The fourth annual SWVA 2019 Economic Forum drew a large crowd from the Southwest Virginia region Wednesday as discussion involved transforming the area through technology.

The event, held at the David J. Prior Center at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, included various keynote speakers and breakout sessions that dealt with ways technology can aid in economic development and job creation. Economic developers, civic leaders, governmental agencies, bankers, educators and others attended to hear the latest news on ways to transform the region.

Dario Marquez and Wendy Marquez, founders of Wize Solutions, an Abingdon based company, said Virginia and the federal government needs to do more to make procurement work for rural communities. Wendy Marquez explained that urban hubs get better breaks than rural areas. It is rural areas that have the skilled workers who can do high technology jobs, but those jobs often go overseas.

“Do you think of Virginia as a flyover state?” she asked the crowd. “I know we can change this.”

Virginia can create jobs in rural technology hubs, she said. The region has good schools that turn out skilled graduates, but those students often must leave to find work. The graduates often need three years of experience to land jobs, but it is difficult to find that experience in rural areas. She said encouraging state and federal government to be a catalyst for change, and that means finding a better way to be fair to rural areas.

“We can keep Virginia from being a flyover state,” she added.

Dario Marquez said a good mix of macro and micro business development is a good economic development strategy that would help rural areas, such as Southwest Virginia, thrive. He said the region must tap into getting investment from the private sector. The impact investors can help the region get companies going faster without a lot of red tape that goes with government funding, and the investors just expect reasonable return on their investments.

In a breakout session sponsored by New Peoples Bank, Rusty Justice, head of Bit Source, LLC, a company that has made national news by teaching displaced miners coding skills, agreed with much of what the Marquezs said. The mindset must change, he added. Justice and the Marquezs were featured in the breakout session.

“You can’t change until you believe you can change,” Justice said.

The region has skilled workers, but many high tech shops are run by one or two people, he said. The companies working in high tech in rural areas need to find ways to network with each other and with companies from larger areas, he added.

Justice also touts the small company strategy for rural area, adding that attracting a large Amazon company would just create a one big industry situation for the region like coal mining was for decades.

Scott Klososky, an enterprise social technology expert, start up pioneer, and partner with Future Point of View, delivered the keynote address at the forum. He said digital transformation can help rural regions like Southwest Virginia, but he said it can create an increased level of risk in terms of security. Businesses are used as pawns in cyber warfare plans, which create a need for the companies to protect themselves. In addition, digitally savvy generations who are ethically challenged and who get older have access to tools that can lead to cyber crim

However, he said, data scientists, AI developers, RPA developers, robotists, machine/deep learning experts and cyber security specialists are superpower talents, and those skills can be developed anywhere and delivered anywhere. Those talents are now in demand.

‘We are moving to a freelance world where people find the talent needed on the job cloud,” he said. Those supporting development and maintenance of the machine systems will fill jobs replaced by machine intelligence.

Plans for next year’s forum are already in the works. It will take place on May 20, 2020.

Photos by Earl Neikirk