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Trigiani: Innovators are helping Southwest Virginia forge a new businss identity

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Amazon Vice President of People Operations Ardine Williams, right, listens to local business woman Wendy Marquez of Wize Solutions following a meeting Monday afternoon in St. Paul.

Art historians know the canvases of the Italian Renaissance represent more than technical achievement. The accomplishments of the long-ago Renaissance artists were shaped by the context of the time in which they lived and a pursuit of relevance that did not compromise their individuality.

They produced works of art and buildings and processes that we respect and we use to this day. There were powerful patrons who paid them to do it. Still, these artists pushed the envelope. And their achievements remain relevant.

They were innovators.

Their accomplishments — and those of innovators in every field of that time — remind us that invention is possible in every type of situation.

Centuries later, central Appalachia possesses all the potential to deliver another renaissance. A rebirth. An embrace of the powerful coalfield heritage and all it means — courage, smarts, work ethic — that delivers new results and commands respect, in any forum.

To get there, we must do more than grab our portion of the significant infrastructure spend underway in America. Let Appalachia — in particular, Virginia’s Great Southwest — answer the siren call to invest in infrastructure by setting a new tone: an obsession with solutions. Let us show that the infrastructure spend is a call to act, not to meander. Infrastructure management should mean running projects that come to an end and make way for new ones — not establishing institutions that live on in perpetuity.

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In well-run businesses, problems become products and services that make money. In well-run government initiatives, you see a return-on-investment of taxpayer dollars.

Virginia’s southwestern region currently offers three examples of the essential factors of contemporary renaissance: private investment and a streamlined approach to deploying the taxpayer investment addressing under-employment; achieving public-private collaboration toward increasing tax revenue; and broadening the industrial base.

All of these are proceeding without adding to bureaucratic bloat or demanding a long wait for ROI.

Wize Solutions of Abingdon was founded in 2017 by impact investors Dario and Wendy Marquez, to create technology jobs in Southwest Virginia so that people would not be forced to leave their communities in search of employment. Wize provides information technology solutions — robotic process automation, systems engineering, software development, data analytics — onshore to metro-based clients at below-metro costs. Twenty-five employees who otherwise would have had to leave the region have their dream jobs in their dream location, and the company already has doubled in size, three years in a row. Mark Eschle, vice president of operations, defines the ROI at this stage as planting seeds of entrepreneurship and providing an example of how American companies can nurture a rural resurgence profitably.

eHealth Technologies, a market leader in medical imaging services, came to the region by way of an informal conversation at a university board meeting — not a marketing push. After talking with Will Payne of Bristol’s Coalfield Strategies, Mirza Baig of Aldrich Capital, the lead investor behind eHealth, became intrigued with the region enough to revisit his model of building out portfolio companies in metropolitan areas. Baig connected eHealth CEO Jeff Markin with Payne. They went to work on a location. At the same time, Payne brought Mountain Empire Community College into the equation, to tap its strength in health information management and programming. The partnership between eHealth and MECC delivered a new approach to training workers and onboarding them at warp speed. The result: during the pandemic, eHealth reached an unanticipated volume of client activity and committed to hiring 160 people, the employment goal it had set for 2023. What was a bit of a risk for Aldrich Capital, in considering a rural location, has turned into a business strategy of rural deployment.

Project Innovation, designed to keep the region in the energy economy, delivers to legacy companies while expanding the options beyond the extraction role — into renewable, clean and zero-carbon business projects. Another InvestSWVA initiative, Project Innovation is building a national, land-centric energy laboratory to repurpose coal industry assets for use in a transformed energy sector. Commercializing intellectual property in energy requires the integration of academic, governmental and industrial expertise; creating energy companies and jobs requires an investment in research the world has not yet seen. Think Oak Ridge, only bigger. It delivers to the assertion that Southwest Virginia is the natural location for energy sector innovation.

By adding to its reputation for delivering, Virginia’s Southwest plays in a larger world. Again. It is within our reach to command the dialogue over how best to invest in infrastructure — just by doing it, as a constellation of players, looking to make the next renaissance.

Mary Trigiani is an executive, communicator and commentator who resides in Southwest Virginia. Formerly based in Silicon Valley and Chicago, Mary returned to her Appalachian roots in 2016.

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