Meeting the Challenge

Learn why former businessman Houston Cowan co-founded the nonprofits Challenge Aspen and Challenge America.

Former businessman Houston Cowan co-founded the nonprofits Challenge Aspen and Challenge America to provide skiing opportunities and life-affirming services to people with disabilities and military members.

Houston Cowan, now 67, was a business success before he was out of his 30s. He was grinding as a real estate developer and futures trader in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and, to relax, skiing the mountains of Colorado. He came across a SKI magazine article that caused a seismic shift in his life. The profile was about Peter Maines, a blind skier from Aspen, Colorado.

Cowan was captivated.

“I couldn’t believe a blind skier could ski where I had a difficult time skiing. So I called him,” said Cowan, who was then 40. “I took that day off, July 7, 1991. I called him back, told him I was going to liquidate my company, move to Aspen and learn how to teach blind people to ski.

“I was given an opportunity to make a decision,” he says. “Sure enough, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.” 

Challenge America Founder/President Houston Cowan (center) participates in a teambuilding activity. 

Big changes, big thinking

Cowan replaced his sports car with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, shuttered his firm and gave his employees six months’ severance. That December, he showed up on Maines’ doorstep to volunteer with him at the nonprofit Blind Outdoor Leisure Development (BOLD), guiding visually impaired people around the Pitkin County ski areas, including Aspen and Snowmass.

Before long, Maines asked Cowan if he wanted to take the reins at BOLD, and Cowan could have said yes and found his purpose with that organization. But he thought of people with other disabilities, including traumatic brain injuries, amputations, autism and cerebral palsy. That bigger idea, to found and lead a new nonprofit, became reality in 1995 with Challenge Aspen(opens in a new tab).

“We wanted to challenge families who thought they’d never be able to do any outdoor recreation with their son, daughter, mother, father,” said Cowan. “That’s when ‘Making possibilities for people with disabilities’ became our tagline.”

In short order, Cowan and co-founder Amanda Boxtel(opens in a new tab) lined up bylaws and a board of 12. Aspen Skiing Company gave in-kind contributions, such as lift tickets. Anonymous benefactors, such as a Canadian couple Boxtel and Cowan met on the slopes, and famous ones, such as Amy Grant and Vince Gill, donated funding. It all helped ensure that Cowan’s life-changing decision had the power to change others’ lives.

Scaling up, reaching out

Challenge Aspen today has established programs in eight countries around the world, including France, Chile, Iceland and Latvia. “That was my ultimate goal, to be able to impact an individual or a family that I would never meet in my lifetime because we taught the teacher,” Cowan said.

Challenge America Founder/President Houston Cowan at a speaking engagement 

The nonprofit also has a program dedicated to disabled veterans, Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities (CAMO)(opens in a new tab). Cowan saw that demand for programs for veterans was high and that these programs didn’t need to be just about skiing.

“We were bringing injured service members and family members to Aspen. We paid for everything,” he says. “They were so happy when they got to Aspen. But their tears when they left were not tears of joy.

“The new mission was connecting military and their families to resources in their own communities,” said Cowan.

Cowan met with stars Grant and Gill in Nashville, Tennessee, to enlist their help in launching a second organization, Challenge America(opens in a new tab). Grant and Gill signed on immediately, and they hosted a launch event in 2009 at the Kennedy Center, featuring other stars such as Alison Krauss, Michael McDonald and Darius Rucker.

Today, Challenge America is Cowan’s focus, and he’s ended his tenure as CEO of Challenge Aspen to make time.

Challenge America’s key initiatives include music therapy(opens in a new tab), technology and maker events centered on creating software and hardware to help disabled veterans adapt and thrive(opens in a new tab), and community building for female veterans(opens in a new tab).

Of course, that’s all happening because Houston Cowan found a new purpose in his life on a July day in 1991.

By Brion O'Connor
Photography courtesy of Challenge America