Team Mesa Plays Outside Wins Second Annual Wright Collegiate Challenge

Jon Woods

3 years ago The Wright

With the taxman at bay, courtesy of COVID-19, on April 15,  the attention of Colorado’s outdoor recreation community ZOOMed® into a fast-paced evening of presentations from five student teams representing Western Colorado University’s Outdoor Industry MBA Program. Teams were competing for Best in Class honors in the 2020 Wright Collegiate Challenge.

Hosted by The Wright, the Collegiate Challenge paired teams of first-year MBA students with one of five Colorado companies or communities to address a unique challenge facing stakeholders in the outdoor recreation community. Challenge presenters included Steamboat Springs-based, Smartwool; the City of Salida; Crested Butte-based, First Ascent Coffee; Mesa County Public Health, and SaraBella Fishing of Erie.

Over the course of 10-weeks, students engaged with industry mentors in taking on pressing challenges within three important areas — stewardship and sustainability; innovative products & materials; and accessibility, health and wellness. Second-year MBA student Michael Clayton served as Community Manager for The Wright Collegiate Challenge via a fellowship grant established by Western Colorado University. Clayton worked with student teams and challenge partners facilitating virtual meetings and establishing project benchmarks. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to play a role in this year’s challenge and plug into The Wright community. It was a pleasure working these first year MBA students and helping provide this real-world business experience. The partnership with Western Colorado University will bring great value to both the MBA program and The Wright Collegiate Challenge in the years to come. I am already looking forward to following next year’s competition,” Clayton said.

Throughout the challenge, which culminated in a live-event featuring each team pitching their best ideas to a panel of judges, students applied a creative problem solving approach in addressing a set of real issues that included, lowering carbon footprints across communities, upcycling materials, researching eco-friendly packaging sources, encouraging increased trail use, and expanding business-to-consumer networks.

Best in Class was ultimately awarded to the Mesa County Plays Outside team for their work with Mesa County Public Health. In response to the challenge of creating an actionable plan for increasing outdoor recreation participation in areas of Mesa County known to face significant social determinants and experience health challenges relating to barriers to getting outdoors, the team created an online, interactive outdoor facility and trail map accompanied by a resource list of affordable and accessible outdoor gear and parks passes.

Sarah Shrader, Owner/Co-Founder of Grand Junction-based Bonsai Design, a 2015 Wright Award finalist, participated on the judges panel. “The student teams were inventive and resourceful in their efforts to determine solutions to what were significant challenges. I was beyond impressed,” said Shrader.

Shrader was joined on the judges panel by fellow industry and entrepreneurial leaders Kristen Freaney, Director of Emerging Leaders Programs, Outdoor Industry Association; Sarah Engel, Associate Director Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship, University of Colorado Denver; Awanti Sura, Operations Manager Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office; Deanne Buck, Chair American Alpine Club; and, Mike Arzt, Co-Founder, The Public Works & Battery621.

Dr. Scott Borden, Director, Outdoor Industry MBA program at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, CO, shared, “Things are best learned by getting our hands dirty.  This event allowed for collaboration, new ways of looking at challenges, building networks, dealing with real inputs on real problems, and creating meaningful impact.  The Wright Challenge clearly aligns with our program’s mission and, I believe, the role of higher education in the world today.”

Echoing Borden’s comments, Director of The Wright, Chuck Sullivan said, “The essence of The Wright Collegiate Challenge lies in the spark of a new idea and the unlocking of new, perhaps unexpected partnerships. If through this initiative we can play a small role in developing more independent thinkers who share a moral imagination around the outdoors and we can further encourage purpose-driven career paths, well that’s a pretty good starting point. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to collaborate with the talented students from Western who poured their commitment, creativity and collaborative spirit into their projects.”

The final event also featured a panel discussion with challenge partners who discussed their own paths to careers in the outdoor industry. Over the course of the conversation, the common themed emerged, that while there is no one path, Western Colorado University’s Outdoor Industry MBA program and The Wright Collegiate Challenge initiative offer exciting and relevant opportunities for students, businesses and communities alike.

Nathan Fey, Director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, a presenting partner of The Wright Collegiate Challenge, spoke to the broader importance and potential impact of the initiative in saying, “The outdoor recreation industry represents a growing sector of the state’s economy and an important part of the Colorado brand. Programs and initiatives such as these from Western Colorado University and The Wright offer an on-ramp to career opportunities for students and provide an important link in our industry’s efforts to prepare our future workforce and diversify our rural economies.”

Planning efforts are already underway for the 2020/2021 Wright Collegiate Challenge. For details or information on how to get involved, email