WILSON – Where will the next Red Hat come from? Could it possibly come from a smaller city or a rural area? Yes, said panelists participating in a “Future of Work” panel discussion at the Gig East event on Tuesday morning. But it won’t be easy.

Tom Ruhe, CEO of the economic development foundation NC IDEA Foundation in Durham, asked the crowd: “Where are the Red Hats of tomorrow going to come from?”

He reference the digital divide that continues to exist despite efforts of smaller cities such as Wilson that have embraced technology and entrepreneurship as means for creating the future of jobs.

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Downtown Wilson

“If we don’t figure this out, this divide is only going to get wider,” Ruhe warned. “It’s going to be like you’re visiting another state or even country and we will only be able to wax poetic on the way things were.”

Despite the divide, he pointed out that opportunities exist regardless of setting because of the power of the mind. Ruhe considers the “entrepreneurial mindset a basic human right, giving humans opportunities where they may not always have had one.”

Innovation outside big cities

Sarah Updike, an information technology business consultant at BB&T, noted that big cities aren’t the only place entrepreneurship and innovation can take root. And she said areas outside of majors do have advantages.

“Most people are looking for meaningful connection and authenticity,” she explained. “We tend to think you have to go to Raleigh to find innovation,  but there’s a lot of authenticity missing in larger cities. Smaller cities and rural areas are built on authenticity. [There is] an opportunity for families to find work/life balance and human connection [that] fulfills a personal need that people need to be successful in their lives.”

Krystal Cox, principal of the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology, said schools should seek to “anchor” students to their communities to help these areas innovate and grow.

Her school is “exposing students to career opportunities in Wilson – the opportunities here are the ones we need to foster and we need to be intentional with planning.

“They think about doctor, lawyer, professional sports, but they don’t always think of the IT person or technical person laying the groundwork for everything around us.”

The importance of connectivity

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Panel discusses the future of work at Gig East: from left, Dr. Gary Daynes, Barton College, moderator; Krystal Cox, Principal of Wilson Academy of Applied Technology; Tom Ruhe, NC IDEA; Sarah Updike, BB&T; and Scott Turnbull, US Ignite.

Connectivity is important, she added.

“Students are tied to technology and this can inhibit them from making connections with others,” she said.

“How do we encourage them to work with others. .. Figuring out how students can experience collaborating, like experience-based learning” is important, Cox added.

Updike explained how BB&T fosters entrepreneurship and life outside the job.

“At the end of the day we’re all just people, and we want to feel connected and heard and that we’re doing something that has a purpose – that matters,” she explained.

“Sometimes it’s giving your employees time to work on something outside their normal responsibilities. … You can be an entrepreneur in your job.
You as leaders have an opportunity to help people connect with what they’re passionate about, and when you do this, you transform these people and transform your communities and this makes a huge difference.”

Her employers “talk about a growth mindset – the ability to see beyond what the current state is and believe that it can be different, believe that it can change. Part of this is resilience- in the face of change being able to navigate change.”

But Scott Turnbull of US Ignite, a group focused on expansion of broadband, had a warning.

“We are not raising the next generation of IT skills,” he said.

He also said executives need to “challenge leaders to develop technical skills of their own but also to see IT professionals for other contributions.”

What’s exciting about the future?

Each panelist was also asked to talk about one trend or fact or issue that excites them about the future.

Cox said she is “excited that in the community; we are thinking proactively. Schools like WAAT are setting us on the right path to grow.”

Ruhe stressed the power of the mind.

“Our greatest natural resource – anything better than we can dig up from the ground or extract from the sun is the entrepreneurial mindset of human beings,” he explained.

“Once we figure that out, we will unleash something powerful. We will find our sense of agency as a state. ”

Updike savored being part of such a discussion in Wilson.

“Sitting on a panel in Wilson, North Carolina talking to IT professionals about authenticity and this is so exciting that these conversations are happening [here].”

Turnbull says he wants to see the “removing roadblocks so people can reach their full potential. People who are truly firing on all cylinders – you can’t stop them.”