Each spring the Denver Business Journal announces its class of ‘Forty under 40.’ These up-and-coming leaders are recognized for both their business success and community contributions. In the past two years, five of the honorees have been Colorado State University alumni.
The 2013 class included Tasha Eurich (’05, ’07), organizational psychologist, speaker, and author; Jeremy Ostermiller (’02), founder and CEO of Altitude Digital; Jessica Roe (’96), chief communications officer for the Governor’s Office of Information Technology; and, Simone Ross (’04), business development executive at Kaiser Permanente. The 2014 class included Marie Rotter (’97), director of corporate communications at Mercury Payment Systems.
All five honorees were College of Liberal Arts majors. And, all but Eurich studied Journalism and Technical Communication. This month we caught up with Simone Ross and Jeremy Ostermiller to learn more about what drives their success.
“I like making something out of nothing.”
As a teenager, Simone Ross told herself that not going to college wasn’t an option. Her mother, a single parent, hadn’t been able to go to college, so Ross is the first generation in her household to earn not just one degree, but three. She also has an M.A. from the University of Phoenix and graduates from CSU this May with her MBA.
Over the last 10 years, Ross has excelled at developing and opening new markets for health insurance benefits, most recently in northern Colorado for Kaiser Permanente. “I like making something out of nothing,” Ross says, especially if there’s a perception that it can’t be done. “I’m driven to prove the perception differently.”
That drive, coupled with her passion to advocate for equal access to resources, has contributed to her success. When Ross was voted into the 2013 class of ‘Forty under 40,’ she ranked No. 6 nationally in Kaiser Permanente for sales in the small business (from two to 50 employees) market. Ross now works at Kaiser as a business development executive, a role that didn’t exist until she created it.
Ross says that the recognition of being named to the ‘Forty under 40’ list has inspired her to be a force for change in her community. “Each class of winners is full of remarkable, beautifully human leaders,” says Ross. “Being among that group is affirmation that my work has just begun, and I have much farther to go.”
Ross’s commitment to make a difference in her community is inspired by her grandparents. Her grandmother came to Colorado from Beaumont, Texas, to attend DU women’s college in the 1930s. She had an acceptance letter in hand, but was escorted out of class the first day; the school admissions had no idea she was not white. She persevered and got professional training that led to a career as a mayoral secretary in Denver. Her grandfather taught in the Denver Public School District.
During the civil rights movement, her grandparents embraced activism. “They integrated schools, had crosses burned on their front lawn, walked neighborhoods, and raised money,” Ross says. “They valued the power of the process. They paved the way for us all.”
Ross continues to pave the way for others by aligning her values with concrete action. “Everyone should have an opportunity to go to college – and believe they can go to college. Especially women,” Ross says. “I’m passionate about making sure women don’t sell themselves short. They have the capacity to get everything that is beyond arm’s reach.”
To that end, Ross has been a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority since college. The sorority is the oldest Greek-lettered orgnaization established by African American college-educated women. Ross’s Mu Omega Omega chapter offers college scholarships for young women of color, along with community grants. She helped facilitate its Ivy Leadership Academy, an enrichment and empowerment program for middle school girls in Aurora Public Schools, by mentoring girls on different social issues and the importance of education.
For now, Ross is excited about her new degree. Earning her MBA is “a huge personal victory,” she says. “I couldn’t do math as an undergrad and now I’m running linear regressions!”
After two years of school, Ross, who is married and has a young son, says she’s going to “enjoy having her freedom.” She also plans to let the future unfold as it may. Undoubtedly, hers will involve people and passionate change.
“Our culture is around music.”
Some of us are born knowing how we’ll map our future. For Jeremy Ostermiller, Aurora, Colorado-native, the sure bet was becoming an entrepreneur. “I always knew I wanted to own my own business,” he says.
At age 13—in a pre-Google world, and with the help of his mom—he started his own roller blade mail order business, then a t-shirt company. In his junior year of college he started a concert promotion business and kept it alive as he learned the ropes of newspaper advertising sales—first at CSU, then at the Coloradoan and the Denver Post—before dedicating himself to it full time. Unfortunately, “the music business is probably the hardest business to make money in,” says Ostermiller. The 2008 recession didn’t help matters either.
So, he looked at an untapped market—relatively unknown publishers, such as Celebrity-Gossip.net— that generated fantastic web traffic. The idea: create new online video and display advertising opportunities. The product: Ostermiller’s Altitude Digital matches publishers with advertisers through a real-time bidding platform (think eBay).
Ostermiller started Altitude Digital in 2009 with a $500 website. Five years later, the company has experienced unprecedented growth. They have expanded their presence across the nation by opening offices in San Francisco, New York, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles. Altitude Digital has garnered several accolades, including making the No. 54 spot on the Inc. 500|5000 Top Companies in America two years running. Key to the company’s growth is its focus on international markets. “There’s 7 billion people in the world.,” Ostermiller says. “You have to think as big as you can.”
Reflecting on what it means to make the 2013 ‘Forty under 40’ list of Denver’s most inventive and progressive leaders, Ostermiller says “is truly a humbling experience.”
“These are the name and faces that will be leading companies into the future and I feel privileged to be among them,” he says. Making the list is also a team honor. “I’m fortunate to work with some of the brightest minds in the industry,” he says.
The Altitude Digital team possesses a rock-infused verve. With the quick hover of a mouse, employee photos on the company’s “About Us” page flash to rock star alter-ego portraits. “Our culture is around music,” says Ostermiller, who has outfitted the company’s office with rock memorabilia, music instruments, and even 80s-era video machines.
Ostermiller extends that music culture into the community by supporting Youth on Record, a nonprofit that uses music education and creative experiences to empower teens to make positive life choices and finish high school. Accomplished, local musicians teach music classes in four Denver high schools, and at Youth on Record’s new Youth Media Studio. Ostermiller serves on the board of directors, chairs and sponsors events for marketing and public relations, and says the programs and kids continually inspire him.
Altitude Digital also partners with Concerts for Kids, a Denver-based nonprofit organization that raises funds for, and awareness of, local children’s charities, and is a stage sponsor for the nonprofit’s 2014 Denver Day of Rock.
Ostermiller, who was just named a finalist for the 2014 EY Entreprenuer of the Year Award, hopes that future entrepreneurs can learn from some of what he did, or didn’t do, during Altitude Digital’s first year. “I naively jumped into the business and tried to figure it out later,” he says. “Start seriously from the beginning. Have a mentor.”
by Carol Busch (M.A. ’02)