Entrepreneurial to the Core – The Villager’s Man and Woman of the Year

By Jan Wondra

Each year, The Villager selects a Man and Woman of the Year who have had a profound, positive impact on the Denver-south community where we live, work and play.

This year’s Man of the Year, Vic Ahmed, and Woman of the Year, Dr. Becky Takada-Tinker, share characteristics that have made the area an economic powerhouse, not just for Colorado, but across the nation and around the globe.

Among those characteristics: A constant drive to innovate, a deep dedication to the value of education to advance both economic results and individual opportunity, and the belief that flawless execution can make the difference between mediocrity and a strong economic impact.

Man of the Year: Vic Ahmed

Business leader is CEO of Innovation Pavilion

As the CEO of Centennial-based Innovation Pavilion, Ahmed and his team have created a place where there appears to be no such thing as “I can’t.” The Pavilion thrives on the challenge of creating new ways to do things—imagining products and services that solve problems while advising and solidly vetting startups that are capable of attracting the capital needed to grow.

“I think that nobody else in the country has taken this sort of approach,” said Ahmed of the organization he launched in 2011.

The model includes an entire campus—a collaborative workspace, “a 21st century library” and a STEM school, as well as retail and millennial housing.

“If we kept doing things the way we have done things in the past, instead of breaking down the barriers to the way things have always been done, we would be standing still,” Ahmed said. “Every state in the union wants high-growth companies. Over the years, we’ve developed a philosophy on how to engage the VCs (venture capitalists), and that’s allowed us to expand.”

What Ahmed and his team have done is create an environment conducive to innovation, excelling at attracting funding for innovative local startups to help them thrive where they are, rather than relocating to Silicon Valley or Boston.

In November, Ahmed led a group of 18 startups to Colorado Day in Silicon Valley, teaming up with the governor’s office and Colorado Technology Associates to showcase Colorado’s high-quality and high-growth companies to the Silicon Valley ecosystem.

“There are clusters of venture capitalists, maybe up to 500 VCs in Silicon Valley, 40 in Boston,” Ahmed said. “Unfortunately, most states ask them to open an office in their state and VCs aren’t going to do that. So, my team has come up with a three-prong strategy to attract funding.”

Ahmed says that strategy begins with solid vetting.

“If I’m a VC and someone does a little filtering for me—vets the company as a good prospect—then I am obviously appreciative,” he said.

The second strategy Ahmed employs is using his contacts with chief information officers of large corporations to introduce them to venture capitalists.

“They are interested in getting to know the CIOs—that’s their clients,” he said. “It’s their problems they are trying to solve. So, when they come here, we put them together—they can come meet the CIOs, not just the good startup companies.”

The third leg of Innovation Pavilion’s three-legged stool, says Ahmed, is providing introduction to what he calls “Colorado’s funds of funds.”

“You see, the VCs are funded by funds of funds, family offices, and high net-worth people. I play a role in introducing them. We believe that executing is 90 percent of anything,” Ahmed said. “So, the Colorado demo day in Silicon Valley was a concept that had to be executed.”

An innovative history

Born in Pakistan, Ahmed exhibited an early capacity to make things happen.

As a high-achieving high school graduate, he was expected to attend college in the United States, eventually deciding to attend Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Originally planning to major in civil engineering, he instead double-majored in computer science and systems engineering.

Returning to Pakistan, he joined a large software company as a systems analyst, lasting there for three months before starting his own company.

“I made a lot of early mistakes, but it set me on this entrepreneurial course,” he said. “That lasted four years, then I sold it and began exporting software back to the states.”

Showing an early skill at raising funds, Ahmed started CresSoft in 1992 and opened a south metro office the next year. In 1999, he sold the firm’s successful model for off-shore computer programming.

He followed that with Vroom Technologies, but closed it when funding dried up after the 2001 market crash. He then turned to taking interim CEO roles in tech companies, exhibiting skill in turning such operations around, adding value and attracting funding. It suited his entrepreneurial tendencies.

 By 2008, Ahmed was researching models for business incubators on both the east and west coasts, and in 2011 he created the for-profit incubator, Innovation Pavilion. “I knew Denver would never be a Silicon Valley or a Boston or New York. We have a different ecosystem here in terms of access to capital, and IP has been a huge success,” Ahmed said. “We’re about to run out of space here at our 80,000-square-foot building in Centennial. The concept is expanding, which is per plan.”

