UM and Wells Fargo Launch Rural Entrepreneurship And Leadership Co-Lab for Women

Businesses like Montana RancHERS Beef Co., a direct-to-consumer beef business founded and owned by rural women, are who the Co-Lab seeks to support. Credit: Mariah Heitzman

MISSOULA – As women’s entrepreneurship surges nationally, Wells Fargo and the University of Montana have joined forces to establish the Rural Entrepreneurship And Leadership Co-Lab for Women (REAL Women Co-Lab).

REAL Women Co-Lab is the first of its kind in the nation, with an aim to communicate and research the challenges affecting women starting and growing businesses in rural America. With a focus on national collaborations with institutional, civic, corporate and community partners, REAL Women Co-Lab will work to develop replicable models of service and research for promoting women entrepreneurs and leaders in rural communities throughout the U.S.

“Wells Fargo has supported multiple efforts for women’s entrepreneurship,” said Morgan Slemberger, senior director of REAL Women Co-Lab. “Their funding will aim to find solutions for women accessing capital, which not only supports women, but it supports funders to better address the evolving needs of rural communities and their economies.”

Since 2020, women have created about half of new businesses filed in the U.S. up from about 29% previously, according to a 2023 U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship report. As women continue opening businesses, this initiative recognizes the importance of prioritizing rural communities across the nation and aims to address the growing need for solution-finding for rural economies.

“As the Bank of Doing, our goal is to strengthen the small business sector and empower as many entrepreneurs as we can,” shared Katie Rollyson, Philanthropy and Community Impact, Lead Specialist at Wells Fargo. “We’re thrilled to partner with UM to launch the REAL Women Co-Lab because we know every business is unique, but there are common needs and characteristics based on where they stand in the business lifecycle as it evolves from an idea into a mature, thriving company.”

Accelerate Montana and UM spearheaded several grants supporting women in business statewide, including winning a 2020 Small Business Administration grant for a Women’s Business Center and being one of eight nationally to win a Google Impact for Women and Girls grant to support Native American women wanting to start businesses.

“Through Accelerate Montana, over 3,000 Montanans have been able to access the training and education needed to launch a successful career,” said UM President Seth Bodnar. “REAL Women Co-Lab will continue this critical work by providing opportunities from women leaders in rural areas to reach their full potential.” This initiative will have three, core areas of focus including:

  • Program Prototyping: Working with large and small national partners, REAL Women Co-Lab will generate prototypes of models that serve entrepreneurs, business owners and leaders. The Co-Lab relies on existing expertise and industry innovators to generate new models that can be deployed through existing service channels.
  • Funder Partnerships and Trainings: Working with service providers, REAL Women Co-Lab will investigate the linked pathways between education for funders (lenders, investors, grant-makers and other business financiers) and education for women in business. The Co-Lab will explore if two-way education and training may support women in securing funding necessary to succeed in and scale their businesses.
  • Research and Engagement: Building upon a recent, statewide study in Montana on Access to Finance, REAL Women Co-Lab will pursue future research opportunities to address challenges in rural women's entrepreneurship and capital access across the country. In addition, the Co-Lab hopes to facilitate community, regional and national research needs and engagement around reducing the barriers to entrepreneurship for rural women.

For its first pilot program, REAL Women Co-Lab is collaborating with rural lenders: Snowy Mountain Development Corporation and Dakota Business Lending, to support Montana and North Dakota women living in rural communities. This initiative will build on the historical successes that UM, Accelerate Montana, and Wells Fargo have had in the past to create lasting models for the future.

A gift to support the University of Montana’s REAL Women Co-Lab is funded thru the University of Montana Foundation.


Contact: Morgan Slemberger, senior director of Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership for Women Co-Lab, 406-243-4831,