Virginia ranks in the top ten states in the country for quality of life, but according to a recent report by the United Way, nearly 60% of households in southwestern Virginia can’t make ends meet. With coal no longer ‘king,’ area leaders are looking to transform the region through tech.
Becki Joyce is Community and Economic Development Director at University of Virginia College in Wise County. She says the region is wired and ready for high tech.
“We were one of the first 4G networks in rural America and we continue to build on that.”
Joyce says the burst of new hiring by Amazon in northern Virginia will cause a brain drain for smaller tech companies in the region.
“And we see the opportunity there to reach out to those companies and to showcase what we have here in our region; to say, ‘we have the workforce here.’ You may lose your employees there, but we have the workforce to help you.”
Wendy and Dario Marquez are proving that concept. The couple launched a cloud computing business in Abingdon last year called Wize Solutions. They were planning to retire to their home at Smith Mountain Lake after selling their company in northern Virginia, but instead decided to become what’s known as ‘impact investors.” Dario Marquez says, “I could see there were labor shortages (in NOVA) and it was difficult to fill those jobs, especially the highly technical jobs." So, during a vacation through southwestern Virginia, they started talking about the whole idea of rural job development, and the fact that “just five or six hours away, were great institutions of higher learning and good people that need jobs, so there’s got to be a way to create an economic bridge.”
Why outsource your tech jobs oversees when you can 'rural source' them," they thought. So, they decided to invest.
In just its first year, Dario Marquez says the company is about to become profitable. That’s much earlier than most new ventures. With just 8 employees now, he says, when they reach their goal of nearly 8-hundred, they’ll turn over majority ownership to their employees.
Joyce says one of issues they face in southwestern Virginia is the fact that the region struggles with the perception that there are not enough trained workers in Appalachia. Marquez rejects the notion.
Marquez believes it’s important that people who own a company, live where they work. There is also a desire to keep young people from feeling they have to leave southwestern Virginia to find work.
“Our objective is, the people who are attending Virginia Highlands Community College or some of the other community colleges, or Radford or UVA Wise, for them not to leave the area. So we would love for a person who gets a computer science degree from any of those schools not to have to go to NOVA or Richmond or Tidewater to get a job or get experience, but to be able to stay with us.”
Becki Joyce believes there’s plenty of reasons why tech workers from big cities would want to move to southwestern Virginia, such as the beauty of the region, lower costs of living and shorter commutes.
The Marquez’s will be among the speakers at an economic forum at UVA Wise May 15th called Transforming Through Technology. It’s free and open to the public.