Tech Sees Bigger Opportunity In Utah — If The State Works On Its Image

May 4, 2021
Originally published on May 4, 2021 6:11 pm

On any given day, half a dozen cranes tower over the "Silicon Slopes" region just south of Salt Lake City erecting glassy office buildings to make more room for Utah's steadily growing tech industry. Companies and the state want that growth to continue, but industry leaders argue that to do so, Utah's image needs some work.

That's why tech lobbyists such as Sunny Washington are pushing for more socially inclusive legislation at the state Capitol. Washington works for the industry's advocacy organization, also called Silicon Slopes.

"As much as companies try to do all the active outreach, it can honestly be undone if we have some crazy law that is not very reflective of our state," Washington says.

She and other lobbyists argued against an unsuccessful bill that would have banned transgender girls from competing on girls' school sports teams. They also supported legislation to change the name of Dixie State University, whose name is associated with the Confederacy.

"We have a lot of work to do to make people feel like, 'Hey, Utah is a great place where I can bring my family and they're going to feel included,' " Washington says.

Kimmy Paluch, 39, moved to Utah from Oakland, Calif., with her husband and their two kids in 2018. They were running a consulting firm aimed at helping tech — and other — businesses launch new products.

"We, ourselves, had gotten very disillusioned with the Silicon Valley bubble," Paluch says. "One — for the innovations that were getting funded, that they were only serving the 1%. And then two — for the lack of capital flowing to underrepresented founders."

With a newer tech market, Paluch says she saw an opportunity to change things in Utah. And it was personal, too. Paluch is a Black woman and an immigrant.

But when deciding whether to make the move, Paluch says she had to wrestle with what she knew about Utah's reputation. "I remember telling my Bay Area friends that we're moving to Utah and they're like, 'Why are you moving to Utah?' "

It's no secret Utah is very white — three-quarters of the population identifies that way. The state is also predominantly Mormon and Republican. Paluch isn't any of those things.

Still, she says she was excited to live in a place with a different political climate, but the cultural differences did give her and her husband pause.

"Will I feel like I'm part of this state?" Paluch says she had to ask herself. "I wasn't really afraid for myself. ... For my kids, I was a little concerned. I did wonder if they would feel welcomed. And thankfully, that's never been an issue."

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson and other top Republicans in the state say they pride themselves on making Utah a business-friendly place. Wilson says, though, that can sometimes be in conflict with preventing businesses from changing his home state.

"Utah is distinctive and very special," he says. "We should protect distinctive Utah and not be afraid of or embarrassed by the things that make Utah different."

But Paluch says the economic opportunity that lawmakers such as Wilson have worked so hard to cultivate only matters if it's available to everyone. It's not, she argues, if groups outside the traditional Utah mold feel unwelcome moving to the state.

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Utah has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the country. Companies and the state want that to continue, but industry leaders argue that in order to do that, the state's reputation needs some work. Tech lobbyists are pushing for more socially inclusive legislation at the state Capitol in the hopes that that will help attract more out-of-state talent. From member station KUER, Sonja Hutson reports.

SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: In 2018, Kimmy Paluch was 36 years old and living in Oakland, Calif., with her husband and their two kids. They were running a consulting firm aimed at helping tech and other businesses launch new products.

KIMMY PALUCH: We ourselves had gotten very disillusioned with the Silicon Valley bubble, one, for the innovations that were getting funded - that they were only serving the 1% and then, two, for the lack of capital flowing to underrepresented founders.

HUTSON: She saw an opportunity to change things in Utah. Its tech market is newer and experiencing a lot of growth. And it was personal, too. Paluch is a Black woman and an immigrant. But Utah has a reputation problem, she says.

PALUCH: I remember telling my Bay Area friends that we're moving to Utah, and they were like, why are you moving to Utah?

HUTSON: It's no secret Utah is very white. Three-quarters of the population identifies that way. The state is also predominantly Mormon and Republican. Paluch isn't any of those things. She's Black, Catholic and politically liberal. Paluch says she was actually excited to live in a place with a different political climate, but the cultural differences did give her and her husband pause.

PALUCH: We do have to think and question, like, will I feel like I'm part of this state?

HUTSON: Notions about Utah's culture are something job recruiters encounter when convincing applicants to take a job here. Take this recruiting video from a Utah-based company you may have heard of - overstock.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So what's so great about Salt Lake City and Utah? It's probably cooler than you think. With fantastic local breweries, clubs and live events, Salt Lake's nightlife has something to offer for everyone.

HUTSON: But it's not just concerns about being able to have a beer on a Friday night that companies have to address. It's also political differences, according to Sunny Washington. She's a lobbyist for Silicon Slopes, the industry's advocacy organization named after the popular term for the industry here.

SUNNY WASHINGTON: As much as companies try and do all the active outreach, it can honestly be undone if we have some crazy law that is not very reflective of our state.

HUTSON: That's why Silicon Slopes has gotten involved in several high-profile pieces of state legislation related to social issues. Washington and other lobbyists argued against an unsuccessful bill that would have banned transgender girls from competing on girls school sports teams. They supported legislation to change the name of Dixie State University.

WASHINGTON: We have a lot of work to do to make people feel like, hey; you know, Utah is a great place where, you know, I can bring my family and they're going to feel included.

HUTSON: Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson and other top Republicans here pride themselves on making Utah business-friendly, and Wilson says that can sometimes be in conflict with preventing businesses from changing his home state.

BRAD WILSON: Utah is distinctive and very special, and we should protect distinctive Utah and not be afraid of or embarrassed by the things that make Utah different.

HUTSON: But Kimmy Paluch from Oakland, who wound up making the move to Utah, says the economic opportunity that lawmakers like Wilson have worked so hard to cultivate - it only matters if it's available to everyone. It's not, she says, if people don't feel welcome coming to Utah.

For NPR News, I'm Sonja Hutson in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROOKED COLOURS SONG, "NEVER DANCE ALONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.