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Utah Business

We will never attract out-of-state job talent in Utah unless we get rid of the old outdated laws around liquor, among other things.

How can we attract out-of-state talent if they can’t even buy wine here?

When Sunny Washington was recruiting to fill a vacant position at one of Utah’s top tech companies, she felt confident that she had found the perfect candidate for the job. But when the co-founder of Because Learning and CEO of Utah Tech Leads called to offer the role to the potential out-of-state recruit, he declined. 

“He told me that, as a gay man, he didn’t think he could work for a company in Utah,” Washington says. “I told him about all of the great things we’re doing here. I’m on the board of Equality Utah [an LGBTQ civil rights and advocacy organization] and mentioned the anti-discrimination act that’s in place, and he had no idea.” 

Unfortunately, the candidate’s decision had been made and he stood firm with his choice.   

“As much as I know about Utah—especially as a red state—we’re quite progressive when it comes to LGBTQ protections, but it’s not necessarily known all of the time,” she says. “If we want to continue being a pro-business state, then we need to look at how certain things are harming our businesses.”

Washington’s experience in attracting job candidates from outside of Utah isn’t unique and remains a common impasse faced by leaders in the state’s burgeoning tech industry. And with Utah being one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, both in terms of economic and population growth, the stakes are even higher. According to Silicon Slopes Commons, a local organization that serves as the voice for the tech sector’s 6,500 companies in Utah, one out of every seven employees in the state works in tech. 

Those stakes became abundantly clear during a breakfast and round table discussion held in October during the annual Silicon Slopes Summit. During the discussion between tech leaders and members of the legislature, the conversation turned to the ways in which certain state laws and regulations are potentially impeding Utah’s growth and causing out-of-state job candidates to think twice before accepting a job offer here. Topics that came up during the talk included the state’s antiquated liquor laws, porn regulations, and an (unpassed) bill targeting members of the local transgender community.

Those in attendance at the breakfast included Josh James, CEO of Domo; Blake McCleary, former general manager of Divvy (now director of product at Paytm); and Morgan Davis, CEO of MarketDial; along with Washington. On the legislative side, Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley; Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville; Sen. Jacob L. Anderegg, R-Lehi; and Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton were in attendance. 

Fox News 13 captured snippets of the conversation, with comments ranging from MarketDial’s Davis, who reprimanded the politicians for their attempted passage of a transgender bill, saying “When you do the transgender bill? [It] makes my job really flippin’ hard to do,” to Domo’s James, who cited Utah’s strict liquor laws as his point of contention, saying, “It makes [people] crazy that they can’t order a bottle of wine online.”

During the discussion, Silicon Slopes Commons presented a survey it conducted that polled employees and executives in the Utah tech industry that gave a barometer of their thoughts on various issues. Some of the topics that caused the most concern included air pollution, jobs, cost of living, diversity, and the legislature. 

In terms of the legislature, 43.1 percent of Utah tech industry executives say they’re happy with the makeup of the legislature, while 41.6 percent admitted that they’re not and 15.1 percent say maybe. It wasn’t just employees who moved to Utah from out-of-state who raised these concerns. Of native Utahns polled, 45 percent agreed that they’re dissatisfied with the legislature’s current makeup and 51.8 percent said they don’t feel empowered to make change. 

“My biggest takeaway [from the discussion] was a better understanding of the differences in the ways that the legislature and the tech community work,” Washington says. “It was like watching leaders from two different countries speaking two different languages and trying to communicate. The legislature doesn’t understand how quickly the tech community moves and how fast we tackle things. The breakfast was helpful to highlight that disconnect, and I saw a willingness from both sides to work together.”

One logical step in that direction that Washington notes would be for more members of the tech community to run for office or sit on committees, so that way they would have a spot at the table at the state capitol, where political decisions are being made.

“That’s one way to have representation there,” she says. “I also think creating more opportunities like this one for the two groups to come together and not to browbeat or be hostile by pointing fingers at each other. I think that we’re too quick—on both sides—to point out our dissatisfaction with each other on Twitter or other social media, and we need to have way more productive conversations. There are smart people on both sides.”

Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, agrees and says that she looks forward to working more closely with members of the local tech community. Recently, Day One, a private journaling app created by her son, Paul Mayne, was acquired by Automatic, part of WordPress. The acquisition and seeing his dedication to building the app helped reinvigorate her drive to continue building relationships with members of the local tech community. 

“I’ve been following the tech industry for years, and the recent acquisition of Day One makes me even more sensitive to the industry,” Sen. Mayne says. “I’m glad that [these tech leaders] were upfront about hiring and their desire to attract talent from around the world. Utah needs to be a welcoming community for people to come here. It’s a wonderful place to be, and there’s so much economic development happening. I realize that Utahns can’t fill all of the jobs and that out-of-state recruitment is necessary. As part of the legislature, we need to be mindful of that and pass legislation that is welcoming. I’m very excited that the tech community is open to expressing its needs with us.”

Mayne also cites how growth in the tech sector has a positive impact on the economy and state as a whole. 

“I think Utah will continue to grow by leaps and bounds, and these companies need the trades, such as electricians and carpenters, to help them build their facilities,” she says. “This growth generates prosperity in different industries. It’s true that it takes a village. It’s a prosperous time for everyone, and it’s important that we work together.”

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Salt Lake City-based journalist. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian Magazine, Fast Company, and more.

Comments (1)

  • Paul Jones

    According to Wine Spectator, 6 states, (Utah, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Delaware, and Rhode Island) prohibit direct shipping of wine within their sovereign borders. Another 3 states restrict direct shipping of wine. In other words, nine states, restrict or prohibit direct shipping of wine. So, more than 4/5ths of the states allow you to order a bottle of wine from your phone.

    According to the Gardner Institute’s economic dashboard, which I checked just this morning, Utah has the #1 most favorable annual employment growth, 5th largest labor participation rate, 2nd lowest unemployment rate, the 2nd lowest poverty rate, and the fifth highest median household income. In short, notwitstanding the fact that you can’t order a bottle of wine to be shipped to you in Utah, Utah nonethess has a top-5 economy. (Note, I’m not implying causation).

    But progressives and some of the leaders of SIlicon Slopes are suggesting causation will come into play when they say that unless we do unnamed things we could “potentially imped(e) Utah’s growth.”

    But since all that positive economic news practically radiating off the State’s economic dashboard happened without the ability of Utahns to order wine from their phone, or having a legislature that even Utah’s Democrats could love, by that logic isn’t it at least as likely that Utah’s economy would overheat if we did adopt those unnamed measures that Silicon Slopes is clammoring for?


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