Getting to Know Kalen Hunter, a “40 under 40” Honoree

Kalen Hunter
Photo by Nathan Rasnake

On Oct. 15, The Business Journal of the Tri-Cities Virginia/Tennessee named their “40 under 40” honorees. Among the group selected based on their achievements and business success as active members of the community was Kalen Hunter, Director of Economic Development and GO Virginia Region 1 at UVA Wise.

We caught up with Hunter to hear about her journey in economic development and what initiatives she’s busy leading today.

Where are you from and what’s your educational background?
I’m from the beautiful Southwest Virginia region, growing up in Russell County. I earned a bachelor of arts degree in technical and professional communication from King University and a Master of Business Administration, also from King.

What other organizations, boards, or clubs are you a member of or serve on?
I currently serve on the following working groups and boards:

  • Southwest Virginia Trauma Informed Community Network
  • Ballad Health’s STRONG Accountable Care Community Workforce Training Working Group
  • United Way of Southwest Virginia’s Board of Directors
  • Mountain Empire Community College’s Advisory Board
  • UVA Wise Hospitality & Tourism Program Development Steering Committee
  • UVA Wise Professional Credentials & Degree Completion Steering Committee
  • Solar Workgroup of Southwest Virginia

Why did you choose economic development as a career?
I feel like economic development chose me. If you would have told me in college that I would be working with local, regional, and state stakeholders to create economic development opportunities for Southwest Virginia, I would have thought you were crazy. However, I am thankful for this career and it feels like a natural fit. I am a quick learner, flexible, but structured, and I love helping others. It truly is the perfect match.

Why are you passionate about economic development?
I am passionate about economic development because it allows us to make investments in our communities. I have always believed that you can leave something better than you found it, and that is what I strive to do daily.

What is your inspiration?
While my husband and I don’t have any children of our own, I strive to create a better tomorrow for future generations. I believe that it is critical to invest in education and infrastructure to create a bright, prosperous future for others.

Do you have any specific goals in mind?
I am now completing the CO.STARTERS program through UVA Wise. I have a goal of (hopefully) launching an app in the near future. I also used to be an avid runner; I do have a goal to get back in a running regimen and hopefully train for a half marathon.

What, in your opinion, is key to good economic development strategy?
The special ingredient to economic development is collaboration. Without partnerships, projects and investments cannot happen. Money is great and is necessary to make projects happen, but without partnership a project will run short of success.

How does it feel to be named 40 Under 40?
I am truly honored, but I cannot take all of the credit. I would not have had the success I have had in my career thus far without the fantastic colleagues that have helped support the great work that WE all do.

Another person that has contributed greatly to my success is my husband. He has been in my corner cheering me on through the good and the bad. I couldn’t do it without his love and support.

What projects have you been a part of that you are especially proud of?
I am extremely proud of Mountain Empire Community College’s Project Workforce Education and Life Development or (Project WELD). This project was dreamed up in the back of a car as Dr. Amy Greear and I were headed to a LEAD Virginia session in 2021. This project has the potential to change lives of those that are incarcerated by providing them with a salary that is at or above the average annual wage in Southwest Virginia ($35,571). These men will be receiving Level 1 Welding Training while incarcerated, and there are employers throughout Southwest Virginia that are willing to provide interviews after completion of the training. If all goes well, they will have a job upon release. We are extremely excited to see what the future holds for this project!

Did you ever consider another career path other than economic development?
While playing college basketball, there was a moment where I thought that I wanted to be an athletic trainer. Lo and behold after trying to tape someone’s ankle, I knew that career wasn’t for me. Praise to all of the athletic trainers out there who take care of these athletes!

What are you working on now?
GO Virginia currently has around $1.3M available in grant monies. I am working with various regional partners on the application process to mobilize these monies into the region for projects related to talent and site development. The future looks bright for our region and the Commonwealth, and I’m happy to play a small role in that success.