Prior to being inaugurated in January 2023 to a second term as Governor of Colorado, Jared Polis began his career as an internet entrepreneur. While still in college, he co-founded American Information Systems, an internet access provider that was sold in 1998. In 1996, he co-founded one of the first Internet greeting card websites, bluemountain.com, which was sold in 1999 for $780 million in cash and stock.
As a public servant, Jared has brought a unique business perspective to his role as a policymaker. Before beginning his term in 2019 as the state’s 43rd governor, Polis launched and ran several successful companies, founded schools for at-risk students and new immigrants, and served from 2001 to 2007 on the State Board of Education. He also served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives for Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District from 2009 to 2019.
As governor, Polis’ practical leadership helped guide the state through the pandemic. He is a dedicated advocate for the state’s economy, communities and environment, and is a strong proponent of the natural products industry, the cannabis and hemp industry, and climate-resilient, regenerative agriculture.
Governor Polis has appeared and spoken at a number of conferences and events focused on natural, sustainable and organic products business, including being featured as a keynote presenter at industry events hosted by Naturally Boulder. Polis also is scheduled to speak at the ninth annual NoCo Hemp Expo at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, March 29th to 31st, 2023.
Governor Polis recently shared his views during a Q&A session on business, entrepreneurship and natural and organic products, regenerative agriculture and today’s market climate on the podcast Compass Coffee Talk, co-hosted by industry veterans Bill Capsalis and Steven Hoffman and sponsored by PRESENCE. Read on to learn more about Jared’s perspectives on policy, politics, natural products, industrial hemp, renewable energy and more.
Q: Can you describe your early years in business and what you’re seeing in today’s environment to support entrepreneurship?
I was very active in the early stages of the companies that I founded or co-founded. I founded ProFlowers.com in 1998 and we raised capital in 2001, went public in 2003, and sold it in 2007. As mentioned, I cofounded BlueMountain.com. American Information Systems was my first company. This was while I was still in college. It was an internet access provider. Two friends I met through my college friends, and we basically just got a bank of modems for dial-up internet access, and we sold dial-up internet access. We raised capital and sold it eventually. So, I was always most active in the very early stages and then usually would take on a board or a chairman type role, as the company grew.
Today in natural foods and in tech, it’s really exciting to see the infrastructure around startups that really didn’t exist 20 or 25 years ago. I mean, I see in natural products, to get contract production is relatively easy. You have the idea. There are facilities that do it. You don’t have to mess with the capital costs. There’s marketing people that you can tap. So, the infrastructure; you have the idea; you have the product. It’s really easier than ever before to bring it to market, which is really cool. We see a similar thing in tech. I mean, there’re angel funders and funding networks. You need less capital, because, again, you can use shared facilities. So, it’s really empowering for entrepreneurs.
Right now in Colorado, it’s only $1 to start a new business, to incorporate or take out an LLC. So, it’s normally $75 to $100. And I hope that’s something we will continue. It’s in our budget to continue. New business formations went up as a result. And it may not sound like a lot, but if you’re starting a business with $400, 75 bucks is a big deal. I mean, you’re talking 20% of your budget. And if we can make it a dollar to start… Actually, well, I wanted to make it free, but then it turned out that bots would register millions of businesses. And so we said, “Okay, we’ll make it a dollar, just to make sure it’s real.” It’s essentially free.
Also in Colorado, we have some strong angel funding networks and, of course, professionally managed venture capital. Our universities are also hubs on this. We have a lot of business plan competitions, where folks can, if their business plan goes to top, they might get $5,000 or $15,000, but they get enough to go to the next level and package their business to raise capital. This is all stuff that didn’t exist 20 years ago. So it’s just kind of cool to see all the support networks that help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into reality.
Still, obviously, for anybody considering entrepreneurship, it’s a lot of work. You’ve got to be ready to burn the candle on both ends, work all day and night. That’s all you’re going to do. But there are a lot more support structures in place there than there were before on both the network and the capital development side.
Q: Can you talk about your administration’s support for regenerative agriculture and industrial hemp?
We’re doing a lot of cool work in agriculture. We have a great agriculture commissioner, Kate Greenberg. We have oriented our focus on Colorado Proud and on soil health and regenerative initiatives. There are all kinds of ag tech in Colorado, and we have some revolving loan funds that are available for the capital piece of ag tech. Also, we’ve really oriented around the future of agriculture, food, and sustainability. And the legislature, especially with the American Rescue Act funds, has been very generous to help make sure we have the ability to step up and play more of a role in helping innovation in agriculture.
For example, we have an initiative around agrivoltaics, looking at how you can do solar energy production, but also take advantage of the partial shading from a water perspective for crop production. In Silt, Colorado, we have a very large high-tech indoor growing operation for lettuce and salads. And, this thing is amazing to see. But importantly, it uses 90% less water, and it’s also organic, so it’s really cool to see what’s going on.
