Peek behind the curtain of every successful event and you’ll find an A-team of planners, partners, and volunteers who are dedicated and driven. Look deeper and you’ll find supportive sponsors with an aligned audience championing and elevating the experience.
Last month’s Ascent Startup Summit was no exception.
Today we’re shining a little light on this sold-out inaugural event with a recap blog post. We wanted to share the highlights, the lessons learned, and what we now know to be true: That the Ascent Startup Summit is an essential event that will play a pivotal role in supporting startups, empowering entrepreneurs, and providing a continuous outlet for the rural innovation that Chaffee County is primed for.
We we’re blessed that one-and-only Chuck Sullivan was on hand to emcee and, in true Chuck fashion, he knocked it out of the park. Chuck is the Executive Director for The Wright, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization that helps shape the economic and cultural vitality of our western communities by bringing together place-makers and innovators to awaken ideas, unlock new partnerships, and celebrate the wins. At the helm of The Wright, Chuck’s best days are spent immersed in the everyday work of real people and real communities across Colorado. We are so fortunate to have him as a mentor for the Ascent accelerator.
While having a sold-out audience and a phenomenal setting goes a long way (and let us tell you the Surf Hotel is a phenomenal setting,) we know that when it comes to conferences, it’s the personalities and stories that make an event memorable. Our keynote speakers and their compelling stories not only engaged our audience, but inspired them to action. Koel Thomae, Co Founder of Noosa Yoghurt, kicked off our Startup Stories speaker series and shared with our audience how she bootstrapped Noosa from a Colorado favorite into a national brand that has dominated its category with more than $220 million in sales. To say we are honored to have Koel as an Ascent accelerator mentor is the understatement of the year. Despite her success and incredibly full calendar, Koel found the time to come share her journey as well as to connect with our cohort and we couldn’t be more grateful for this experience with her.
Next up was Argentinian-born Lorena Cantorovici, Founder of Maria Empanada, who had an unforgettable and inspiring story. As Lorena took the stage she had an electric energy about her that felt contagious, and immediately captivated the audience. Lorena shared her journey and how she traveled from Argentina to the US with just $300 in her pocket and limited command of the English language. She shared her trials and tribulations in starting her empanada empire in her garage with friends, and how she wouldn’t take no for an answer when investors told her, “you’re not bankable.” Cantarovici story is an essential one for any entrepreneur, one that is filled with hard work, perseverance, determination, and so much deliciousness.
Our next serial entrepreneur, investor, and ecosystem builder, Robbie Vitrano.  Robbie is a man of MANY hats. The common thread in all of is endeavors is that these are very important, purpose-driven, world changing ventures. When you ask Robbie what he does, he’ll tell you he’s a designer. We would describe him as a forward thinking, social good, change-making designer. While this might not work for a business card, once you hear Robbie’s story you’ll understand. Robbie shared his story that began in New Orleans and later flourshed in Boulder.  He talked about his company Good Spread, an organic food brand helping to eradicate severe acute malnutrition. He introduced us to Trumpet, a purpose-focused brand studio, and Idea Village, the world’s leading place-based entrepreneurship ecosystem. He talked about one of his ventures, Naked Pizza, which exited in a sale to Mark Cuban, and he told us about his latest projects the Colorado Grain Chain and Mad Agriculture, both dedicated to empowering the farming industry and supporting regenerative and responsible practices.
A highly-anticipated Startup Stories talk was provided by local entrepreneur Charlie Chupp, Founder and CEO of Fading West, which was recently featured in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential Companies of 2022. Charlie is an energetic team builder, driven to do good in the world. This resonated throughout his presentation, highlighting how Fading West creates high paying jobs while solving one of our community’s biggest challenges: Affordable and attainable workforce housing. Charlie believes in bold action, challenging norms, and tackling big problems. As founder and Chief Executive Officer of Fading West Development, he leads design, development, manufacturing, and construction teams into a single LEAN value stream. When Charlie took the stage one of the first things he stated was that he was not a public speaker. We think Charlie can now add “keynote speaker” to his aresenal of things he excells at. Charlie’s story was inspring, motiviating, and so compelling. Charlie walked us through his plan to provide attainable workforce housing while also providing jobs and a career path for the Chaffee County community. He gave us a peek inside his factory-built housing firm and it’s model which delivers prebuilt homes 95% complete, thereby reducing costs (its homes are at least 25% more affordable than similar homes on the market.) To hear Charlie describe where’s he’s been and where he’s headed almost feels less like a company and more like a movement.
After this incredible shared story experience our guests and speakers ventured out onto the Ivy Ballroom’s beautiful riverside terrace for cockails sponsored by Deerhammer Distillery and Woods High Mountain Distilling, as well as craft beer by Elevation Beer Co. and Eddyline Brewery. We mixed, we mingled, we connected and then we headed back inside to the ballroom for the party.
Back in the Ivy Ballroom we introduced our 2022 Cohort and presented their brand videos highlighting their accelerator work. We could not be more proud of these entreprenuers and businesses including Coletrain Music Academy, Katabatic, Eddyline Brewery, Deehammer Distillery, Elevation Beer Co., Over It. Raft covers, Wood’s High Mountain Distillery, Sweetie’s Sandwich Shop and The Biker & The Baker, Terra Firma, and Elements Mountain Compost. While their 8 weeks accelerator program has concluded, rest assured this will not be the last time we feature them here.
The Ascent House Band then took the stage featuring local singer songwriter Bonnie Lea Culpepper, Rapidgrass members Alex Johnstone and Coleman Smith, and Denver bassist Gary Sloan, who together wowed the audience playing everything from swing, Americana, and bluegrass.

All in all, this inaugural Startup Summit was a great success. The energy in the room was phenomenal. The caliber of speakers was nearly unbeatable. The setting, food, and drinks were all first class. Was it perfect? It was SO close. (Standup comedy was an admittedly failed experiment!)


We are in the early planning stages of our Ascent Startup Summit 2023 and can promise you another lineup of inspiring keynote speakers, delicious food and libations, incredible entertainment (minus the bombing comedians, of course!) and a brand new cohort of amazing local companies to celebrate!

Finally, we want to send a huge shout out to our presenting sponsor Collegiate Peaks Bank and our event parters Deerhammer, Wood’s, Elevation and Eddyline for helping to make this event a smashing success. You are so important to this community and we are blessed to have your support!

Stay tuned for more information on next year’s Startup Summit. See you all soon!