The Big Boys come to join some big boys and girls of our own

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

The news in Jefferson for several months – a start-up may be coming to town.

At least it’s something starting that hasn’t been here before.

It is a place – a more than century-old building just off the Square – in which to learn how to invent one’s own start-up. Once rehabbed, at about $1.7 million, the old Odd Fellows Hall will open its doors to teach students intensive software craftsmanship – after their having learned solid computer skills in high school programs within the new career academy. Some of these software grads will be hired by Pillar Technologies (now owned by Accenture) at upwards of $60,000 a year.

Pillar is working with a very large cast: Greene County High School, Iowa Central Community College and Des Moines Area Community College, as well as some very big guns that don’t usually hang out in little farm towns: co-founder Allen Blue of LinkedIn (a professional networking site online); CEO Brad Garlinghouse of Ripple (a cryptocurrency company; venture capitalist and starter-upper of NETSCAPE Greg Sands; and Microsoft’s chief technology officer Kevin Scott. [There are several more listed in the lead article posted to GreeneCountyNewsOnline Monday]

Our area institutions of learning are running with the top of the heap in technology. I suggest you look them all up online because they are interesting, bolder than most, purely entrepreneurial; and although they intend to make money, they speak the words of altruism – wanting to work with us to help educate students and thus advance them as well as the community. The agreement with Pillar is meant to change the future of rural Iowa communities by adding to the backbone of farming and small manufacturing, and by allowing small town kids to pursue their dreams in a small town, not a huge city. This is impressive.

An investigation into these folks’ paths to fame and fortune might ensure your trust. Titles, words and phrases – venture capitalist, chief executive officer, cryptocurrency, technology officer – that intimidate many of us are likely to turn us away to just say no; it is often easier and feels safer to be skeptical or cynical. My thinking is that if they – these dozens of people and their companies looking at Jefferson and seeing what they like – are interested in educating our kids, we need to educate ourselves to know who they are, why and how it’s going to be done; and welcome the possibilities.

There are informational news articles in this newspaper, GreeneCountyNewsOnline March 7, 2018 and Dec. 10, 2018; the Des Moines Register; the Ruralist; Jefferson Herald; on radio KG98 in Jefferson. All of these explain different vantage points of what’s happening and who – both locally and nationally – is making it happen.

What I want to say is, “Good deal, Jefferson!”

Part of the good deal is Chris Deal, scion of the local apple family who happened to be part of a design team for Pillar’s Forge (the company’s rather descriptive name for its workplaces) in Des Moines when he met the CEO Linc Kroeger, who was looking for a rural setting to expand one more Forge – and here we are. Because of Chris and his suggestion that Kroeger look at his hometown that has been working very hard to keep itself viable, we in the Raccoon Valley are hosting the Big Boys of Silicon Valley.

There are four other Forges in the country, in towns quite a bit different from ours: Columbus, OH, home of the University of Ohio; Ann Arbor, MI, home of the University of Michigan; Palo Alto, CA, home of Stanford University; Des Moines, home of Drake, Grand View, Des Moines universities; and Mercy. That Pillar wants to come to Jefferson with its newest Forge is a new wrinkle for them, in their desire to go rural, and a big deal for us.

The passing of the school bond was instrumental in their decision.

The Forgers want something going in, and they found it in Jefferson: besides the commitment to education, they saw an atmosphere of getting things done, thinking beyond mundane fixes, a widespread consensus of agreement among disparate entities and a recurring hopefulness. The company believes in its experiment to involve the great midsection of the U.S. in the technological revolution; and they know that these attributes of a community are what make an endeavor like a rural Forge prosper.

The people in Greene County who have worked from these principles are the ones who made Jefferson a Main Street town. The result of that has been the gradual rehabilitation of our downtown that continues each year with more buildings brought back to life. It is the hard work over several years to get a casino nearby and a new high school for the county. These accomplishments influenced Pillar to invest in us.

Whatever we all think of these changes, Jefferson has gone through a positive transformation from the almost dead downtown I returned to in 2001. It has turned itself into a more broadly functional, vital, interesting, dare I say fun place to live. From the Garden Club to the Boosters, from the teachers, administrators and students to the bankers and shopkeepers, from the artists and poets, writers, bloggers and reporters to the manufacturing companies, from the farmers supplying the farmers market to those who grow the corn and soybeans for the wider world, Jefferson shows to anyone looking that Jeffersonians know how much Jefferson matters.

And how much the idea of a Jefferson anywhere matters – it is the idea of a community working together for a livable existence that includes decent housing, jobs, education, safety and the necessary trappings of modern life. It is about what we do now to ensure a future that works. The editor of this paper said, “It is huge for all of Iowa because of the example of doing what’s best for students rather than preserving their turf. It’s about doing something for the kids in high school and college now.”

I think that’s a good way to end this column. And, now that I’m talking about her, a local example of entrepreneurial start-up all by herself, I can say that there are many like her here; no wonder Pillar is coming to town.

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