Before Seattle became a commercial millennial mecca of Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft, it was just a rainy logging town. Alec Ross asked a crowd Thursday, if Seattle did it, why can’t West Virginia do the same?
Ross, a Charleston native who previously served as a senior advisor for innovation to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and advisor to former President Barack Obama on technology and geopolitics, spoke at the Clay Center in Charleston as part of West Virginia University’s Festival of Ideas speaker series.
He said that as we distance ourselves from the industrial era and forge ahead into the information age, it’s adaptability, understanding the reality of impending change and investing our resources accordingly that will lift West Virginia up.
“These things not only can happen anywhere, but oftentimes they do sprout in places that were previously beleaguered,” he said, referring to Seattle and Silicon Valley — the latter of which was once more John Steinbeck than Steve Jobs. “I would think about how we can concentrate our assets and really focus on fostering entrepreneurship here such that the industries of the future can take root in West Virginia in a really meaningful way.”
He said ultimately, it’s data that will be to the information age what land was to the agriculture age and factory and natural resources ownership was to the industrial age, and West Virginia needs to position itself to be ready.
Ross, who went on to study at Northwestern University, said investing in universities that can incubate innovation is key.
Another major play the state needs to make is finding a way to keep young talent here, and attract it from elsewhere.
“We have to focus on keeping them here, and attracting 22- to 23-year-olds from the rest of America and attracting them to West Virginia,” he said. “One of the most important ways in which I think we can do this is to build on a very powerful asset we have, which is West Virginia University, and we have to quadruple down on everything we do that fosters entrepreneurship there.”
One suggestion he offered is bringing Teach for America, of which he is an alumnus, opportunities into West Virginia, which places college graduates into underperforming and underfunded schools. He said given the state’s shortage of teachers, such a move should be obvious.
A problem with West Virginia today, Ross argued, is an economic nostalgia for coal and what it once provided for the state.
One step forward would be emphasizing technology and its implications in the job market. He said the internet already has disrupted communications and electioneering markets, but coupling technology with the traditional could be an untapped well.
As an example, he shared a story of some large-scale cattle farmers in Australia who partnered with a software company and local university to find ways to streamline their beef exports into China.
By pairing their farming expertise with complex data analytics, Ross said the farmers’ business exploded.
“Suddenly, these guys went from working more like their fathers and grandfathers to working more like software engineers, and in one year, exports of beef from this region to China went up 498 percent,” he said.
In the end, Ross said it comes down to the simple maxim of sink or swim, adapt or die.
“It’s not the strongest that’s going to survive, or the most intelligent, but those most adaptable to change,” he said.