The following article was initially published on Dec. 8, 2018 via the Des Moines Register.
By Donelle Eller
Silicon Valley leaders are joining Pillar Technology’s initiative to help provide intensive training for students in Jefferson, Iowa, a town of 4,200. Participants could land tech jobs paying $65,000.
Microsoft’s Kevin Scott understands the limits teenagers face growing up in a place where cows outnumber people and opportunities for tech careers are limited.
Many of the textile, tobacco and furniture jobs in rural Virginia were disappearing by the time Scott was growing up in the 1970s.
Already passionate about computers and programming, he was one of two local kids picked to attend a science and technology high school.
“I faced a hard choice: I wanted to stay in Virginia — I wanted to stay there with my friends and family — but if I wanted to pursue a career in technology, I had to leave,” Scott said Saturday.
The Microsoft chief technology officer and nearly a dozen Silicon Valley executives want to change that.
They’re joining a business and small-town partnership to bring high-paying, high-tech jobs to rural Iowa. If successful, leaders want to replicate the initiative in other rural towns and states, creating opportunities in regions being emptied of jobs and people.
Scott, LinkedIn co-founder Allen Blue, venture capitalist Greg Sands, Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse and others spent Saturday in rural Iowa learning about Pillar Technology’s initiative to provide intensive training for students who could then land high-paying tech jobs at the company’s office in Jefferson, a town of 4,200.
“Look how far ahead you’ll be,” Kroeger told the students.
The company, recently purchased by Accenture, calls the effort R3 — Revive. Rebuild. Restore. Kroeger is leading Pillar’s efforts.
Coastal tech companies partnering with Pillar and Jefferson will help drive rural tech development, Kroeger said.
Allen said LinkedIn hopes to provide deep data about Iowa tech jobs, the skills needed and education available while identifying what gaps exist. “We’ve been able to look at the jobs that are available across the country… and it reveals a lot about the skills that are needed to make jobs happen,” he said.
The App Academy, which trains tech students in San Francisco, New York and other major tech hubs, is starting a push to provide online coding education. It will offer one Jefferson student free tuition.
Beyond HQ, a Costanoa Ventures portfolio company, will look at Iowa for a new tech office for expanding businesses.
And The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose will work with Jefferson teachers on engaging students, beginning in elementary school, to solve real-world engineering and technology challenges.
“They’re all helping fill a gap,” Kroeger said. “We’re looking at how you turn around rural America. … This is a spectrum of supporters, who can really make a change and a difference.”
Finding the best, wherever they live
Ben Milne, CEO of Des Moines startup Dwolla, said big ideas are worth pursuing, especially when they carry the possibility of improving tech jobs — and tech infrastructure — in rural Iowa.
“There’s no doubt we see a divide in technical jobs based on where you live geographically, even in Iowa,” Milne said. “Projects like this can help bridge that gap.”
Jefferson’s local telecommunications company has invested in high-speed internet and is adding measures to ensure uninterrupted service for Pillar and other companies.
It will help generations of kids in Jefferson and other rural communities that make the commitment, Milne said. “It’s important for kids growing up to have access to knowledge and today it’s the internet,” he said.
Any gains in tech jobs can help reduce Iowa’s loss of college STEM graduates, which Milne estimates was close to 80 percent last year.
“If this project could move that number by 5 or 10 percent, think of all the jobs it could create in Iowa … or the people who could accelerate or create companies here,” Milne said.
“Anytime you try to do something provocative, you hope it’s going to work. You’re optimistic it’s going to work. You know it’s going to be impactful if it works and that makes it worth doing it,” Milne said.
Sands, Costanoa Ventures’ founder, said he thinks major tech companies can find homes in or near U.S. university cities.
“You have a flow of people and jobs that can keep them there,” Sands said. “That can absolutely be done.”
Building them in small towns will be tougher. “I don’t know how many towns there are of 4,000 that will be able to pull off what (Pillar’s) Linc (Kroeger) is pulling off,” he said.
Sands is willing to help Kroeger try.
He plans to hold a “Shark Tank”-like competition when the Jefferson Forge, the name Pillar gives its offices, opens next summer. He’ll invest at least $50,000 in the best Iowa entrepreneur.
“One can create extraordinary companies anywhere,” Sands said. “We want to go find the best people, the best talent, the best founders and build the best companies.”
Finding value in small towns
Mechanical engineer Chris Deal says support by Silicon Valley executives for his hometown’s effort to build tech jobs validates years of community improvement efforts.
“It’s exciting seeing this vision turn into reality — to gain traction beyond Jefferson and Iowa,” said Deal, who chose to move back to his hometown after living in larger Iowa cities.
Deal, who is developing the office for Pillar, said Jefferson is “wholeheartedly behind this.”
“It’s audacious, what Jefferson is trying to do,” he said. “It’s really great that there are people who want to help out.”
Tech companies and executives are lining up to lend a hand.
The Scott Foundation, for example, is providing $25,000 in student scholarships. And Ripple’s Garlinghouse is equipping Jefferson’s computer lab. Deal said the work really is just the beginning.
Jefferson residents approved a $21.5 million bond issue that will help build a $35.5 million high school, gym, auditorium and career academy. The community also is looking to redevelop a three-block area, anchored by a project that will transform an old middle school building into apartments with an indoor aquatic center and splash pad, walking paths and expanded day care.
Small towns need amenities that young, talented workers want, leaders say. Kroeger said small-town living comes with amenities that are better than those in big cities: affordable homes, safety and the opportunity for parents to walk home for lunch with their kids.
“People can have deep relationships” in small towns, he said, adding that Jefferson residents still have one- or two-hour access to Broadway shows, concerts and shopping in Des Moines or Omaha.
Jefferson senior Linsey Kitt, 18, plans to study physics and computer science at Iowa State University next year. But she said the town’s initiative could help her, eventually. Kitt hopes to work in a large city after graduating, but wants to return to Jefferson or a small rural town like it to raise a family.
That is, “if they have the companies” that offer computer programming and other professional jobs, she said.
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