A retail giant primed for expansion needs tomorrow’s best people, today.

When Amazon decided to base one of its headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, it sought a region with an available workforce and an existing ecosystem proven at producing top-notch talent. Virginia Tech’s track record of molding future leaders, thinkers, and innovators with disciplinary depth complemented by interdisciplinary know-how provided that assurance, and made the Commonwealth of Virginia’s proposal a winning one.

The landmark result is the creation of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, a 1 million-square-foot graduate campus located less than two miles from Amazon’s new location.

“Amazon’s challenge provided the catalyst to accelerate a plan that we already had in place,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, “by bringing together Virginia leaders who are committed to the vision to transform and sustain the commonwealth as a leading magnet for tech talent and innovation — with room to grow, adapt, and evolve.”

The Innovation Campus will produce new graduates in computer science and related fields to meet the growing industry demands. Such disciplines might be the first to come to mind in relation to Amazon, but they are far from an all-inclusive list of opportunities with an e-commerce pioneer, which relies on workers of all backgrounds who cross disciplinary boundaries in ways that are already staples of the Virginia Tech learning environment.

“At Virginia Tech, we’re already bringing together technology and creativity to explore and innovate at the boundaries of the sciences, engineering, the arts, and design,” said Ben Knapp, founding director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT). “If you look around the state, we are the only university with the faculty and facilities to provide students with the cross-disciplinary education necessary to succeed in a company like Amazon.”

ICAT provides an example of Hokies learning in situations that mirror those of real-world companies. The university's thematic institutes and transdisciplinary communities, the Destination Areas, also boast of environments that immerse students in the types of academically diverse situations that replicate the working world. These efforts merge such disciplines as art, design, and humanities with STEM concentrations to produce graduates capable of working across those same disciplinary boundaries.

This experiential-driven learning means Hokies of all disciplines are poised to step out of the university setting and into the type of workforce Amazon requires to thrive. And likewise, the cross-disciplinary demands of the global leading retailer will fuel the university culture producing that workforce.

Virginia Tech students watch live-stream video of the Innovation Campus announcement on Tuesday.
Virginia Tech students watch live-stream video of the Innovation Campus announcement on Tuesday.

“Amazon’s presence will be transformative for Virginia Tech’s impact on the state as a comprehensive university,” Knapp said. “It will enable us to further amplify our ongoing success in innovating beyond boundaries.”

That transformation will take place across the entire Virginia Tech footprint, which extends from the far western part of the state to the Hampton Roads Center in the Tidewater area.

“We all benefit when there is awareness and an embracement of such collaborative enterprises,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Roanoke-based Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology.

“In fact, VTCRI has embodied those attributes through close collaborations not only with its clinical partner, Carilion, but also through deep scientific, programmatic, and personal connections with Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus and its National Capital Region as well. The opportunities for extending this success and enhancing innovation in the health sciences and technology space, particularly through growth in the health data and analytical sciences, will increase substantially from connections with the Innovation Campus," Friedlander said.

Knapp said he believes Amazon’s commitment to the commonwealth will not only elevate university-wide programs, but also means many Hokies, especially those who study fields related to ICAT, will no longer have to find their futures outside of the state.

Amazon changes that. Not only will the company’s expected need for 25,000 employees in Northern Virginia provide opportunities, but it will attract other businesses and firms that will also need to fill their rosters with the type of valuable employees Virginia Tech produces.

Brandy Salmon with team
Brandy Salmon (seated with laptop) will serve as the founding chief operating officer for Virginia Tech's new Innovation Campus. Salmon was in Alexandria on Tuesday for the announcement. She is pictured with Monecia Taylor, associate vice president for principal gifts, Kristie Caddick, project manager for the Innovation Campus, and Natalie Hart, assistant vice president of advancement in the National Capital Region.

The potential ripple effect of such an advanced ecosystem cannot be overstated, as similar global tech giants have historically spurred the advancement of entire regions and as a result have often become the target of relocation courtships from areas around the globe.

“Virginia’s biggest employment growth opportunity in the years ahead will be in tech – from artificial intelligence to cloud computing to cybersecurity, and everything in between,” said Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. “Our success in growing the tech sector will be inextricably linked to our success in developing, attracting, and retaining world-class tech talent. [The] announcements, by Amazon and Virginia Tech, highlight just how important higher education is to that equation. In a knowledge-driven economy, competitiveness and success depend on universities being willing to step forward to do even more. Virginia Tech has done exactly that.”

This economic impact will not be limited to Northern Virginia or Blacksburg, but will span the entirety of the commonwealth. As one of the rare universities spanning the urban-rural divide, Virginia Tech is in a position to ensure that the prosperity is shared across the commonwealth through statewide research programs and expansion of education opportunities, including involvement with various K-12 STEM programs. As one of two universities that make up Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech also has representatives connecting the public to research in every county and 12 cities in Virginia.

These efforts ensure the positive ripple won’t stop with Hokies or those of school age, but will be felt by the entire population, as everything from support services and consulting firms to human support systems such as hospitals and schools will need to expand. Such economic growth potential from a single decision is unprecedented in Virginia history.

“The rigorous programs we launch and the powerful research we generate will help drive the innovation economy,” said Brandy Salmon, associate vice president for innovation and partnerships and founding chief operating officer for the Innovation Campus. “Together with partners in industry, government, and education, we will cement Virginia as a world leader for the information age and deliver the global impact we strive for.”

— Written by Travis Williams