Could Madison County, NC Be A New Tech Hub?

By: Amrita Tahiliani Joshi

Madison County – Tahoe with a Bit of Berkeley? Not your Typical Rural Community

A couple of weeks ago, I got the opportunity to visit Madison County, North Carolina with our partner Tom Mirc, Principal, KeyOak Advisors as part of an USDA rural economic development grant to look at the potential of bringing Technology and BPO services to the region. I have written before that I am continuously surprised when visiting rural areas in terms of how different they are from typical rural stereotypes and how varied they are from each other. What is most surprising about Madison county is that there is nothing typical about it as a rural community. First the landscape is gorgeous-there are mountains everywhere, and the greenery reminded this California girl of Lake Tahoe. Second, Madison County has a very artsy, trendy (and a bit hippy) vibe to it stemming from being so close to Asheville. Asheville is the anchor city for the MDA and about a 20-30 minute drive to most areas of Madison County. For those of you who are not familiar with the city, Asheville is becoming a very popular due to the art, trendy restaurants, multiple breweries, gorgeous landscape, and more. Asheville was even coined the “Paris of the South” by Huffington Post.

Madison has benefited from the growth of Asheville. With the rising popularity of the city, Asheville has become more expensive. As a result, people have pushed further out into the surrounding areas like Madison. For example, many artists are moving into Madison County. A large building in Marshall on Blannahassett Island, was recently renovated into artist studios that have been completely occupied.

While Madison County is a great place to live is there potential for it to be a technology services hub?

My initial impression is a definite yes. The biggest strength for the county is the ability to attract workforce to the region. Unlike many other rural communities – the area caters to today’s active young adults. Residents have great outdoor recreation such as skiing and river rafting, an organic farming community, and the city of Asheville close by. While we were there, we heard over and over again that Madison County would have no problem attracting people (senior and youth) to the area if there were jobs. We also heard many stories of people who moved to the area because they had the ability to work from their homes.

In terms of technical talent, the region produces roughly 130 technical graduates a year. One place we spoke to during our trip was AB Tech in Asheville which offers 2 year technical degrees. I was very impressed with the school’s administration in terms of their ability to quickly adapt to changing technology market requirements and how they were able to put together customized programs for businesses in very technical areas such as gear manufacturing and composite training in a matter of weeks. An interesting fact about the school is that in 2010, a group of AB Tech computer programmers won second place in a national web programming contest, beating out schools like MIT, and finishing just behind Stanford.

Students from AB Tech continuously get the opportunity to work with local technology and manufacturing companies in the Madison county area which creates great opportunities for both the students and companies. Schools like AB Tech are vital in creating successful economies in rural areas like Madison County. Madison County is also home to Mars Hill which is in a wonderful college town which annually produces roughly 30 computer science graduates and 400 overall.

If We Build It, They Will Come.

The largest hurdle Madison County will have in attracting businesses is finding available commercial space. Although there is a lot of small retail and charming old properties, (I have my eye on a church for sale that would make a wonderful office for my company!) the Class B office space that could house 100-200 people is non-existent. New companies coming in would most likely have to build their office space. This is usually not an option for most service firms unless they are targeting offices with 500 or more employees. However, Madison County is aware of this issue and their new economic development team will be tackling this head on. We feel very strongly that if they able to increase the availability of office space, companies will come because of the attractiveness of the workforce and the area.


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Why Increasing Diversity in Technology is Good for the U.S.

By: Amrita Tahiliani Joshi

Several weeks ago, I was at the Dreamforce Women in Innovation panel discussion with Gayle King – co-host of CBS This Morning, Jessica Alba – Founder, The Honest Company and Susan Wojcicki – CEO, YouTube (the panel was by the way fantastic for ANYONE to watch).  A major part of the discussion was focused on how to get more women into the technology industry. Both Google and Honest were at the forefront of this cause and spoke about the different initiatives underway within their companies such as increasing maternity (and paternity) leave, conducting girls coding camps, mentoring women and seeking out women candidates. But the question I was left with was – will a few progressive companies be enough? Or the better question – how long will it take for companies to make the impact needed?

Wait! Before you say….”Diversity – I don’t care, that’s “their” issue, if you do care about America’s technology competitiveness, then diversity in technology is your issue!  Attracting different types of people to technology is VITAL for the U.S. not just because of the benefits normally cited such as higher performing teams, fostering creativity and increased critical thinking. All those reasons are true and significant but I would say there is a more urgent issue: if we don’t attract more people to technology we are not going to have enough technology workers to contribute to U.S. demand, let alone global demand. More dire is that, as technology makes certain jobs obsolete, if we don’t prepare those people for jobs created by the new economy, where will they go?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the number of software development jobs are expected to increase by 22% from 2012 to 2022, equivalent to a 222,000 increase compared to 11% for U.S. jobs in general. If you add up all the occupations under computer and information technology which includes occupations such as web developers, computer information and research scientists, computer networking etc. the total increase is estimated to be 694,000 jobs of which all have growth rates that are significantly faster than all other occupations – an average of 18% faster. I wasn’t able to find purely computer science graduates numbers that were not muddled with all engineering but can tell you the growth rates are nowhere close.

The largest indicator of the digital divide is the current high school curriculum which includes little if any computer science instruction. In 2015, less than 30,000 students took an AP Computer Science exam out of 2.5 million students who took at least one AP exam. In 2013, reported that computer science only appeared on the curriculum of 3,249 schools across the U.S., out of more than 98,000. If kids are never exposed to a computer science course they certainly aren’t going to focus on it!  In terms of demographic, in 2013, women accounted for 18.6% of computer science exam-takers, Hispanic students 8.1% and African American students 3.7% compared to their make up in the entire workforce nationally: 51%, 16% and 12% respectively.

Most telling to this divide are statistics from Silicon Valley, the heart of technology innovation in the world. On average, just 2% of technology workers at 7 major Silicon Valley companies that have released staffing numbers are African American; 3% are Hispanic. I find this astonishing because the overall population in California comprises of 38.6% Hispanic. Women make up 51% of the workforce nationally and 30% of the tech industry labor force. However, as numerous reports will tell you, these numbers do not align when you consider actual technical/leadership roles.

The Consequences?

  1. Not enough people in tech! We will HAVE TO send technology work overseas even if perhaps that is not our first choice because the talent just WILL NOT EXIST in the United States. Global companies will continue to expand their operations and outsourcing overseas in order to access global talent to meet their technology resourcing demands. When you consider the overall demand for technology systems and applications in high-growth markets like China and India, the U.S. will be doing a diminishing portion of the development and implementation work. Over time, that means the U.S. will lose its position as the leader in technology services.
  2. Increased unemployment and a wider income gap in the United States. Technology will continue to displace jobs worldwide. If we do not invest in technology education where will all these people go and what will they do?  A recent report from the Oxford Martin School’s Program on the Impacts of Future Technology attempts to quantify the extent of that threat. It concludes that “47% of American jobs are at high risk of being taken over by computers within the next two decades”.

We need more diversity in technology because we need more people in technology! I am not talking about only women but other underrepresented ethnic groups. Ultimately, what we need is more access to all Americans, especially those in lower middle class America as their jobs are most vulnerable to displacement by technology. We need more diversity in technology because we need jobs of the future to replace the jobs of the past.

So what can we do? Stay tuned for my next post on what we can do to increase diversity and access to talent in technology.



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