This is the first installment of a new Fortune series focused on efforts to revive the economy of West Virginia. For years, the state has been devastated by the declining demand for coal, a once-booming industry. It has battled high rates of unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction. Now efforts are underway to invest in the state as a center for technology and innovation. This ambitious goal is being financed by a trio of former West Virginians who have made it big in tech: ex-Cisco CEO John Chambers, longtime investor Ray Lane, and the former CEO of Intuit, Brad D. Smith. Along with plenty of people on the ground, they are pushing to make West Virginia a more attractive place to live, work, and innovate. Will they succeed, or even make a dent? It will likely take more than deep pockets to change the state’s image—and to truly bolster its embattled economy. But you have to start somewhere. And if West Virginia can do it, any region can.
There’s plenty to love about West Virginia, or so I hear. There’s the lush landscape, the low cost of living, and the friendliness of the people (if they do say so themselves).
Personally, I’ve never set foot in the state. And my most in-depth exposure, up until recently, came from a documentary called The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, which chronicles the lives of a chaotic clan of outlaws who live deep in Appalachia. The film manages to bring to life pretty much every single existing stereotype of rural people from that particular part of the country: The characters are poor, drug addicted, and not exactly law-abiding. (They also partake in “mountain dancing,” basically a frenzied version of tap dancing.) Bottom line: The documentary, while incredibly compelling, doesn’t show any of the more appealing aspects of the state.
And like any region, there are very appealing aspects of West Virginia, starting with its natural beauty. Among other outdoor distinctions, it’s home to the highest density of whitewater-rafting runs in the country. But when it comes to economic opportunity, the picture is grim. West Virginia, a once-booming industrial state driven by coal, now consistently appears at the bottom of lists ranking things like rates of employment, number of patents filed, and concentration of startups. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that with a population of just 1.8 million, it is one of the poorest states when it comes to median household income—an average of $46,711, compared with the nationwide average of $68,703. And it has the highest rate of opioid-involved overdose deaths in the United States, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“We are at the bottom of all the right lists and the top of all the wrong lists,” says Greg Corio, assistant vice president for the Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at West Virginia University.
Corio’s department at WVU, based in Morgantown, has a mission to transform the state’s dismal stats, to put West Virginia on the map—as a place not just to visit, but to live. A big piece of that vision is a new initiative to bring remote workers to the state, marketing all that it has to offer when it comes to outdoor recreation in order to lure would-be residents. (Corio is a big nature enthusiast himself, and he invented an artificial-ice climbing wall while in college.) Plenty of other regions are trying to appeal to tech workers and entrepreneurs in particular, especially now that the COVID-19 pandemic has made remote work much more acceptable. But Corio believes West Virginia has a natural advantage, despite all of the challenges it faces.
“West Virginia has more access to whitewater rafting and rock climbing than Colorado and Utah put together,” he says. (A note: This is not something I have fact-checked, though the process sounds like it would be an amazing assignment.)
There’s another secret weapon in West Virginia’s arsenal: some deep-pocketed West Virginians who have made it big in tech. A $25 million donation from former Intuit CEO Brad Smith and his wife, Alys, is making the ambitious initiative to bring remote workers to the state, called Ascend WV, a reality. (The initiative is a collaboration among the Smiths, West Virginia University, and the state’s Department of Tourism.)
Ascend WV launched in April. During a six-week process that closed in late May, 7,500 applications were received for just 50 spots. The highest number of applications came from Pennsylvania, Florida, and California. All of those who applied are vying for a $12,000 relocation package plus a year’s worth of free outdoor recreation—this includes things like zip-lining, off-roading, and yes, whitewater rafting and rock climbing. The program is currently focused on bringing people to Morgantown, where West Virginia University is based, but will soon expand to two other cities, Lewisburg and Shepherdstown, and aims to eventually relocate 1,000 people to the state.
“We’re welcoming those that are fully employed who want to be a part of a contemporary experience-driven lifestyle,” says Brad Smith, who grew up in Kenova, a West Virginia town that borders Kentucky and Ohio and has a population of 3,000 “if you round up.”
The former CEO waxes poetic about West Virginia’s natural beauty—the rock climbing, the rafting, the snowshoeing. (Yes, he even started belting out John Denver’s classic, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” during one interview.) But he’s realistic about the challenges ahead.
“We’re very clear-eyed about some of the reputation that we may have earned over the years,” says Smith. “We’ve also studied those who look like us and have emerged and created a new chapter.”
Smith believes that if West Virginia can play to its unique assets—its beauty and its friendly people—it can start to reenergize the entrepreneurial spirit that was once a key part of the state’s former economy. He’s not the only believer. “A lot of alumni have come back to the state to say, ‘How do we rebuild the state to create the next chapter?’” says Smith.
Smith is right. Ray Lane, a former president at Oracle and a longtime investor, has also given generously to various efforts to revive the state, primarily via its academic institutions. (Lane was born and raised in nearby Pennsylvania but graduated from West Virginia University.) And former Cisco CEO John Chambers has perhaps been the loudest voice when it comes to innovation initiatives in West Virginia. The business school at WVU bears his name (he, too, gives generously). He’s also managed to rally local politicians from both sides of the aisle to his cause.
“I’ve seen this movie before,” Chambers says of the efforts to revamp West Virginia into a more desirable, innovative hub. “I know it’s doable.”
While leading Cisco, Chambers was instrumental in digitization efforts in both India and France. He also uses Israel and Ireland as models for what can happen when public and private sectors come together to invest in technology, even in unlikely places. And he believes West Virginia can transform in the same way. “It’s a state that I’m very biased on,” says Chambers. “If you ever have trouble in the middle of the night, it’s a good place to be stuck. Our people are humble but proud.”
Chambers has always been unapologetically “West Virginian.” He never tried to lose his strong accent; if you followed Cisco in the many years he served as its CEO, you know what I’m talking about. He’s proud of his home state, and he loves to talk not just about its raw, natural beauty but also what he sees as its massive future potential. It’s a vision for the state that he shares with Lane and Smith. And it’s a vision that those who are working hard on making Ascend WV a reality also share.
By the end of July, the first batch of families picked to move to West Virginia under the Ascend program will be announced. They will be welcomed to the state with open arms, given their relocation package, including a year’s worth of free recreational activities—all of the whitewater rafting their heart desires, and more. But will that be enough to get them to stay in the state, to form new roots in a region that’s been plagued by a lack of economic opportunities for decades? And even if they stay, will this make a dent in the state’s future, in paving the road to a new, more promising, and prosperous beginning for West Virginia? That’s the big question.
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