PROVO, Utah – Anyone driving past the Point of The Mountain from Draper into Lehi has likely seen half a dozen cranes erecting glassy office buildings. They’re making room for Utah’s booming tech industry.
Companies and the state want that growth to continue, but industry leaders argue that in order to do that, the state’s image needs some work.
To get there, tech lobbyists are pushing for more socially inclusive legislation at the state Capitol.
They say they hope it will help attract more out of state talent — like 39-year-old Kimmy Paluch.
In 2018, Paluch was living in Oakland, California with her husband and their two kids where they ran a consulting firm aimed at helping businesses launch new products.
“We ourselves had gotten very disillusioned with the Silicon Valley bubble,” Paluch said. “One — for the innovations that were getting funded, that they were only serving the 1%. And then two — for the lack of capital flowing to underrepresented founders.”
She saw an opportunity to change things in Utah, where a newer tech market was experiencing a lot of growth. Paluch and her husband started a venture capital fund in Salt Lake City aimed at helping startups founded by women and people of color. The effort was personal, too — Paluch is a Black woman and an immigrant.
Beyond the career opportunities, she said they were also thrilled about making what they saw as a lifestyle upgrade in Utah. They knew they’d have better access to things like skiing and hiking.
But Utah has a reputation problem, Paluch said.
“I remember telling my Bay Area friends that were moving to Utah,” she said. “And they’re like, ‘Why are you moving to Utah?’”
It’s no secret Utah is very white — three quarters of the population identifies that way. It’s also very Mormon and Republican. Paluch isn’t any of those things — not only is she Black, she’s also Catholic and politically liberal.
Paluch said she was actually excited to live in a place with a different political climate, but the cultural differences did give her and her husband pause.
“We [did] have to think and question — will I feel like I’m part of this state?” she said. “I wasn’t really afraid for myself [about] being a place where maybe I would stick out or be asked, ‘Why are you here?’ For my kids, I was a little concerned. I did wonder if they would feel welcomed. And thankfully, that’s never been an issue.”
Preconceived notions about Utah’s culture is something job recruiters encounter when convincing applicants to take a job here. Companies like Midvale-based Overstock.com have even made that part of their recruiting videos.
“So what’s so great about Salt Lake City and Utah?” one video said. “It’s probably cooler than you think. With fantastic local breweries, clubs and live events, Salt Lake’s nightlife has something to offer for everyone. “
Recruiting workers from out of state is critical to the tech industry’s ability to grow here, according to Sunny Washington, a lobbyist for Silicon Slopes, the industry’s advocacy organization named after the popular term for the industry in Utah.
“For the amount of growth and the innovation that’s happening here — I would love for our current student workforce to fill those jobs,” she said. “The reality is there is just a huge gap in that and we have to recruit out-of-state.”
Companies try to combat negative ideas about Utah through marketing campaigns like Overstock’s, going to career fairs and discussing the state’s culture in job interviews. But Washington said they can’t change the state’s reputation on their own.
She said it’s not just concerns about being able to have a beer on a Friday night. It’s also political differences.
That’s why Silicon Slopes has gotten involved in several high-profile pieces of state legislation related to social issues.
“As much as companies try to do all the active outreach, it can honestly be undone if we have some crazy law that is not very reflective of our state,” Washington said.
Washington and other lobbyists argued against an unsuccessful bill that would have banned transgender girls from competing on girls school sports teams. They also supported legislation to change the name of Dixie State University.
“We have a lot of work to do to make people feel like, ‘Hey, Utah is a great place where I can bring my family and they’re going to feel included,” Washington said.
But Republican lawmakers aren’t always on board with Silicon Slopes’ ideas of how to make the state better. Republican House Speaker Brad Wilson, for example, voted for the bill banning trans girls from competing in sports. He said he has to vote the way he thinks is morally right and protect the Utah he knows and loves.
“We see businesses or individuals move to the state of Utah because of the high quality of life, the great education system, the low crime rate, the low taxes, the entrepreneurial spirit here,” Wilson said. “And yet then the first thing they do when they get here is they want to change some of the things that have created the fabric of Utah being the strong place that it is.”
At the same time, Wilson and other top Republicans pride themselves on making Utah a business-friendly state. Just this legislative session, they passed several laws that cut down on regulations and revamped the state’s tax incentives for businesses.
That can sometimes be in conflict, Wilson said, with preventing businesses from changing Utah’s identity.
“We’ve got to guard against that at the same time as we need to ensure that we’re doing the things that will keep us prosperous and make us a great place to keep living,” he said. “That’s a tricky balancing act.”
But Paluch argued the economic opportunity that lawmakers like Wilson have worked so hard to cultivate only matters if it’s equitably available to all. It’s not available to everyone, she said, if people don’t feel welcome coming to Utah.
“This speed bump is an issue,” she said. “That we have to then wonder, ‘Will I get the same kind of opportunity as someone else? Will I be as welcome as someone else just because of how I look or my religion or my gender?’”
Paluch said the solution can’t just be inclusive legislation at the state level. Private businesses also need to step up to provide more opportunities and funding to women and people of color.
And those combined efforts, she said, can make Utah appear as welcoming to newcomers as Paluch has actually found it to be.