Rep. Ro Khanna, right, meets with three entrepreneurs at the Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg. From left: Elliot McAllister of Skyphos, Mickey Cowden of Cowden Technologies, Spencer Leamy of Corvus Labs. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

BLACKSBURG – Rep. Ro Khanna was 270 miles from Washington, D.C., on Thursday night when the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol held its first public hearing.

He has a lot of respect, he said, for his colleagues on the committee who are trying to figure out what needs to be done to protect and strengthen the nation’s democracy.

But Khanna, a California Democrat who represents one of the richest districts in the U.S., was in Blacksburg to preach a gospel that he believes addresses a root cause of the divisions that the nation is seeing play out in vitriolic debates over elections and immigration and schools.

Ro Khanna. Official portrait.

“If we’re going to have any chance of repairing our democracy and figuring out how to overcome some of the deep fissures, we have to tackle the extraordinary disparity of economic opportunity in this country,” said Khanna, sitting in the lobby of a hotel near the Virginia Tech campus before embarking on a tour of the Corporate Research Center.

Khanna, who has been dubbed the “ambassador of Silicon Valley,” has been crisscrossing the country to visit communities – mostly rural – that have been left behind by the tech boom that has created trillions of dollars of market capitalization in his district alone, through companies including Apple, Intel and Cisco. He’s been looking for ways to connect the tech world with these communities, through training programs and job creation and deeper understanding. He has written op-eds for major newspapers laying out his plan, and he recently published a book about his travels, and his theories: “Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us.” His visit to Blacksburg on Thursday marked the launch of Cardinal News’ new speaker series.

While the Roanoke-Blacksburg region is working to stake a larger claim in tech sectors like life sciences and transportation, the area – with its universities, medical schools, a research institute and countless scientists and engineers working to commercialize their research – already has a lot going for it technology-wise, far more than some of the other places Khanna has visited.

But the idea of spreading the digital wealth, as he puts it, isn’t just about persuading West Coast tech giants to invest in flyover country, although that’s part of it. Smaller tech hubs have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to consider the kinds of economic opportunities they can create in nearby rural communities, he said.

“The economic development of a community can’t be dictated by Washington or Silicon Valley. That has never worked,” he said. “The model has to come from here. You can have partnerships with the Silicon Valley, partnerships with the federal government. But the vision has to come locally.”

Community colleges and land-grant universities like Virginia Tech are one key to his plan. He calls for “massive” public investment – bolstered and informed by partnerships with the private sector –  to create technology institutes at these schools that would offer credential training for technology jobs, with a focus on serving rural residents.

Workforce training is a critical component, he said; tech companies can’t be persuaded to invest in smaller communities if they worry that they won’t be able to hire enough qualified employees.

Over the past several decades, the government has dropped the ball on training, he said. “When the jobs left – when textile manufacturing left, or refrigerator manufacturing or furniture manufacturing – we were not intentional,” he said. “We just said, ‘OK, the market will take care of it.’” 

And the government proved to be “inept” at job training, he said, too often leaving people who had completed the coursework without employment at the end. “Any program has to have the private sector integrally involved in getting the actual credential and the actual job at the end of it,” he said.

He pointed to a program launched by Google that pays community college students $5,000 to earn a technology credential while taking their usual coursework, and then have a job waiting for them at the end. 

Hiring can be a challenge even for small tech companies, as Khanna heard from several entrepreneurs he met at the Corporate Research Center. Brett Malone, president and CEO of the CRC, wondered if that challenge couldn’t be an opportunity to reach out into the broader community, as Khanna had recommended.

“Are there rural areas where these guys can find the talent they need, so instead of thinking major metro area connected to one rural node, can it be two rural nodes that can find the right talent?” he asked. “What is that network, and how do you activate the network of rural talent?”

Khanna’s book, and his mission, grew out of a visit to Paintsville, Kentucky, just an hour across the Virginia state line.

It was in early 2017, and he’d only been in office for a few months. But he’d been invited by Rep. Hal Rogers, a 21-term Republican who wanted to sell his California colleague – and, by extension, the tech giants based in Khanna’s district – on what Rogers liked to call “Silicon Holler.” 

Eastern Kentucky, which had been decimated by the loss of thousands of coal-related jobs, was trying to reinvent its economy and had seen some success through training programs that turned out software developers.

Khanna’s book begins with the story of a man whose printer installation business had crumbled as a result of the decline in coal, and who had reinvented himself as a developer – and who was, at the time the book was published, making $77,000 a year.

“What struck me was how optimistic they are about taking part in the digital economy and how open they are to diversification,” Khanna said in an interview with Fast Company a week after his visit.

“Someone told me about their father who was laid off three times in one year, who had been working in the mines,” he said. “They want more opportunity to pursue other careers as well. I kept hearing them talk about diversification – it allows them to stay in the community, in Eastern Kentucky, in Paintsville, where they have generations of family, and which they love.

“And they can still participate in the workforce through the connectivity the technology provides. They were very excited about partnering with Silicon Valley.”

Khanna cites Brookings Institution reports that say that just five U.S. cities accounted for 90% of innovation job growth in recent decades, that nearly half of digital service jobs are in 10 metro areas, and that more than 60 of the 100 largest metro regions saw their share of tech jobs decline in the past decade.

A central thesis of the book, he writes, is that people should be able to travel to seek better work, but that “no person should be forced to leave their hometown to find a decent job.”

The pandemic has made his pitch easier, he said Thursday. Before the COVID shutdown, people in Silicon Valley thought he was crazy when he started talking about the need to decentralize the workforce. But the pandemic has shown that it’s possible to have a dispersed employee base, and he believes it’s realistic to think that small towns can attract tech jobs. It happened in Jefferson, Iowa, he said, a town of about 4,000 where a software office and training center opened in 2019.

The project provided proof of concept, he said. Now, the challenge will be to scale it up.

“We can let people be rooted in their communities and still have access to economic opportunity,” he said.

Not every person can, or should, become a coder, or even hold a technology job, he said. “But I think technology and Silicon Valley represent something different,” he said. “They represent a sense of future. They represent a sense that people are going to have access to prosperity in the future, and that’s what so many people in the country are missing. … No matter how good the economic numbers, the job creation, et cetera, are, it doesn’t speak to people’s lived experience, which is that the American dream is slipping away.

“We have to speak to that fundamental economic anxiety.”

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.