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A perfect match: FLC couple combines passion for photography, the outdoors to win FLC’s 9th Annual Hawk Tank Competition
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A perfect match: FLC couple combines passion for photography, the outdoors to win FLC’s 9th Annual Hawk Tank Competition

DURANGO— Fort Lewis College senior Jordan Elder is passionate about photography and entrepreneurship. Tyler Cutrone, a third-year student, is an outdoor adventure enthusiast.

Elder and Cutrone, who plan to marry next year, are integrating their interests to create a unique business model for outdoor weddings. “Odyssey Adventure Elopements” combines guided outdoor recreation with a full-service wedding day experience for couples who do not fit the traditional wedding scene and those who seek adventure and connection with nature.

The business won this year’s Grand Prize at the 9th Annual Hawk Tank Competition.

“We were wondering how to work together and what to do with our lives,” said Cutrone, a 22-year-old adventure education major in his third year at FLC. “(Elder) does wedding photography, and I'm an outdoor guide, so we said, ‘Let’s just combine it.’”

This year, nine teams from FLC, two recent alumni, six regional high school teams, and an additional entry from San Juan College participated in the event.

Modeled after Shark Tank, the competition helps aspiring entrepreneurs learn the professional and business skills necessary to transform a business idea into a competitive plan. It has participants presenting their proposed ideas to a panel of volunteer judges comprised of FLC alumni and regional business leaders.

"We're always on the lookout for that sustainable competitive advantage that sets a business idea apart,” said Lorraine Taylor, PhD, associate professor of Tourism and Hospitality Management at FLC and co-director of the event. “The finalists all demonstrated unique skills, team strengths, and innovative ideas that stand out in the marketplace. It's all about what makes you different and how that draws clients to you instead of the competition."

Elder and Cutrone said they designed their business to offer couples an unforgettable elopement adventure. Whether hiking, rafting, winter sports, or climbing, they handle all the planning and arrangements, ensuring a seamless and memorable experience.

“The (clients) don’t have to worry about anything after they book us,” Elder said. “And on their elopement day, they just show up and get ready for an insane adventure. What we are really offering is an experience.”

The competition provided a perfect opportunity to transform their ambitious dream into a tangible business plan. Over the past few weeks, they meticulously worked out the financials, including start-up costs, operational expenses, and market competition.

Cutrone said their proposed business won the favor of judges, in part, because of its uniqueness: no other company offers an all-inclusive, multi-adventure elopement. Their business concept is an ideal match for the outdoorsy culture of Southwest Colorado, catering to engaged couples who dream of celebrating their union amidst the region’s stunning landscapes, doing what they love most – embracing the great outdoors.

“(The judges) could tell we were really passionate and were going to do this business idea regardless of if we won the money or not,” he said. “It was truly life-changing for us to win.”

Elder, 21, is graduating with a major in entrepreneurship and small business this weekend. With one more year of college left, Cutrone said the couple will take the next year to plan out the business and hit the ground running after he graduates.

“It’s a wildly unique idea that has a competitive advantage over other wedding and photography options,” Taylor said of Odyssey Adventure Elopements. “And it’s well-crafted to their abilities and skills.”

The Awards Gala held at Fort Lewis College on April 20 featured the keynote speaker, FLC alumni Stephen Sullivan (Humanities, ‘88), an outdoor apparel entrepreneur and the Founder/CEO of Stio®, a direct-to-consumer outdoor lifestyle brand based in Jackson, Wyoming. Sullivan was previously the CEO of Mountain Origins, LLC, a consulting group focusing on the Outdoor, Snowsports, and Fly-Fishing industries, and formerly the Co-Founder/President of Cloudveil®, an outdoor apparel manufacturer.  

A frequent panelist and lecturer in the outdoor/snow sports/fly fishing space, Sullivan serves as a business mentor to several local and national companies. 

Sullivan encouraged the participants to find opportunities like Hawk Tank. “They're foundational for people starting to understand and build out a plan, even if that business doesn'thappen to be the business for them. It's a fantastic way to begin to learn.”

The 9th Annual Hawk Tank Competition was supported by Baird Wealth Management, the presenting sponsor. Additional sponsors included Z’s Performance and Repair, J. Bo's Pizza and Rib Co., Bank of the San Juans, the Katz School of Business, and Four Corners Innovation Incorporated. 

This year’s judges included Bo Maloney, owner of J. Bo's Pizza and Rib Co.; Allison Aichele, former Treasurer and public trustee at La Plata County; Bill Luthy and Tina McCallum, vice presidents at RW Baird; Nate Lee, vice president of Corporate Banking at Bank of America; Paul Clay, associate dean Katz School of Business at FLC; Justin Bates, managing director at IC Advisor Group; Kass Kremer, co-founder of Sasquach Campers; Chase LaCroix, owner of Durango Outdoor Exchange; Allen McCulloch, MD, a doctor at the Northern Navajo Medical and the San Juan Regional Medical centers; Mark Walker, branch manager at Citywide Banks and Zeb Mielke, owner and founder of Z’s Performance and Repair.

Grand Prize (Top FLC team vs. Top SJC Team)

  • $5,000 – Odyssey Adventure Elopements, Jordan Elder, Tyler Cutrone: A full-service wedding day experience for couples who do not fit the traditional wedding scene and those who seek adventure and connection with nature.

FLC Track

  • 1st place ($5,000) – Odyssey Adventure Elopements, Jordan Elder, Tyler Cutrone: A full-service wedding day experience for couples who do not fit the traditional wedding scene and those who seek adventure and connection with nature.
  • 2nd place ($2,500) – Q’ep, Rowan Lutz, and Wraygen Shouldis: By producing dehydrated smoothie products, Q’ep seeks to provide a solution that ensures the long-term availability of essential nutrients provided by fruits, vegetables, dairy, and plant-based milks.
  • 3rd place ($1,000) – Vista Aerial, Emaliah Sawyer: Using drone technology, Vista Aerial tracks construction site progress for parties unable to visit construction sites and do not receive insightful updates on the progress of construction.

San Juan College Track

  • 1st place ($5,000) – Vet Med Wellness Retreat, Emily Azzarra: With the feel of Bed and Breakfast meets SPA, a state-of-the-art wellness facility and mental health care accessible to all, Vet Med Wellness Retreat will provide wellness support to all of those involved in veterinarian medicine.

Alumni Track

  • 1st place ($5,000) – ArtConsign, Jack Groenheim: A platform dedicated to revolutionizing the art consignment experience.

High School Track

  • 1st place ($500 for each team member) – Secrets from the Kitchen, Laurel Dondlinger and Maggie Glick, Animas High School: A welcoming and educational environment for cooking enthusiasts and food lovers to learn new recipes, cooking techniques, and culinary tips.
  • 2nd place ($250 for each team member) – REEL, Hadley Thompson, Durango High School. REEL creates a wide array of content so Gen Z-ers can support creators directly while finding unique films and shows from lesser-known artists.
  • 3rd place ($100 for each team member) – PawsitiveLink, Andre Craig, Durango High School. This innovative pet smart collar can track a pet's location 24/7 and monitor its vitals, such as heart rate, blood oxygen levels, and blood pressure.
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