The technology sector’s growth in Northern Virginia could – with Virginia Tech as a key higher education partner – be modeled in rural Virginia, panelists said during a recent session of the President Tim Sands' leadership council in the greater Washington, D.C. metro area.

Steps include convincing companies that an educated talent pool exists in Southwest Virginia, said Stephen Moret, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.

Moret’s optimism was echoed by Sonu Singh, a 1991 Virginia Tech graduate and CEO of the IT company 1901 Group, which recently broke ground for an $8.8 million, 45,000-square-foot building in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center. As technology companies set up shop in rural areas, the cloud and cybersecurity workforce can be drawn from various disciplines and backgrounds, not just computer science, Singh said.

“We have hired folks who might not have an IT degree, and we’ve said IT isn’t this dark black magic that it used to be,” Singh said. “We are really opening the aperture of people who can be in IT. And this area has a lot of embedded talent. We feel we can train a lot of different types of people for this work.” 1901 Group employs 100 people in Reston, D.C., and across the U.S., and 230 in Blacksburg with plans to hire hundreds more when its new office opens in 2020.

Singh is an industry member of the leadership council, which also includes representatives from Virginia Tech in a group formed 10 years ago, convened by the president and spearheaded by Outreach and International Affairs and the office of the vice president of strategic alliances. The group advises Virginia Tech’s president on growth in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area.

The panel was organized to highlight linkages between Northern Virginia, where population is growing rapidly, and Southwest Virginia, where population is in decline. Afroze Mohammed, associate director of strategic alliances in the Office of Economic Development, said, “Challenges in the northern part of the state – the shortage of IT workers and high cost of living – can be opportunities for Southwest Virginia, with Virginia Tech as an anchor.”

Ideas surfacing from the President’s National Capital Region Leadership Council meeting, held in Roanoke in late September, included helping students understand that Southwest Virginia offers great quality of life should they decide to stay after graduation and also providing year-round internships so college students leave school with the experience and skills companies seek.

“Rural folks present another layer of diversity that often gets forgotten in the workforce,” said panelist Steven Cooper, co-founder of the technology company Excella. As corporations consider locating to or expanding in the region, they should keep in their sights the culture and values of the population. “The outlook we ought to have as employers is that it’s a full and diverse society of people, not just a ‘technology corridor.’ ”

The panelists touched on the myth that rural areas can never compete with the lure of city life. Companies that locate in rural towns can create walkable campuses that take advantage of downtown amenities, such as coffee shops, restaurants, and other gathering places that young people want, Moret said.

“We’re the recipient of the wisdom in this room,” Sands said in the discussion’s wrap-up. “What’s driving the talent one way or the other is more complex than just that everyone wants to live in an urban area. One of the reasons we’re meeting is to sort through some of these issues and opportunities. We need to look at the future 10 or 15 years out and be ready.”

Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs, said the discussion brought to light the need for even more far-reaching ideas to enable young people to choose the small-town life many of them cherish. These might include an aggressive national policy of student loan forgiveness as well as greater incentives for companies to establish technology and clean manufacturing companies in Southwest Virginia that offer well-paying jobs.

“The strength of the president’s leadership council is their diverse expertise and commitment to the success of VT as a whole,” said Steven McKnight, vice president of strategic alliances. “We derive tremendous insights that guide our strategies, and the thoughts that were shared on bridging the urban and rural IT economies were timely and valuable."

The leadership council’s September discussion came in the context of Virginia Tech’s Rural Virginia Initiative, a collaborative effort of higher education and government entities to analyze problems related to the rural-urban divide. John Provo, director of the Office of Economic Development at Virginia Tech, said the group would propose solutions by the end of the year.