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Capitalizing on Our Strengths

Why is it that when we West Virginians dream big, we talk internet companies and the firms that make software and equipment for them and related industries? And when we do that, why do we look outside the state for inspiration?

Two pieces of news from the past week come to mind:

First, there was the story about state House of Delegates members Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio; and Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, forming a “Tech Caucus.” They hope both lawmakers and members of the public will participate.

Second was an announcement by the Orrick international law firm, which opened its global operations center in Wheeling a few years ago. Henceforth, the company revealed, the facility will be known as the Global Operations and Innovation Center (my italics). Orrick explained the change recognizes “the Wheeling team’s role within the firm’s efforts to innovate and transform the client service model.”

In other words, what you might view as a high-tech bunch of lawyers will be served right here in the Mountain State.

To their credit, the two legislators want to “diversify our economy and create opportunities for start-ups and innovators in the technological sector,” as Fluharty explained it. Again, my italics.

So there’s the key: While we’ve been bemoaning our inability to interest Amazon and Microsoft in West Virginia, people like those at Orrick have been innovating in other lines of work. They’re not alone. As I’ve noted previously, Touchstone Research Lab in Triadelphia is an innovator. One of its specialties is CFOAM, a material with exciting possibilities that is made from coal.

There are other innovators right in our backyards. Take Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia, in Putnam County. Yes, that Toyota. The Mountain State plant produces engines and transmissions. Toyota has found we hillbillies are excellent workers in high-tech jobs.

How is that innovative? Ask some CEOs what they think of the West Virginia workforce. Toyota is being rewarded because the Japanese company’s executives were innovative enough to see past the stereotypes.

Something else Fluharty said was a bit of a letdown. “We’ve allowed others to pass us up and have not prioritized innovation and technology in this state,” he commented.

But some people have been prioritizing innovation — making law firms more efficient, inventing new products from coal, opening plants at locations some of their competitors may have scoffed at — for years. You can’t tell me there aren’t examples of such innovation all over West Virginia.

Is it possible that if we want to grow our economy we ought to be talking to them instead of to the out-of-state folks who dismiss us because — wait for it — we don’t have the broadband access to suit them? Before you throw the paper down in disgust, understand I do realize the importance of broadband.

But I also recognize the stupidity of worrying more about what the Silicon Valley crowd finds wrong with our state than about what in-state innovators can teach us — and help us accomplish.

Perhaps instead of bemoaning what we don’t have, we ought to capitalize on what we do have.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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