For hemp, early on, we launched our hemp advancement initiative. We’ve made it a priority, and we made sure the role of the state in hemp is very different than marijuana. Marijuana is regulated; it’s a different department — it’s in the Department of Regulatory Affairs. We look at it kind of like alcohol and regulate marijuana like alcohol. However, hemp as a crop is in the Department of Agriculture. And we’ve been in the forefront of innovating with our plan with the federal government. We push the envelope in the Department of Agriculture. We want to reduce costs as much as we can for farmers and really look at additional uses. I mean, there was the whole CBD thing, and I’m sure CBD will be here to a certain extent forever, but it’s more about the industrial uses. So everything from hemp food to hempcrete to clothing to car parts, a lot of great things are coming out of that sector.
Q: Development and water are issues at the forefront in the West. What are your thoughts?
So, we’re in a stronger position legally as an upper basin state than the lower basin states. The states that are facing and are likely to face the most severe mandatory cutbacks are California, Arizona, and Nevada. It’s going to be especially challenging in those states, and they’re already taking steps. That doesn’t mean that Colorado shouldn’t be part of solution. Of course, we should. We’re at that table. Also, we’re really excited about connecting water policy to housing in Colorado.
One of the things we need for our whole economy, you see it in every sector, is the cost of living is too high. So, we want lower housing costs. So, it’s very simply economics 101. It’s a function of supply and demand. It’s great the demand is high. It means people want to live here; it’s a great place to live. But supply is artificially constrained. So how do we unleash more housing supply, reducing housing costs, but at the same time do that in a sustainable way, which means from a water perspective and an energy perspective. What that means is not more suburban sprawl, with more traffic on the roads, more single family plots with yards that need water and grass. So how do we do this in a way where we can do it on transit corridors thoughtfully, efficiently? And that’s really one of the main areas we’re focused on working with the legislature this coming session.
Q: How is Colorado taking the lead in renewable energy?
Colorado’s at the forefront of moving to renewable energy. We’re going to be at 80% renewable energy for our grid in just seven more years by 2030. I mean, it’s really remarkable to think of that transformation. Our goal is 100% by 2040. I think we’ll get there. One of the ways we’re pursuing, I’m the chair of the Western Governor’s Association now, the 22 Western states. And our initiative is the heat beneath our feet, or geothermal energy. There are great opportunities for geothermal for both heating and cooling passive, but also geothermal electric.
For example, at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, already 70% of their building space is heated and cooled with passive geothermal. And our state is going to work with them to hopefully become the first university in the country to be 100% geothermal heating and cooling. What’s also really cool is they did the financial work to figure out what that means. The fact that they’ve zeroed out their heating and cooling bills or 70% of them, it actually reduces tuition. So there’s a direct dividend for their students that they get this basically free heat source. There’s capital cost up front you build in. It’s rated for 30 years, but it’ll last 60, 70 years, minimal maintenance. I mean there’s amazing opportunities for the heat beneath our feet.
So, the geothermal passive heating and cooling is really available pretty much everywhere with the ground temperatures we have. The opportunity for geothermal electric is where there are very hot underground temperatures, which our state has. But this is more where there’s nearby hot springs or where there are hot springs you might not know about, because they’re underground. But you really need to find those. But there are plenty of those places for geothermal electric, as well. There’s a new plant coming along online in southwest Utah. Hawaii has a large geothermal electric plant in Kona that actually generates about 20% of the power for the island. So, it’s not new. That plant is decades old. But the application to meet our renewable energy needs and apply it in the West is new, and utilize some of the new kind of drilling technology that’s available to be able to tap it successfully, sustainably and at low cost.
Q: Can you speak to developing more infrastructure for electric vehicles?
We have a dedicated funding source in the state for additional charging. We also have a partnership with Rivian to put charging stations in all of our state parks. We already have several of them online. They’re going to get to all of them over the next year or two. We’re doing the scenic byways. We’re doing a lot of this because we want it to be as convenient as possible and increase and empower consumer choice and empower people who are early adopters. But it’s really gone mainstream. About 13% of all the cars sold in the last few months were electric in Colorado. I mean, that’s a big deal. One piece of good news is that the national Bipartisan Infrastructure Act has charging infrastructure in it, which will affect all 50 states. So, Colorado will be ahead, because we have our own resources. But even the states that don’t allocate their own are going to be getting some federal resources for additional charging capacity.
Q: What can entrepreneurs and business leaders do get involved in mentorship and civic leadership?
Well, certainly, pay it forward. Be a mentor. Help other entrepreneurs. We have a lot of state boards and commissions, and you can go to our Governor of Colorado website and click on Colorado Boards and Commissions. We have a food advisory council. We want people who might want to serve on boards of different universities or on economic development. So, I would love people who have some time to serve in these different capacities with the state of Colorado. And a lot of these meet a day a month or a day every other month, so they’re manageable. If you don’t live in Colorado, your state probably has these also. Sometimes your city or county might also have these kinds of ways to get involved. For example, we have an opening on the State Fair Board from Western Colorado, so we encourage someone who lives near Durango or Grand Junction to apply. We’d love to have them; the State Fair’s really cool. Note that these are not paid positions, but you don’t have to incur any out-of-pocket costs. If you have to travel or stay in a hotel for a meeting, the state pays for expenses.