Seeking the Common Good in a Small Place￼
A 5280 Fellow Turns His Focus to the Rural Community He Calls Home
by Hilary Masell Oswald
Matt Allen used to be a Denverite and a dentist. Today, he and his family live in Salida, Colorado — population about 5,700 — and where he’s the CEO of a healthcare tech startup.
But that’s not quite the whole story.
Matt — a former 5280 Fellow who can still extract your aching tooth if you need him to, though he hasn’t practiced dentistry since COVID hit — has long had a passion for transforming the dental industry. Instead of treating patients as problems to be fixed, he seeks out ways to help his fellow dental care providers honor patients’ humanity by listening well, engaging people in caring for their own health, and demonstrating empathy and curiosity. His work led him to launch DifferentKind in 2021: a digital health platform that helps dentists measure and improve their work with patients. “We know that a lot of behavior management works if an individual chooses their own goals,” Matt says. “So DifferentKind gives [providers] data based on patient feedback, and they choose where they want to focus on improving for the sake of the patient and the practice.”
You’ll notice in Matt a bent toward amplifying the voices of people who might tend to be overlooked or ignored. You’ll also notice that he’s the chief executive of a tech startup who lives in a rural community — not exactly the typical profile of an entrepreneur.
The shift for Matt began during his 5280 Fellowship in 2017, where he considered rhythms of work and rest, which led him to take a yearlong sabbatical. He and his family spent a lot of that time in Salida, where they moved permanently four years ago. “I also learned from DIFW and the Fellowship how to love a city in actionable ways,” he says. “Those lessons apply to living in a small town, too.”
And Salida is particularly loveable: surrounding Chaffee County has a dozen 14ers, the headwaters of the Arkansas River, famously snowy Monarch Mountain ski area, and more natural beauty than seems possible for one place. Salida’s downtown, on the National Register of Historic Places, serves up a delightful blend of restaurants, breweries, shops, and art galleries with charm. The whole area is a visitor’s dream, and tourism has traditionally been the strongest economic driver in the area.
Matt, and other entrepreneurs like him, hope to change that. “I want to build my company here so we can positively impact the general community and offer meaningful work to people who might think they have to leave a place like this to find jobs in a tech company. I want to help other business leaders and investors understand that there’s talent and capacity in these rural communities that’s been largely ignored.” One way he’s doing that is by certifying DifferentKind as a B Corporation, which means it meets established, third-party performance metrics that demonstrate a commitment to doing good for the community and/or the environment. Among Matt’s ideas: “There’s no youth development cycling team, despite the fact that Salida is a great bike-riding community,” he says. “I want to help get kids on bikes in a structured way.”
Jake Rishavy, executive director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), calls Matt’s efforts “economic-development gold.” The EDC helps early-stage companies like Matt’s establish and grow, and it measures the impact of those companies to the community in terms of job creation and capital investment. “Matt is the quintessential rural entrepreneur,” Jake says. “At its simplest, DifferentKind is a tech company — but it’s got this bigger social impact mission around improving the patient experience, and they’re also building the company from scratch with community impact in mind.” What’s more, Jake adds, Matt is “one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met and so generous with his time and expertise, mentoring other entrepreneurs here.”
Matt credits the 5280 Fellowship with pushing him into a journey he never would have considered otherwise. He developed eyes to see a place, to observe and respect its ethos. Then he took time during his sabbatical to consider what God would have him build — and where. “Ten years ago, if you had asked me why I should live in and care about a rural community, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate a reason,” Allen says. “To come here — it was a total Robert Frost moment. Two paths emerged in a wood, and I don’t know that I would have seen that second path if not for the Fellowship.”
Read More from the DIFW 2021 Annual Report.
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This post was published June 27, 2022
Hilary Masell Oswald
As the former editor for two of 5280 Magazine’s ancillary publications, Hilary split her time between the vibrant design-and- architecture scene in the metro area for the quarterly 5280 Home and the always-changing field of health for the annual 5280 Health. In addition to contributing to 5280, she has written for national and regional publications including Consumer Reports Health, The Chicago Tribune, and Mountain Living. In 2012, Penguin Publishing released her full revision of Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives, which lauds the value of liberal arts education in the 21st century. Oswald holds a BA in English literature and composition, magna cum laude, from Davidson College and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School.