As Early Stage director, Missoula’s Jenn Graff looks to boost startup activity, innovation

Jenn Graff is the first full-time staff member of Early Stage Montana, founded in 2018 to help accelerate Montana’s tech startups by supporting companies and entrepreneurs with the resources and training they need to be successful. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Jenn Graff, newly appointed Executive Director of Early Stage Montana, has plans to expand the non-profit’s impact in the coming years to help support growing tech companies based in Missoula.

Originally from South Dakota, Graff moved to Missoula in 2000 to attend the University of Montana. Limited job prospects in Missoula at the time led her to pursue career opportunities outside of Western Montana, including Jackson Hole and Bozeman.

“While I loved Missoula, staying after graduation wasn’t really an option because my brightest job prospects were in the service industry,” Graff said. “So, I left for five years and built a career in sales and marketing, moving between other mountain towns in the Rockies.”

After returning to Missoula in 2010 to pursue her MBA at the University of Montana, Graff took a position with Missoula Economic Partnership where she was able to develop skills and gain further experience in Missoula’s business sector.

“That role gave me a ton of exposure into all the businesses and economic levers that contribute to a healthy economy,” said Graff. “I was also able to work with multiple industries and professionals to learn how to position our community as an ideal place for tech companies, and we focused a lot on the quality of life and the creative class of professionals who want to live here.”

Despite the limited job market within Missoula at the time, Graff said her determination to stay in Missoula is not unique to her.

“There are a thousand stories just like mine, and people who have fought a lot harder than I had to get to stay here. That’s why this town is great for tech companies – there are a lot of people who want to be here. We all had to have some creativity and grit to get to stay here. It turns out those same attributes make great employees and founders.”

Graff is the first full-time staff member of Early Stage Montana, founded in 2018 to help accelerate Montana’s tech startups by supporting companies and entrepreneurs with the resources and training they need to be successful.

Her first task as executive director will be to prioritize outreach to untapped communities and organizations that have yet to make headway in the industry. Using Early Stage Montana’s Accelerator series programing, entrepreneurs in the tech industry will receive hands-on training and mentorship to grow their businesses.

“The ultimate goal of Early Stage Montana is to grow the ecosystem here into more and more of an innovation hub for startup activity,” Graff said. “We are an entrepreneurial state and we have the talent. Our job is just to help the early-stage businesses we have here grow, scale, and succeed on a global level. We have an incredible foundation to build upon, so I’m pretty optimistic about what we can accomplish in the coming years.”