CRACKING THE CODE
By DOUGLAS BURNS
As it turns out, the journey from a serene Iowa courthouse square and its familiar trappings to the modern atmosphere of Silicon Valley is but a short, friendly stroll.
At least if you live in Jefferson, Iowa.
The Greene County seat drew more than 500 visitors Saturday for the grand opening of Accenture’s Forge — a nationally recognized branch for computer software technology in a $1.8 million renovated 1880s building on the northeast side of downtown, 204 E. State St.
The branch is now open for business. Silicon Prairie is real.
A rain-splattered day didn’t keep people away.
Visitors streamed through the Forge — developed initially by Pillar Technology, a company that’s now part of Accenture — for tours during the afternoon with many stopping to talk with Iowa Central Community College and Des Moines Area Community College representatives about courses and scholarships tied to future careers at the Forge.
A roster of top political and economic leaders capped the day’s events at the Greene County Community Center.
“Our nation is still a land where dreams are more possible than anywhere in the world and Jefferson, Iowa, is reminding us of that,” said U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, as well as being a defining force in the development of the Forge in Jefferson, and if the two-term congressman with growing national profile has his way, more Forge and tech business sitings in Iowa and elsewhere in rural America.
Khanna joined Iowa GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds in a tour-de-force bipartisan show of support for last weekend’s opening of a two-story facility that Accenture executive Chad Jerdee expects to house 30 employees in the next five years, in addition to a training academy for more budding technical professionals.
“Rural Iowa stands at a crossroads in the digital revolution and harnessing public private partnerships like the Forge is fueling a rural renaissance in small towns across our state,” Reynolds said. “The Forge demonstrates what’s possible when a shared vision meets drive and ambition, and it will serve as a launch pad for cutting-edge careers, a hub for lifelong learning, and a model for small towns across our state and country.”
Reynolds and Khanna have done national interviews in recent months in which they feature the collaborative work in Jefferson.
“I always, always talk about Jefferson and the Forge,” Reynolds said.
She said students and employees from a 39-community region of western and central Iowa will feed into the Forge and supporting organizations.
“We’re looking forward to taking what you’ve done and scaling it across the state,” Reynolds said.
Khanna sees the opening of the Forge in a national context as part of his urgent strategy to help bridge desperately divided rural and urban areas of the nation back together through mutually beneficial commerce — in this case the extension of digital jobs and wealth from the coasts to Middle America.
“I think when the history of America’s technology leadership is written, they are going to mention Silicon Valley, but there are going to be two additional chapters — they will talk about John Atanasoff, who invented the first computer in Ames, Iowa,” Khanna, a former Obama administration Commerce Department official, said. “Now, there’s going to be an additional chapter. They’re going to talk about Linc Kroeger and Chris Deal and Jefferson for having cracked the code for technology for rural America. What you’re doing here matters a lot.”
Because of the Accenture location in Greene County, young people will be able to pursue dreams without having to leave rural areas, Khanna said.
“It seems like so much is off in our country, so much is negative, so much is divisive, and you’re offering this country a model of hope,” Khanna said. “It’s helping stitch us back together because the tech companies aren’t here out of charity. They are here because they recognize you have people with great work-ethic values, who have a great education with an extraordinary community college system.”
The plan makes economic sense and can replicated around Iowa and the nation, he said.
“This is how we are going to lead the 21st century,” Khanna said. “This is how we’re going to win and make sure America stays ahead with technology.”
Accenture and Corteva Agriscience, both traded on the New York Stock Exchange, will bring together nonprofit groups, higher-education organizations and government leaders so that rural Iowans can acquire technology skills while remaining in their communities. The first such region in their plan — stretching from Carroll to Boone and down to Perry, with a northern reach as well — is to be known as the Lincoln Corridor.
Accenture executive Linc Kroeger, a rural leader for the company and region, hatched the idea for the corridor, which he sees as akin to the Lincoln Highway of the early 20th century, a connector of talent and customer, of rural and urban.
“People have come to help,” said Kroeger, who has streamed in Silicon Valley representatives to Jefferson.
Kroeger worked closely with Greene County development leader Chris Deal to see the Forge through to completion.
“Now is the time for rural and we’re seeing it happen right here,” Deal said.
An engineer, Deal had interacted with Kroeger in that capacity and made a successful appeal for Jefferson, Deal’s hometown, for an Accenture branch.
Starting this fall, Corteva is funding 25 scholarships — a total of $187,500 — for students in Des Moines Area Community College’s computer languages program, where they will receive computer science training. Upon completing their studies, select graduates will participate in a four-month commercial software development training program at a new Forge.
Iowa Central will be involved as well with a career academy that will be constructed on the campus of a new Greene County High School.
Debra King, chief information officer for Corteva Agriscience, which partnered on a Jefferson girls’ coding camp in August, said her company wants to see a broad reach with the scholarships so the program, and later the modern workforce in tech in Jefferson, is inclusive.
This means getting more people from smaller towns involved, she said.
“We need the diverse representation of people in rural communities,” King said.
That considered, Regan Lamoureux, a 2018 graduate of Greene County High School who studies computer science at the University of Iowa, job shadowed at the Pillar Forge in Des Moines, where she met Kroeger, who spurred her interest in the field.
It led to a prestigious internship at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a center in California working to cure disease.
“It all started because of the opportunity right here in Greene County,” Lamoureux said.
Will Castleberry, vice president for state policy for Facebook, said his company will expand work with DMACC to include the Carroll campus for a digital marketing program with additional scholarships and one-on-one career training and job placement. Community college officials are ironing out details on just how that will work.
“We have a very, very special relationship with the Hawkeye State,” Castleberry said.
He added, “Facebook is absolutely honored to be a small part of this community and of the great state of Iowa.”
Chad Jerdee, Accenture’s global head for responsible business, corporate sustainability and citizenship, said economic development is at the heart of the new location in Jefferson.
“The future of work in rural America is important to all Americans,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see this kind of bipartisan collaboration.”
The actual work of the Forge in Jefferson will involve advanced digital technologies and software to create “smart, connected” products across an array of industries, from transportation to health care to financial services.
“We want people in Iowa to understand and be excited about those opportunities, particularly our youth,” Jerdee said.
“This is a facility poised to create jobs.”