Heidi Ganahl is regarded as one of Colorado's rising Republican stars — probably one of the few at the moment, given Democratic dominance in state politics — but it was her success as an entrepreneur that started her on her political path. Well before the first-term University of Colorado regent, elected in 2016, was a blip on the curve in the political world, she was turning dog sitting into what is now touted as North America's largest and fastest-growing pet-care franchise.
Her Camp Bow Wow was acquired by VCA Inc. in 2014, a milestone for any entrepreneur. Along the way, she also launched a catalog operation that catered to new parents and a foundation that funds and mentors social entrepreneurs who help kids. Most recently, she started SheFactor, billed as a lifestyle brand with chapters nationwide that help guide women toward their goals.
It was the hurdles she encountered starting a business that set her on her political trajectory. Her first doggy day care drew a visit from Denver zoning authorities who were befuddled by the nature of the business and decided to strictly limit the number of pups she could take in. "That didn’t work for my customers or my business so we had to make a costly move," she tells us in today's Q&A. It affirmed her aversion to government's sometimes heavy hand and her commitment to a Republican preference for letting businesses bloom in the marketplace.
As a regent, Ganahl already has etched a distinct profile as a champion of free speech in higher ed — including for students who march to their own drummer on the center-right rather than keep step with the prevailing politics of the flagship campus at CU-Boulder. She offers insights on that and more.
Colorado Politics: Higher ed historically has been a hotbed of political activism and free speech, yet we continue to hear from some on the political right that their dissenting views are unwelcome, and their voices stifled at places like CU. Is there a growing culture of intolerance on campus for activism that isn’t anointed by the center-left, as some allege — and how does the Free to Be Coalition that you founded seek to address that? What else can the leadership at CU do to foster respect for wide-ranging views?
Heidi Ganahl: The university exists for no greater purpose than to encourage students to challenge their beliefs through the guarantee of free speech and open inquiry.
Sixty years ago, Chief Justice Earl Warren warned our nation that we had a choice. Either “teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate,” or “our civilization will stagnate and die.” There was no third option.
We’re at a turning point in our country’s history. And at the University of Colorado. In the words of the great Bruce Benson, our president at CU for 11 years, we should teach students how to think, not what to think. Bruce was a warrior on this front, and I’m proud of the progress we’ve made at CU to protect free speech, encourage speakers of all views on campus and to support academic freedom.
Even with the progress we’ve made, we know there is work still to do. I hear stories every day from students, their parents — and faculty — that break my heart. If they have a differing viewpoint, they tend to quietly move through their time here (and on campuses across the country), trying to avoid the conflict and hate that arises at times if they speak up. If they do have the courage to push back, they are often branded ridiculous and shunned back into silence.
The Free to Be Coalition was founded in 2018 with a friend and a group of passionate CU students. It was launched as a way to stay in touch, network and share ideas and stories on how we protect free speech and viewpoint diversity on our campuses.
Free to Be launched our campus efforts early last year with the Vicente Fox-Nigel Farage debates in Boulder and at UCCS, bringing diverse voices to campus to debate globalism vs. nationalism. We followed that with a candidate debate in the fall of 2018, a panel discussion on the opioid crisis last spring and a debate on the role of fossil fuels in preventing climate change a few weeks ago that attracted 600 attendees and over 10,000 views online.
Our goal is to continue to bring forth important and timely issues that are relevant to the community in order to promote and demonstrate healthy civil discussion and expose students to different perspectives.
- Elected as a Republican to the University of Colorado Board of Regents in 2016.
- Launched several entrepreneurships including the nationally franchised Camp Bow Wow and, mostly recently, SheFactor, founded in 2019. Backed by a book she authored, an app, a podcast, a blog and chapters across the country, SheFactor supports women in attaining their goals.
- Was listed among the Women’s Chamber of Commerce's 25 Most Powerful Women in 2019; Parade Magazine's "Designing Women: 10 of the Most Amazing Female Entrepreneurs in U.S. History" in 2015, and recognized in 2016 with the Colorado Brave Leader Award, among numerous distinctions.
- Holds a bachelor's degree in business from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a master's degree in health-care adminstration from the University of Denver.
- Appointed by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2015 to the School Safety and Youth in Crisis Committee established by Colorado Senate Bill 15-214, to study issues relating to school safety and threat prevention in public and private schools.
CP: Does the fact that regents are elected, partisan officeholders provide a check and balance on the prevailing political tilt of higher education? Or, does it serve to heighten the ideological tension when regents divide along partisan lines on key decisions like the recent hiring of the CU system’s new president?
Ganahl: I believe strongly that as elected regents, we do provide a check and balance on the political tilt, and also provide voters with a voice in how their state university is run.
The vast majority of our work on the board is bipartisan. Most of the time the regents agree on the best path forward for CU, but the need for balance pushes us at times to really dig into important issues and have substantive debates over potential decisions. I believe that debate often produces a better solution, a common ground that benefits our students and the people of Colorado.
I also believe in standing strong for my priorities: fighting for families who are paying too much for a degree; students learning civics so that they can be engaged citizens; building a culture of openness on campus, and addressing administrative bloat running up the cost of college. I know that from time to time I must take a stand even if it means making waves, like I did with Proposition CC. I firmly believe that gutting the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights was not the right answer for CU or for the people of Colorado.
