver, and Teller and Jefferson counties. Flemings is also aiming to create offices in the coming year in Atlanta, Georgia and Dallas, Texas, where she cites a dearth in services.

The process begins for clients via an expressed desire for independent living; care facilities then coordinate through counselors at the State level, then Medicaid sends referrals to transition-assistance agencies like AHOD. They then assist in setting up housing (with dedicated Section 8 vouchers), organizing skilled home health care checkups, setting up medical equipment, assisting with transportation needs and arranging life skills training and peer mentorship. “We get them as self-sufficient as possible inside of the allotted year,” she says, noting they go above and beyond in assisting with emergencies and more, voluntarily. “I still see clients who we helped move three years ago,” she says.

AHOD creates a positive net impact at the state level. Flemings cites a cost to the government of around $7,000 a month to provide long-term facility care to a person, while independent living situations can lower that cost to around $4,800 monthly. “Between 2016 and 2019 the State saved $4.8 million,” she says. Still, a lot of education is needed to ensure patients know their options, and she’s concerned that cycles of institutionalized homelessness persist. “People have major medical events every day… Covid showed us how hospitals aren’t always prepared for big numbers … people end up staying even after they’re healthier because they have nowhere to go… facilities shouldn’t be fearing lost revenue with unoccupied beds… we can keep people moving back into independent living and get them back on their feet until the next time they require services.”

She notes potential for better care in community-based settings, as AHOD can address underlying health conditions with expanded services, whereas care facilities are sometimes limited in addressing only what a person is admitted for. Plus, clients just need “someone to hold their hand and communicate” on their behalf: basic advocacy and facilitation.

“People don’t realize they can live independently again … when we walk into a facility to move them, you should see their faces — it’s like Santa arriving on Christmas morning.”

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