The incubator has already opened four more innovation campuses this year—in Parker, as well as Joliet, Ill., Florence, Ariz. and Olathe, Kan. The IP formula calls for development of mixed-use innovation campuses in partnership with city and county officials and real estate developers. The suburban locations are also by design.

“The big metros have enough funding,” Ahmed said. “It’s the suburban areas that are looking to attract commercial enterprise.”

Ahmed’s dedication to innovation is expansive. He devotes a significant amount of time promoting the development of Colorado’s tech industry. He is a critical member of the board of the Colorado Governor’s Innovation Commission and co-founder and chairman of TiE Rockies, which supports Denver-area entrepreneurs by sponsoring mentoring and networking opportunities. He serves on the TiE’s Global Board of Trustees.

Ahmed is also secretary of technology of ICAST, Colorado’s nonprofit IT Commission, which is focused on sustainable development in underserved communities. He recently chaired the Colorado Technology Association and is an advisory-board member of the Bard Center of Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Stemming into education

Central to the Innovation Pavilion’s success and Ahmed’s personal dedication to innovation is his conviction that education is key, especially in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and math.

“For us, that is science, technology and entrepreneurial mastery,” he said. “Learning is a continual process. When you start doing something, you always learn how to do it better. Inevitably, the plan you start out with is not the one you end up with.”

The campus plan will evolve and will include what Ahmed calls a “maker space,” a series of labs and programming for developing prototypes like lasers and grazers and 3-D printers.

“There is this uprising called the ‘maker movement,’ where people are doing things with their hands, validating their ideas,” he said.  “Mastery is the concept of developing some deep skill by the time you graduate—fix computers, produce music, doing animation.”

Ahmed says that what he and his team have built owes a lot to its Colorado location. Although he started his first U.S. company in Los Angeles, gravitating to Colorado, in hindsight, was inevitable.

“I signed an agreement with Time Warner and had about 100 people deployed on this project spending time in Denver—that’s how I got here,” Ahmed said. “You know, I love the state. Most people focus on the natural beauty, which you can’t miss. But the real beauty is the people of this state. I think that when you come from somewhere else, it takes you by surprise—you say, ‘Why are people being so nice to me?’ People here are extremely inviting. They let you in. They are authentically helpful. It’s real—basically that has been a huge draw—a big part of the adventure.”

Ahmed looks ahead with an entirely positive view.

“My whole career has been about innovation and entrepreneurship,” he said. “Colorado is a great place for innovation. I chose this because I already decided to live here. When I was trying to figure out my next gig—my engagement on the nonprofit side, and my day side—that intersection, that partnership came through because this is Colorado.”


Woman of the Year: Becky Takada-Tinker

President of CSU-Global is dedicated to today’s nontraditional student

The school pays its own way, taking no money from the Colorado state budget. Among its many claims to uniqueness is a total focus is on nontraditional learners, and the school’s results consistently rank it among leading universities.

“We’ll be at 20,000 enrollment by early next year, including students getting undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees,” Takada-Tinker said of the university located in Greenwood Village. “We’ve graduated more than 10,000, and we’re bringing in 600 to 900 per month from every state and territory and 55 countries around the globe. We’re one of the fastest-growing universities in the nation and we’re working in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, China—we are truly global.”

CSU-Global’s model is designed to drive innovation, focusing on competency-based education linked directly to real-world careers and personnel needs of industry partners. The school coordinates with more than 500 corporations nationwide to continually update its degree coursework and remain at the forefront of advances in technology and industry.

“Our mission is nontraditional students,” Takada-Tinker said. “They’re working, focused on professions, raising families, they have things going on. School is part of their life, not the center of their life. They’re getting their education while life is going on. This model of education was created to accommodate non-traditional students, which means that classes start every month. No student is more than a month away from starting or continuing education.”

CSU-Global has garnered a reputation for innovation, not just in the close relationships it maintains with industry categories and large corporations to develop and improve degree programs that meet real-world needs, but in how the university is structured. There are no student fees and no out-of-state tuition premiums. While tuition rates are rising at 8 percent per year, CSU-Global guarantees that once a student starts, the tuition rate will not rise as long as the student continues taking classes.

