From Oxford to UM, old pals nurture Missoula’s startup scene

Paul Gladen, left, and David Firth were friends as students at Oxford University in the 1980s. The two now work at the University of Montana in the School of Business and Blackstone LaunchPad, where they help prepare students and entrepreneurs for the future. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When Paul Gladen and David Firth lived half a world away, the two students at Oxford University became fast friends. They hung out on campus, shared a house through college, and landed jobs at large accounting firms.

But then, as life often has it, they went their separate ways – Firth to Dallas and San Francisco, Gladen to New York City. Given their diverging paths and the demands of the business world, the chances of a reunion, much less a collaboration, just wasn’t in the cards.

Or was it?

The two business leaders who trace their friendship back to England in the 1980s have become prominent figures on the University of Montana campus, where they spend their hours positioning entrepreneurs and students for success.

For Firth, that work takes place in the School of Business, where he teaches information systems and consulting. For Gladen, it plays out in frequent classroom appearances and consulting sessions at Blackstone LaunchPad, a university program designed to support entrepreneurs looking for direction.

“That’s the crazy thing about life and career paths, which in some ways is what we try to impart,” said Gladen. “That’s what we’re tying to equip people with at UM, giving them the skills to be innovative and adaptive, to be entrepreneurial and spot opportunities and take advantage of them.”

Firth left Oxford for Dallas and eventually San Francisco. While in California, he earned his doctorate at UCLA and turned his sights on teaching. He applied for numerous jobs, UM among them.

His choice in universities turned out to be a good fit. Firth joined the School of Business in 2003 and, along with Cameron Lawrence, helped reshape its reputation and sharpen its focus.

“We got here and did what we were told and realized there was a much bigger need for our students with the development of technology that’s come along over the last decade,” said Firth. “Our information systems program is now internationally recognized. We play on the international stage.”

Gladen was back in New York as Firth found his way into the School of Business. While Gladen had no idea where Missoula was, he was up for a visit. When Gladen arrived at the airport, the Firths gave him the grand tour, from Glacier National Park to UM.

As timing would have it, Gladen was looking to start his own business. Firth had a non-traditional student looking to do the same. He connected Gladen and the student and the two went on to launch Muzeview, a company that curates content for large professional servicing firms.

But flying from New York to Missoula to keep tabs on his new business proved to be a long haul. When New York upped its taxes, Gladen made the move to Montana. As they had in the past, the pieces fell into place once again.

“I moved out here and through (Firth) and Cameron Lawrence and other connections at the School of Business, I was invited to judge the business plan competition and co-founded Hellgate Venture Network,” Gladen said. “By accident, I really just found myself in this entrepreneurial ecosystem role and then the Blackstone LaunchPad.”

Gladen was hired to direct LaunchPad in 2014, a program created with a large grant from the Blackstone Foundation. For the past three years, he has worked with hundreds of inspiring entrepreneurs, helping them hone their ideas and find direction.

As Gladen said, “anything is possible in Montana these days.”

“There’s no one path that says this is what you have to do to become an entrepreneur,” said Gladen. “The workforce of tomorrow isn’t going to be doing repetitive jobs. If it’s repetitive, at some point we’ll figure out how to automate it. The jobs of the future are those where people can figure out how to leverage technology, respond to changing marketplace needs and find creative solutions to that.”

Montana has topped the charts four straight years in the Kauffman Foundation’s national ranking of startup activity. It also ranks high in the number of startups launched by entrepreneurs looking to take advantage of opportunities in the market.

For two friends from Oxford, the statistics speak loudly about the direction of Missoula’s startup scene, and the role they’ve played in bringing it to fruition.

“I’m not sure the classes have changed, but we certainly work very closely with employers here and nationally to make sure we teach the topics, the things, the skills our students need,” said Firth. “We’re more focused around that, and more thoughtful around that.”