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When Morgan Slemberger learned the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation had ranked Montana as the top state in the country for entrepreneurship, she wanted a wider audience to know.

"Why has this not made national press? That's a big deal for a rural community, rural state, to be No. 1 for entrepreneurship," Slemberger said.

So the Last Best Conference was born, with Slemberger, marketing and operations manager for the Blackstone LaunchPad at the University of Montana, as its founder, and "a fabulous team of community members (who) make it happen."

In October, LBCon will host its third annual lineup of entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, problem solvers and other "really amazing people who are changing the world" with some 200 people in all, participants, volunteers and speakers, she said.

Truth be told, Slemberger, who has bachelor's degrees in English and in media arts from UM, also wants Missoula to get some credit for its contributions to entrepreneurship. She's a native of Oregon who calls herself a "Montegonian."

In 2017, the Kauffman Foundation conducted a study of the business community in Montana, and it ranked Missoula as having the ninth-highest business startup rate per capita among 394 metro areas in the United States.

In fact, it ranked Missoula ahead of Bozeman, in 12th place, a tidbit Slemberger is pleased to share.

"A little competitive," she said.

The conference is designed to inspire people to pursue their dreams, and it has brought together entrepreneurs as well as "intrapreneurs." Slemberger describes the latter as "change makers inside organizations who are really going against the grain for the benefit of the organization."

In 2016, Mark Roberge was one of the main speakers. Slemberger said the chief revenue officer of HubSpot's sales division typically charges a speaking fee of $10,000, but he spoke free of charge because his brother lives in Montana.

"I had marketing people from the community say, 'I can't believe he was here giving a talk,'" Slemberger said.

Chelsea Bodnar, a pediatrician and spouse of UM President Seth Bodnar, also spoke at LBCon before her husband was in the running for the top job on campus, Slemberger said. The doctor's conference bio noted she was focused on ways to use technology to improve care for families and doctors.

Paul Gladen, director of the LaunchPad, was among those who submitted nominations for Slemberger. He described her as the "brains behind Last Best Conference." He also said she is helping put Missoula on the map.

"She consistently goes above and beyond in delivering programming and events to engage Missoula and UM's entrepreneurial community, having a real impact despite the strategic and financial challenges of UM," Gladen said in his nomination letter.

Slemberger has also taken over and helped shape the Pursue Your Passion program, designed specifically to support women in entrepreneurship. One result of the program is that women have been better represented in the LaunchPad's startup competition, said Slemberger, also a part time MBA student.

Typically, women account for just 26 percent to 32 percent of entrepreneurs, she said. Last year, though, she said women made up 50 percent of the small pitch competition, up from ten percent earlier.

"I think we have this ripe startup ecosystem, and Missoula is unique I'm convinced than anywhere on the planet because it is a collaborative place," Slemberger said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.