The innovative approach is focused on results.

“We test how much they learn,” Takada-Tinker said. “We survey students for their satisfaction and we survey employers about how much the students learn. Here, we refresh the degrees every 18 months based on what companies who hire our grads are saying.”

A rough start

The future of CSU-Global was not always so rosy.

“When they asked me to take the lead less than a year into its launch, the place was failing,” Takada-Tinker said. “I had to assess the situation quickly and made dramatic changes to bring down expenses to income, including reducing salaries. Those that didn’t want to do that left and we spread what had to be done among those of us who were left, most taking on two or three roles. Within several months, we stopped the bleeding. Then, we had to turn it around.”

Turn it around, it did

Ten years later, the university is receiving a wealth of recognition. In 2017, CSU-Global was ranked No. 1 by Military Advanced Education and Transition Guide to Colleges and Universities and No. 5 by Best Online Colleges. Today, the school’s master’s degree program is ranked No. 3 in the Top 50 Best Value Online Graduate Schools.

Takada-Tinker came to her leadership role well prepared by a successful business career.

“I got a degree in business, and began work with a private company created through investment capital,” she said. “When they took it public, then sold it back to a private firm I made money coming and going. They asked me to stay and be the ground person to do the operations for the group of investors. So I got my start cleaning things up, doing IPO deals and traveling during the dot.com heyday. I probably worked for 14 companies during that time.”

Among many innovative efforts, this fall CSU-Global just held its first completely-virtual global conference.

“We had 3,300 people participating from 120 different organizations. More than 40 percent were from other countries. Even South American countries want women in the workplace,” Takada-Tinker said.

A nontraditional background

This has not been the president’s first global effort.

“After the last deal I worked on for a company sponsored by JPMorgan Chase, they asked me to take over the portfolio company,” she said. “I worked with Visa MasterCard in Asia to set up merchant accounts for U.S. companies working in the states, Europe and Asia. We created a global independent sales organization set on one merchant account, then we sold it back to the employees.”

When she and her husband Allen moved to Colorado, Takada-Tinker went back to school for her Ph.D. Finishing in 2007, she applied to teach at community colleges and worked with the International Women’s Forum.

“All the companies I worked with, the college grads couldn’t do the work we hired them to do,” she said. “Employers complained about it. What they wanted were employees who were motivated, passionate, educated, trained and ready.”

Takada-Tinker says her affinity for the nontraditional-learner model extends back to her own childhood, growing up in Danville, Calif., where she watched her own father receive an education.

“He was an early nontraditional learner. They had no money, he held down three jobs while he went to UC Berkeley. He worked so hard,” she said.

Takada-Tinker says when the public considers how the United States is changing, CSU-Global’s nontraditional programing makes even more sense.

“Forty-one percent of our CSU-Global students are the first in their families to go to college. A high percentage are minorities,” she said. “The reality is that life can come with unexpected challenge and CSU-Global is well set up for this. In other colleges or universities, if you quit, then you’re done. Who wants the credits you’ve earned? But here, the reason we offer 12 starts a year is to accommodate life. We do eight-week terms, so if you need to take off a month, it’s OK. If you take off two months, then we might not see you—so yes, we check up on students.”

The statistics at CSU-Global speak for themselves. Student retention runs near 90 percent. More than 86 percent of the faculty holds a Ph.D. as well as workplace experience. And they don’t just instruct, they serve as career coaches.

CSU-Global is recreating the student experience in what it calls “Global 2.0. initiative”

“It’s the 21st century,” Takada-Tinker said. “Our own version of adaptive learning is providing individualized and customized learning experiences, especially with what our data tells us are underserved populations. We will do all we can to help them succeed if they have the tenacity.”

She says it’s important to understand the CSU-Global higher-education mindset.

“We believe in life-long learning,” Takada-Tinker said. “Here, we have a work-based-driven focus. We’re gearing them up to be plugged in and play in their economies. It’s time for people to realize that the pace of change is so fast, if you now take somebody out of the workplace and send them to school, the employee will be so far behind when they come back.”

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