Telly Tucker, left, shows Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, some of the training equipment at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. At right is Timothy Robertson of the IALR staff. Photo by Grace Mamon.

A “groundswell of growth” at Danville’s Institute for Advanced Learning and Research prompted a nationwide search for the organization’s first president. IALR’s board of directors chose someone with experience in education and economic development, and importantly, ties to the community.

Telly Tucker. Courtesy of IALR.

Telly Tucker, 43, former director of economic development in Danville, returned to the city after two years in Arlington, where he was also economic development director. He began his work as president in May. 

The institute also recently named an executive vice president.

IALR, a self-described catalyst for regional economic transformation, has five divisions – applied research, manufacturing advancement, advanced learning, economic development and conference services.

Programs across these divisions are garnering “tremendous interest,” Tucker said, mentioning controlled environment agriculture, a growing partnership with the Department of Defense, and the GO TEC talent development program, which originated in Danville but is expanding to other Virginia communities. 

“Our board leadership wanted to make sure the Institute had the human infrastructure to support this growth,” Tucker said. 

IALR has been growing since it was formed over 20 years ago, said Charles Majors, chairman of the American National Bank and Trust Company, who serves on the executive committee and the board for the Institute. 

“However, over the past few years, there has been more growth, both in terms of the types of the roles that it is playing and the opportunities that we’ve had,” Majors said.

After eight months of strategic planning, the board and staff of IALR decided that this growth warranted someone “who could provide strategic leadership, both for what we are already doing and what we see as opportunities going forward,” Majors said.

Before the president position was established, IALR was run by a board of community, regional and state leaders. And this growth was hard for the board to handle alone. 

“I like to say we’ve been victims of our own success,” Majors said. 

Five finalists were selected for the president position after a national search. The board was looking for someone with a background in business, who also understood government agencies and knew how to work with other entities, Majors said. 

Introducing a president position will help the Institute move more cohesively internally, and work more collaboratively externally, Tucker said. 

“We are a convener, in many ways, of disparate groups that might not ordinarily work together, but we bring them together in support of the regional goal of transformation,” he said. “I have responsibility for continuing to develop and strengthen those relationships.”

IALR serves six counties and two cities: Patrick County, Franklin County, Henry County, Pittsylvania County, Halifax County, Mecklenburg County, and the cities of Danville and Martinsville. 

With so much regional and local collaboration, it helps that Tucker has a history in the area.

He was born and raised in Lynchburg as the child of two educators, and eventually taught school himself after graduating from James Madison University. While teaching, he volunteered at a camp where kids learned about entrepreneurship, which piqued his interest in economic development.

“I wasn’t well-versed on what economic developers actually do,” Tucker said. But six months later, he applied for an economic development job in Lynchburg, where he worked for three years. 

Since then he’s worked in many Virginia localities, including Hampton Roads, James City County and at the state level in Richmond.

“Even when I was working for the state, we did a lot of work in Southwest Virginia, so I feel like I’ve worked in every region,” he said. “I’ve covered my bases. And it’s fascinating because Virginia is a really diverse and unique state in terms of its assets and challenges.”

He said he’s excited to use his wealth of experience from working in other areas of the state to lead IALR. 

Tucker’s diverse work experience stood out to the board, Majors said. 

“He has worked for state government, local government, regional government, and he’s also done economic development work,” Majors said. “He had also spent several years here in our region and worked with [IALR] during his role as economic developer for the city. So a lot of the projects we’re working on now, he was familiar with.”

While Tucker’s economic development background was a plus, Majors said IALR is not trying to be a leader in this field. 

“The city has an economic development team, and the county has one,” he said. “We also have a regional economic developer, who actually works with the Institute. So we’re not looking to do that. Our mission is economic transformation for the region, which is much broader.”

And being from the region made Tucker more inclined to accept the position. The Lynchburg native said he considers the entire area “home” and was happy to return to Danville, where he worked from 2014 to 2020. 

“One of the things that was truly motivating for me was to come back to an area that I was really passionate about and had poured a lot of my time, energy and effort into,” Tucker said. “Through the relationships I’ve already built, I see the passion that the people in this community have for positive change.”

Everyone points out how different Danville and Arlington are, Tucker said. But there’s actually some overlap in economic development initiatives. 

“The strategies that you deploy are similar,” he said. “The targets might be different in terms of the goals that you want to accomplish for your community. But the best practices in economic development kind of hold true, wherever you are.”

Working in Arlington was a challenge, he said. The region, much larger and more metropolitan than Danville, is less focused on manufacturing and more focused on tech and corporate headquarters. 

Tucker arrived in Northern Virginia on the heels of Amazon’s HQ2, an expansion of the company’s Seattle headquarters, located in Arlington. 

In the midst of the pandemic, he helped build that project alongside others – recruiting Boeing’s global headquarters to Arlington and increasing Microsoft’s presence.

These experiences equipped Tucker with new knowledge and skills that he can bring back to Danville, he said. 

During his time in Arlington, he learned how to develop relationships with Northern Virginia universities, which is useful as IALR works with schools such as Virginia Tech, Averett University and Danville Community College, and gets funding from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. 

Tucker said he also learned how to manage a larger team. In Arlington, he worked with over 50 full-time employees, which is comparable to the size of his new team at IALR. 

This was something else that the board liked about Tucker, Majors said – he knew how to lead a group of people and spearhead initiatives. 

And when Tucker got the offer to return to Danville, it was “too great to resist,” he said. 

“I grew up in this region and didn’t have enough opportunity to continue to give back and have an impact,” Tucker said. 

His goals for his new role as president include strengthening regional collaboration and helping the community understand what IALR does. 

“I want every young person in this community, and even some that are not so young, to understand what happens at the Institute and what opportunities are available for them as a resident in this region, or even just as a visitor to this region,” Tucker said. 

This can be achieved through community engagement and by bringing community members to the Institute for events and tours. IALR gets requests for tours at least once a week, Tucker said. 

“Many of them are from outside the area,” he said. “They have heard about what’s happening in Southern Virginia, and the role that the Institute is playing, and they want to come and learn more.”

Visitors have come from as far away as Arkansas, he said. And many neighboring locales in Virginia have also come to tour and learn about collaborative opportunities. 

The most exciting part of his new position is the opportunity to contribute to real change in the community, Tucker said. 

“There’s something rewarding about knowing that the work you do is changing the lives of the people around you and the community,” he said. “But I’m not doing it alone. I stand on the shoulders of many giants who’ve come before me in the institute’s 20-year history.”

Majors said Tucker has “hit the ground running” during his first few months as president. 

“He probably feels like he’s been drinking from a firehose,” Majors said. “I’m really pleased with how he has performed during his first months, and I’m really excited about the opportunities we’ll have from his leadership.”

Grace Mamon

Grace Mamon is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at grace@cardinalnews.org.