January 1, 2013

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A Nice Place to Visit . . .

A Tech Entrepreneur Learns to Love Utah

Peri Kinder

January 1, 2013

When Hal Widlansky came to Utah for the first time in 1997, he stepped off his plane, right into the middle of an LDS missionary homecoming reunion, complete with dozens of family members, balloon bouquets and screaming children. “I’d never seen anything like it,” he says. “It’s an event that’s culturally unique to Utah. But every time I came to Utah, it seemed like there was a missionary homecoming at the airport. It was very bizarre. It was like The Twilight Zone.”

Growing up in Detroit and Miami, Widlansky was used to cultures with diverse populations and cities that weren’t mapped out in relation to an LDS temple. What he perceived to be a homogenous society in Utah made him feel like an outsider—and he left as quickly as possible.

But after spending time in Salt Lake during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Widlansky was stunned by the difference in the atmosphere with visitors from all over the world, alcohol laws significantly looser and beer tents set up downtown. “For that brief moment in time, Salt Lake looked cosmopolitan.”

Fast-forward a couple of years and Widlansky was living in Southern California, working for Citysearch. He and his wife decided that the shiny, busy life in California wasn’t the best place to raise his stepson and was a difficult place to raise children overall. He didn’t like the idea of his kids growing up under the harsh lights of the entertainment industry, where nothing is real. They created a five-year plan that included moving to Utah and living in the state until his stepson graduated from high school.

Nine years later, Widlansky and his wife have divorced, his stepson has gone off to school at the University of Oregon, and there’s really nothing keeping him in Utah. So why does Widlansky stay?

To his great surprise, once he got established in the state, working as the CEO for SonoMetric Health, he discovered Salt Lake has a strong and vibrant arts scene and a large Jewish community. Widlansky got involved with the Salt Lake Film Society, serving on the board of directors, and joined a synagogue in Park City.

Fourteen months after his move to Utah, Widlansky sold SonoMetric to a company in Seattle and spent three years commuting to Washington. He had promised his stepson they wouldn’t move during his high school years, and he was determined to honor that commitment. But it wasn’t easy.

“It took forever to get used to living in Utah,” Widlansky says. “The Mormon influence can’t be ignored. It was incredible. Plus, I’d always considered Utah one of those square, fly-over states between Chicago and Los Angeles. But you can live here and thrive, even if you choose not to be a member of the dominant faith, or a member of any faith.”

Since relocating to Utah, Widlansky has worked as the CEO for Mangia Technologies and Matchbin, and serves as an executive committee member with the SLC Angels, an association of angel investors that mentor and finance up-and-coming entrepreneurs. He currently serves as president and COO of Radiate Media and is a member of the Centers of Excellence/Technology Commercialization Advisory Council through the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Advice for Newcomers
His advice to someone new to the state? Get involved with the community as soon as possible. Volunteer on boards or committees, participate with nonprofits and make connections with people who can enrich your life.

Widlansky says he’s had lunch with Utah governors, senators and high-level CEOs, something he never could have done if he’d stayed in California. “Everybody knows everybody here. You can get access to people in all levels of business and government, and it’s very easy to network. You need to work hard to build that first link, but then you can meet anyone.”

Another Utah bonus is the number of startups, entrepreneurs and technology opportunities to get involved with. “It’s one of those places where there are lots of good ideas and lots of smart people.”

Advice for Recruiters
For companies hoping to recruit employees from out-of-state, Widlansky suggests bringing them to Utah between January and April and getting them on the ski slopes. One of his first trips to the state involved skiing at Deer Valley, and he was hooked. Widlansky has since discovered a love for snowboarding. “I live at the mouth of Emigration Canyon,” he says. “The ability to have that kind of recreation so near to my home is incredible. I can leave my house at 8:30 in the morning and be on the mountain in less than an hour.”

Recruiters should also highlight the level of diversity in Salt Lake. With large Catholic and Jewish communities and a growing population of non-Mormon residents, people who relocate to the city can get involved in many different organizations and programs.

Even Utah’s notorious alcohol laws aren’t as stringent as many people think, although Widlansky says it took him a while to decipher where, when and what he could drink at any given time.

“It’s not like you’re going to Mars,” Widlansky says. “Salt Lake is a really big small town and it’s been the smallest city I’ve lived in.

“But I love what I’m doing at Radiate. It’s challenging and rewarding, and I work with great people. My original five-year plan is now in its ninth year. I guess I’ll just wait to see what happens next.” 

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