Utah, the land of stunning landscapes and world-famous ski resorts, has transformed itself into a buzzing hub for tech companies that has caught the attention of investors and entrepreneurs, earning the region the name “Silicon Slopes.” Yet, beneath the gleaming facade of success, Utah confronts the intricate task of harmonizing its strengths with the challenge of fostering inclusivity.
“I think Utah has some real challenges, it’s a place that I love, but also is a place that still has the highest LGBT teen suicide rates in the country, has an incredible challenge around some still very misogynistic practices, and can be in a very exclusionary place,” Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Deer Valley, Utah on Monday.
There are 123,000 people who work in tech in Utah, 7.2% of the workforce, which means Utah has the ninth most tech centered workforce in the United States, Fortune’s Phil Wahba said on stage. Among some of the state’s tech success stories are companies like Qualtrics, Domo, BambooHR, Plurasight, and Ancestry.
BambooHR cofounder Ben Peterson, Ancestry CEO Deborah Liu, and Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard spoke alongside Prince in a frank discussion about Utah’s tech scene on Monday. With the advent of remote work and hybrid work, the state is hoping to attract more talent from places like Silicon Valley, both to boost existing tech companies and to spawn more startups.
However, Prince argued that Utah’s deep ties to the insular nature of Mormon culture poses a challenge to its ambitions to become the next Silicon Valley. To secure long-term growth and competitiveness, it’s imperative to embrace a wider spectrum of perspectives, backgrounds, and skill sets.
“For this to be a true tech hub, we absolutely need to put in place the infrastructure that supports a more diverse community and we do not have that,” Prince said. “With a more diverse tech leadership in Utah, I think we have an opportunity to help Utah evolve and advance in some of these areas.”
BambooHR’s Peterson said that there’s been a lot of change in recent years, with the state become less insular.
In 2020, 60.68% of Utahns reported being members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Prince said the religion’s missionary program, in which young adults are dispatched to different countries to proselytize and perform community service, produces great salespeople for tech companies. The missionaries are selling the “harding thing in the world to sell,” he said.
“You have enormously good salespeople that come out of the Utah culture, and I think that’s incredible. We hire a ton of those people to come be salespeople,” Prince said.
Utah’s tech industry has a rich heritage with the technology market dating back to the 1970s, with trailblazing giants like WordPerfect, Novell, and Evans & Sutherland lighting the way, and again in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Ancestry.com, Vivint, and Omniture made their debut in the picturesque state. University of Utah’s tech program also led to the creation of Adobe, Pixar, and many other tech companies, Prince pointed out. What’s more, Adobe’s acquisition of Omniture in 2009 spurred Adobe to establish a lasting presence in Utah.
That ecosystem of tech companies and tech talent is turning Utah into a tech hub, as employees move between companies or launch their own startups, said Ancestry CEO Liu. She compared it to Seattle, where Amazon and Microsoft have fostered a broader tech scene. “We see that here,” Liu said.