People & Place

By Paul F. Vang


“I’m going to go back to school and sharpen my tools.” Cory Birkenbuel started college at University of Montana Western in Dillon back in the 1990s on a football scholarship, but feeling he had lost his focus on academics, he dropped out and worked various jobs, usually revolving around promoting entertainers and bands, along with indulging his passion for skiing. He began to realize what he wanted to do in life, “I want to bring people together in the name of art.”

He returned to UM Western and resumed working on a business degree. In one class he mentioned an idea he’d been mulling for several years—to make a documentary film about Montana’s ski areas. His classmates gave him positive feedback and when Cory asked his professor if he could use the project as an internship, the professor said, “Go for it.”

With that, Cory was off and running, developing a business plan for the project, “Montana’s Sweet 16.”In January 2012 he’ll go to all of Montana’s downhill ski areas, getting interviews and, of course, skiing. He plans to premier the completed documentary at upcoming Hatchfest and Cold Smoke Awards festivals.

“I’m running a business with this project,” Cory exudes.

That’s one student’s story but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. From Montana’s flagship state universities to small liberal arts colleges, entrepreneurship is a hot, new trend in higher education in Big Sky Country.

An entrepreneur, according to the Library of Economics and Liberty, “is someone who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise...Entrepreneurship is the process of discovering new ways of combining resources.”

In discovering new ways of combining resources, Montana’s schools are, in a direct sense, developing a spirit of entrepreneurship as well.

Twila Croft, Dean of Student Development at University of Great Falls, a Catholic liberal arts college, notes, “We just hired a performing arts entrepreneur. He’s going to help develop entrepreneurship programs for theater and music students.”

Karen Beiser, Assistant Professor of Business at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, agrees, predicting, “I think we’ve only begun to see the potential as we stress the idea of at least a minimal amount of business education for all majors. For example, a student majoring in art will likely need to know how to operate an art gallery.”

Scott Bryant, Executive Director for the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship for the New West at Montana State University at Bozeman, cites a number of minors that students can earn in the business curriculum as well as minors in entrepreneurship itself. “We increasingly have people coming from other academic disciplines who realize they need to develop business skills.”

Klaus Uhlenbruck, Associate Dean and Associate Professor at the University of Montana School of Business Administration, says entrepreneurship studies aren’t necessarily new, pointing out that the University hosts an annual business plan competition, one of the oldest such competitions in the country. Still, he sees growing interest in entrepreneurship programs, as many students see small business as their greatest opportunity to develop and grow their ideas, as well as meet another goal: to live and work in Montana.

Katrina Stark, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at University of Great Falls, notes that many of their students come from small towns with a background in small businesses or farming and ranching. “Our kids aren’t likely going to IBM or Dell. They’re more likely to stay in Montana and get involved in a small business.”

Alex “Papu” Rincon graduated from Carroll College in Helena in 2003, with a triple major in Business Administration, Visual Arts, and Linguistics, with an emphasis on Spanish. He’d worked in retail through high school and college, so had a background in business, but noted that business departments tend to emphasize big business, “I’d challenge them to tailor their teaching to small business—and they responded to that challenge.” After graduation he made a point to stay in contact with his teachers at Carroll, meeting them for coffee or lunch and the opportunity to run business ideas by them.

In October 2007, he launched four0six, a specialty clothing store on Helena’s Last Chance Gulch. Papu believes his business education gave him an advantage in starting a business, with the knowledge of how to develop a business plan and follow through on it, including understanding personnel issues and wage reporting requirements—things that sometimes get neophyte businesses in trouble.

Though he started his business just before a national recession, he’s had steady growth every year and is now marketing a four0six private label line of clothing statewide.

Rincon was recognized as the Helena Downtown Business Person of the Year for 2010, and the Small Business Administration recognized him as Montana’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year for 2011.

A central theme at Montana’s business schools is learning to write business plans. Timothy Wilkinson, Interim Dean of the College of Business at Montana State University Billings, says, “The coursework is focused on starting and operating small businesses. In fact the entire curriculum leads up to a business plan project in the final capstone course.” Julie Mull, an Associate Professor of Business at Carroll College, notes that developing a business plan is also a requirement for all business majors at Carroll.

Those business plans often grow out of classroom participation. Katrina Stark at University of Great Falls recalls teaching a course, using a standard textbook. “One of my students said, ‘I’ve got an idea.’ I thought: why use the textbook? The students used that business idea as an exercise in leadership, collaborating, planning, delegating and directing actions. I’d come into the classroom and there’d be half a dozen students already there, with laptops open, working hard. They came to class early, for heaven’s sake!”

