The rebooting of rural Iowa
By DOUGLAS BURNS
The city of Jefferson is emerging as the Lexington — the location of Americans’ first fight for freedom — of a promising rural software revolution.
And some of the first big shots were fired Saturday in what leading technology figures from household Silicon Valley brands like Microsoft and LinkedIn — and a potential presidential candidate — see as canyon-crossing bridges between prosperous reaches of the West Coast and rural areas of America in jeopardy of being keystroked to economic oblivion.
The big draw in Greene County: software company Pillar Technology and one of its top officials, Linc Kroeger, an evangelist for the power of innovation to boost challenged rural cities in Iowa with the freedom to succeed in a tech-infused world that’s left much of the nation behind.
Kroeger, fittingly in this regard, is from Independence, Iowa.
“This is really a moment in history right now,” Kroeger said.
Added Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson, “Mark down this night because it is the start of a revolution.”
With a lift from U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who is building something of a national platform with plans to extend what he calls a “software revolution” to rural places, Kroeger led a delegation of dozens of people with Silicon Valley and tech ties to the town square in Jefferson Saturday.
They toured the century-old former IOOF building on East State Street, now undergoing a $1.8-million renovation into a Pillar branch, what the company calls a “Forge,” that will create as many as 30 jobs with starting salaries of $55,000 to $60,000. After three years on the job, Pillar officials have said, that salary could increase to as much as $75,000.
Top tech leaders were here to endorse that effort — and scout ways it can be expanded into other rural parts of the nation.
Locally, Pillar will tap into a talent pipeline running between a new Iowa Central Community College-managed regional career academy for area high schoolers in Jefferson along U.S. Highway 30 and its downtown office.
Pillar could start settling into its new home as early as June 2019, Kroeger said.
One of the initial clients using Pillar’s Jefferson’s talents will be the San Francisco 49ers football team.
Many on the tour, which involved community leader Chris Deal detailing economic development in the region, went up in the Mahanay Bell Tower for a sweeping view of the countryside — the 30-mile radius from which Kroeger expects to draw talent.
And they listened at RVP-1875’s History Boy Theatre for nearly 90 minutes as a roster of speakers one would expect at a Seattle TED Talk tied their ascendent world to the aspirations of Jefferson, population 4,200, and towns like it.
Kroeger made an impression in meetings with tech leaders and Khanna, said the 42-year-old congressman who represents Silicon Valley.
“They, I think, were just so blown away by your sincerity and by Jefferson and what we can do to bring our country together to create jobs, to show that the digital revolution is one that every community should and can participate in,” Khanna said.
Khanna said 180,000 to 200,000 tech jobs that are being outsourced internationally can be done instead in rural places in the nation. He sees it as a way to reduce political polarization, much of which springs from a rural-urban divide.
“We don’t just believe in speeches,” Khanna said. “What you’re going to hear are concrete commitments.”
Kevin Scott, the chief technology officer for Microsoft, said he’s inspired to see what Jefferson and Pillar are doing in rural America. Scott hails from the countryside of Virginia, and knows firsthand the challenges of getting into tech fields from that starting point in life.
For his part, Scott “got really lucky” with an invitation to a science and math magnate school. He wanted to stay in Virginia, but had to leave family and friends to pursue a career.
“That’s the reason I’m so excited and so hopeful about the work that Linc and people who are working on the Forge program are doing,” Scott said. “I believe that this work can give young people in rural parts of the country, here in Iowa, an opportunity to stay where they want to be.”
Like Khanna, Scott believes this is also vital for the increasingly stretched national fabric.
“I think it’s crucially important for the tech industry and America in general that we create these opportunities to have tech jobs and have people participating in the creation of technology throughout the entire country,” Scott said. “It’s not great that we have these high concentrations of technology creation in just a few places.”
Allen Blue, the co-founder of LinkedIn, the Goliath business and employment service, said he understands Iowa through his father who grew up in Marshalltown. Even after later moving to Chicago, Blue’s dad showed a community spiritedness and connectivity to causes rooted in an Iowa upbringing, Blue said.
The opportunity before technology companies is to extend its growth into the full nation, he said.
“Jefferson could be a place that’s a lighthouse for attacking this problem all across the United States,” Blue said.
Zach Mannheimer, a community planner with McClure Engineering Company and the lead consultant on much of Greene County’s recent economic development, said housing and amenities, like the planned three-block project surrounding the old Greene County Middle School, will be essential for recruiting and retaining the talent companies like Pillar will need to sustain rural operations.
“There’s a major housing shortage across rural America,” Mannheimer said.
But there are big opportunities, said Mannheimer, who lives in Des Moines but was raised in Philadelphia.
“Rural America is the next place to pioneer,” Mannheimer said.
Some other notes on the Pillar tech event in Jefferson:
• The Scott Foundation, the family foundation of Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott, will provide $25,000 in scholarships to local students attending Iowa Central Community College’s regional career academy in Jefferson.
• Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of the cryptocurrency network Ripple, will equip a computer lab at the regional career academy.
• Greg Sands, founder and managing director of Costanoa Ventures, said he soon would bring a “Shark Tank”-style competition to Jefferson and invest $50,000 in the business idea presented.
• DMACC’s Denson and Dan Kinney, president of Iowa Central Community College, said the two institutions would work to provide educated employees to Pillar.
• Mitch Matthews, of the top-ranked “Dream. Think. Do.” podcast, said he plans to hold an entrepreneurial-minded event in Jefferson.
Who spoke at the Jefferson tech event?
Linc Kroeger — National leader of R3 (Revive. Rebuild. Restore.)
Ro Khanna — U.S. Congressman for California’s District 17
Chris Deal — Jefferson community leader
Kevin Scott — Microsoft CTO
Chase Wilson — App Academy
AJ Whatling and Linsey Kitt — Accenture/Pillar employee at the Jefferson Forge and a student at Greene County High School
Tim Ritchie — President and CEO of The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif.
Tim Christensen — Superintendent of Greene County Schools
Rob Denson — President of Des Moines Area Community College
Dan Kinney — President of Iowa Central Community College
Greg Huber — Biophysicist and senior fellow at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub (consortium of Stanford University, UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan)
Beth Townsend — Director of Iowa Workforce Development
Madhu Chamarty — CEO of Beyond HQ
Greg Sands — Founder and managing director of Costanoa Ventures
Zach Mannheimer — Principal community planner for McClure Engineering Company
Mitch Matthews — Speaker, author and host of the top-ranked “Dream. Think. Do.” podcast
Allen Blue — VP of product management and co-founder of LinkedIn