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UVa-Wise forum explores blueprint to boost rural tech

Mike Still • May 16, 2019 at 3:30 PM

 WISE — Policy and future vision are key to developing a rural technology business sector, attendees at the SWVA Economic Forum heard Wednesday.

More than 250 government, business and education leaders came to this year’s event, organized by the University of Virginia’s College at Wise’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement.

The forum’s theme — “Transforming Through Technology” — set the tone for various breakout sessions on developing existing businesses and health care and attracting and building new technology-sector businesses in Southwest Virginia.

In addition to exploring several displays manned by representatives of regional governments, technology-related businesses and agencies, colleges and other organizations, forum participants heard outside perspectives on developing a successful technology economic sector.

Wendy Marquez, founder and president of Abingdon-based Wize Solutions, told the gathering that Virginia’s rural areas and small businesses seeking state government technology contracts and projects have faced an uphill struggle in the past decade. Part of that struggle has been state government’s procurement policies often requiring technology and data service contractors to be “within arm’s reach of Richmond.”

While Virginia did contract with Northrop Grumman and CGI for large data center projects in Russell County a decade ago, Marquez said there has not been another large state data/technology project in Southwest Virginia since then.

“The message is, you can get a good education at UVa-Wise, but if you need a job, go to Richmond,” said Marquez.

Marquez also pointed to large corporations’ preference to send technology and customer service jobs overseas on labor cost grounds. That policy can cost companies more than they save in the long run because of cybersecurity issues and customer problems arising from cultural differences between overseas workers and U.S. customers, she said.

Pointing to a base of technology and cybersecurity talent coming from the region’s higher education system, Marquez said private sector and government policies are causing more trained rural technology talent to leave the region after graduation to find good-paying jobs.

“The question we must ask ourselves and government is why are the delivery of those IT services and the benefits they give concentrated in Virginia’s urban crescent?” Marquez said.

Comparing the percentage of population in Virginia’s urban areas — about 50 percent — to the rest of the state — also 50 percent — Marquez said the commonwealth needs to align its procurement policies with rural regions’ economic development agenda.

“All of us here have the desire and the commitment,” Marquez said.

Keynote speaker Scott Klososky outlined “digital transformation” in how the world is seeing technology evolve from the early stages of publicly available internet access in the 1990s to the growth of web-based machines communicating and developing to augment human decision-making.

With that technology growth, Klososky said, cybersecurity programs and training are becoming more important. The internet has no borders, and businesses face growing threats such as a “digital Pearl Harbor” from malware, “digitally savvy” younger generations where ethical concerns may lead to data theft, and even a growing “Mafia 2.0” of web-based organized crime.

“Every university should have a good cyber program,” Klososky said. Businesses also need cybersecurity audits because of growing online threats, he added.

Cybersecurity training programs can be conducted anywhere, including rural areas, Klososky said.

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