There is a tangible sense of excitement among professors at Montana’s business schools as they see entrepreneurship as a growing path to achieving their institution’s educational goals. Julie Mull at Carroll College notes the mission to help students reach their full potential, or the University of Great Falls mission to “prepare students for living and making a living.” Karen Beiser at Rocky Mountain College says, “There’s a lot of value to bringing creativity to the work place. I love what I do.”

Jim Potter, Director of University Relations at Great Northern Havre comments, “A lot of students do double majors, getting degrees in Agriculture and Business or Diesel Mechanics and Business. They will plan to put in an extra year or extra semester to get those extra courses in, because they recognize this likelihood they’ll be in business.” He adds, “With these kinds of degrees, you’ll come out with salable skills.”

Another important part of entrepreneurship education in Montana happens with the American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL) program, with national headquarters on the University of Montana campus in Missoula and university chapters at the University of Montana, and Montana State University campuses at Bozeman, Billings, and Havre, plus at Montana tribal colleges. AIBL holds annual business plan competitions, and in the 2011 competition, the MSU Billings AIBL chapter won the competition for the third time in recent years.

Many schools are also finding that the educational process doesn’t end when students graduate. Like Papu Rincon, many students maintain relations after graduation. MSU’s Scott Bryant says, “This is anecdotal, but it seems like we have a lot of grads coming back for a second degree in business, or just to take specific classes.”

Karen Beiser of Rocky Mountain College says she often talks with one of her former students who is now a contractor. “He often tells me how often he uses what he learned in my classes. I tell him, ‘See! We weren’t just trying to torture you.’”


University of Montana
Enrollment: 15,642, includes undergrad and grad
Unique aspect: Rolling Stone Magazine declared it had the most scenic campus in America.


University of Montana – Western
Enrollment: 1,365
Unique Feature: Montana Western is the first and only public four-year university in the nation to offer a block scheduling system in which students take (and professors teach) one class at a time.


Montana Tech
Enrollment: 2,713
Unique aspect: With its rich mining history and varied geography, Butte is a natural laboratory, outside the classroom.


Montana State University
Enrollment: Undergraduates: 11,579
Graduates: 1,980
Unique aspect: Students work alongside faculty experts in a collaborative environment that encourages them to gain inspired perspectives and solve real-world challenges.


Montana State University – Northern
Enrollment: 1,304
Unique aspect: Campuses in Havre, Great Falls, and Lewistown.


Rocky Mountain College
Enrollment: 1,000 students.
Unique aspect: Liberal arts college that also offers degrees in equestrian studies, aviation, and 
masters in physician assistant, accountancy, 
and educational leadership.


Montana State University – Billings
Enrollment: 5,300
Unique aspect: MSU Billings has three campuses across the city.


Carroll College
Enrollment: 1,450
Unique Aspect: Carroll’s class sizes are limited to 20 students or fewer.


University of Great Falls
Great Falls
Enrollment: 958
Best day on campus: The Corps of Discovery includes physical challenges, like rafting on the Missouri River, which hones team-building and leadership skills.


Chris Nelson, a 1985 Eastern Montana College, now MSU Billings, graduate in Accounting and Computer Science. Founder and CEO of Zoot Enterprises in Bozeman, a company that facilitates financial decisioning. Says of MSU-B, “It’s still Eastern to me. I loved the education I got at Eastern. Their accounting program is one of the best in the country. I also had excellent professors in computer science. There was a lot of entrepreneurship going on when I graduated. You didn’t have to be real smart, just willing to work.

There was an earlier profile on Chris Nelson and Zoot Enterprises in the Summer 2004 issue of Distinctly Montana. Zoot has since doubled in size from 100 to 200 employees.


Kevin O’Reilly, Bozeman native, is a 2009 University of Montana MBA and Computer Science Master of Science graduate. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Texas. With Daniel Lande, a fellow MBA and Computer Science classmate, and now business partner, he founded Orbital Shift, a computer-based system of workforce management. His inspiration was previous work experience in employee scheduling, which he found to be frustrating. “There’s got to be a better way.”


Joshua (Josh) Vincent is a 1997 environmental engineering graduate of Montana Tech of the University of Montana in Butte. For several years after graduation he worked for a small environmental consulting firm. In 2000, with David Erickson and Elizabeth Erickson, also graduates of Montana Tech, they formed their own firm, Water & Environmental Technologies, an environmental consulting and engineering firm. From the three founders, they have grown to a staff of 20, building and filling to capacity a new office building in uptown Butte, and a branch office in Great Falls.


Paul Vang is a freelance writer living in Butte, Montana. He’s a columnist for the Butte Weekly, and his credits include Montana Outdoors, Kiwanis, Distinctly Montana, and Wheelin’ Sportsmen magazines, and other publications. Follow his blog at