Hellgate Venture Network celebrates 10 years of successful start-ups

Naomi Gerheim, co-founder of Level Up Brewing, credits Hellgate Venture Network for helping her connect to resources she needed to start her business. (Mari Hall/Missoula Current)

The Hellgate Venture Network celebrated its 10th anniversary on Thursday, acknowledging a now-substantial history of monthly meetings and networking events for hundreds of Montana start-ups.

The organization connects Montana businesses to resources or other local companies that can help with background logistics like finance, hiring and site selection.

“Entrepreneurs have a really rough road, and it’s hard to have somebody to talk to in your organization if you’re the boss. You don’t really have a peer-to-peer network of anybody you can confide in,” Hellgate Venture Network co-founder and Goodworks Ventures CEO Dawn McGee said.

The monthly meetings include a short presentation by an entrepreneur who has overcome a challenge or struggle in the business world. Networking always follows, McGee said. About 900 people have been part of the Hellgate Venture Network community.

“Ten years into this, we’re going strong,” she said. “I think that if we look at it from a 30-year lens looking backward, I think you’ll be able to say that the Hellgate Venture Network really contributed to the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem within at least western Montana if not all of Montana.”

McGee and co-founder Paul Gladen met at a local business training gathering in 2009 and quickly started hosting informal meetings at Brooks and Browns Bar and Grill. Soon, more and more business owners and entrepreneurs were attending.

“In terms of other cities replicating it, it’s a really cheap buy. I probably buy about $1,500 worth of beer a year and that creates all of this. People are like, ‘I can’t create impact in my community.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah you can. You buy some beer, you host a conversation and it works,’ ” McGee said.

Naomi Gerheim plans to start a board game brew pub in Missoula with her husband. While the location for Level Up Brewing hasn’t been selected, Gerheim credits all of the connections that have gotten her this far to the Hellgate Venture Network.

“We found our first realtor through this, and we found our accountant and lawyers,” Gerheim said. “We made all of these connections through Hellgate Venture Network that I can see are working with people and are obviously trustworthy.”

Gerheim and her husband visited other board game breweries in the Northwest and decided that Missoula needed its own.

“Any city with over about 200,000 people already has a board game bar or cafe. We think that if we don’t do it in Missoula now, someone else is going to do it,” she said.

Merrill Bradshaw, who does customized woodwork in Arlee, has attended Hellgate Venture Network meetings for about eight years, and got the idea to pass around aluminum business cards with a sample of the “gourmet reclaimed lumber” used for his products glued to the back.

“This has been a very inspirational group for me to get to know other people, and hopefully they got to know me as well,” Bradshaw said.

As for the future of Hellgate Venture Network, McGee said she isn’t sure what’s on the horizon, but knows the networking meetings will continue to happen for years to come.

“(Gladen and I) and a number of people across the state knew we could have an entrepreneurial culture in Montana and that we could do this,” she said. “After 11 years, there are real results that are happening due to this collaboration.”

Reporter Mari hall can be contacted via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.