CP: What in your estimation is ultimately to be done about spiraling tuition? Is there a long-term fix? Is it on balance a good or bad thing for CU to rely so heavily on students who pay out-of-state tuition to essentially subsidize students who are Colorado residents?
Ganahl: We need to improve results in K-12 so that students are better prepared when they get to college and stop pushing every student to get a college degree. Higher education should be about gaining skills and building knowledge, not about jumping through hoops. Deciding a career path shouldn’t be about oppressive social expectations; the decision should be about making a meaningful contribution to our community, our economy, and our country. We need to stop hiring so many administrators and we need to be more efficient as we provide education in both K-12 and higher ed.
Finally, we need to graduate students on time (three or four years, not six) and do all we can to help them get a great job after they graduate. I believe parents and students are starting to make more informed decisions about where and when to get a degree, so higher ed must adapt to what the market wants (employers and students) or watch enrollment decline.
CP: You are often touted not only as a rising star in the state GOP but also as a new wave/next-gen Republican in Colorado politics. What kinds of candidates do you feel your party has to cultivate to recover momentum with a diverse electorate in the wake of last year’s Democratic sweep of state offices, which secured its control of two branches of state government?
Ganahl: Growing up in Colorado has been a tremendous gift. I’m really worried about what’s happening to our state, so I decided I wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines.
We need big, bold solutions for Colorado’s future; that’s what we entrepreneurs do best. And that’s what the party of Lincoln stands for, too. And as a woman who has broken through barriers in the business world, I am ready to shake up the good ol’ boys club in Colorado politics.
The Republicans I work with here in Colorado honor what America’s all about — opportunity, innovation, community, equality. If our party and our candidates stay true to that, we’ll have a lot of success in coming elections.
We believe that unleashing innovation, entrepreneurship and creating jobs, is the best way to lift people out of poverty. We believe Coloradans themselves are the best stewards of their environment and that we can utilize resources in a way that helps improve our lives while safeguarding our air and water. We want to keep our kids safe at school and we want our kids to get a great education. We want to fix the roads and transform the way people get around in our state. We want to keep Colorado affordable and keep the dream of owning a home alive and well here. We want to choose the best health care for our family and keep a close relationship with our doctor. And we want all communities across Colorado to prosper and grow.
I know that my Democratic friends want many of the same things, we just have very different ideas on how to solve the problems we face. In our view, giving government more control of our lives is not the answer.
I am a Republican because I know Coloradans can make better decisions for their lives and for their own families than some politician or government bureaucrat can.
CP: We have a president who, by the lights of pollsters across the spectrum, doesn’t do well among Colorado’s No. 1 voting bloc, the unaffiliated. What’s your take on the Trump factor in Colorado, and how should it figure into GOP strategy here?
Ganahl: GOP candidates need to be authentic and true to their own views. In Colorado, we do things our own way, and I believe we elect people for who they are and the solutions they offer. It’s why we have such a large number of unaffiliated voters! Our state is known for voting split tickets; I think 2018 was not the norm, and we’ll get back to that fair-minded approach where voters strive for balance in 2020.
CP: What inspired you to enter politics in the first place? How has your experience as a successful entrepreneur shaped your political views?
Ganahl: It started early on as I built Camp Bow Wow — which grew to be the largest pet care franchise in North America. We had an unexpected visit from the local zoning officer right after I opened the first Camp in Denver. They didn’t know how to classify our business — they had never dealt with doggy day care before. After a couple weeks of wrangling back and forth with the city of Denver, they decided they didn’t want me to hurt myself with the dogs so they said in order to protect me they would severely limit the number of dogs I could have in the Camp. That didn’t work for my customers or my business so we had to make a costly move.
Then a few years later, the Colorado Department of Agriculture decided they would have purview over how many staff we had to have in our dog play yards to monitor the dogs, like they do in children’s day care. They said we needed twice the staff as we had even though we had a spotless safety record and thousands of happy customers. The roadblocks we faced every day launching and building a business in our state were ridiculous, and expensive.
I’ve loved every minute of being an entrepreneur, of building a business, of creating thousands of jobs — and caring for millions of our furry friends. When I moved on from Camp Bow Wow a few years ago I wanted to pay it forward.
As I started to think more and more about what the BEST thing I could do to give back, I decided it was to protect the American dream for our kids. The more research I did, the more it became clear, it could be boiled down to education.
I believe that education is the key to keeping the American dream alive. I love working with young people to help them launch a life they love. And I love my alma mater, CU. So the regent role was a perfect fit.
CP: Of course, we have to ask: What lies ahead in Heidi Ganahl’s political future?
Ganahl: I’m going to keep working hard as a regent, I am about halfway through my first term. I’m co-chairing Protect Colorado’s Vote, to protect our Colorado’s votes for president, and I’m going to continue my efforts on school safety that started in 2016 when I was on the Governor’s School Safety Committee.
I’m having a blast launching a new company called SheFactor with my daughter Tori, a digital and live platform to help young women launch their lives and I have three young children that I chase after every day so my life is very full! I’ll keep fighting to protect Colorado in the best way I can, as an entrepreneur, an elected official, a wife of the state’s best BBQ cook and as a mom, I love it all!