By Cait Etherington May 16, 2018
Is Utah the next Silicon Valley? While it may never rival the U.S.’s foremost tech community, Utah continues to gain ground as a major tech hub, especially in and around the Salt Lake City area. What is especially striking, however, is that some types of tech companies appear to be gaining a greater hold than others in Utah. In this respect, edtech in Utah stands out. But why edtech? Is there something about Utah and its talent field that makes it an especially strong fit for edtech? More importantly, what might this mean for industry at large?
First, bear in mind that Utah is a largely rural and unpopulous state. It counts just over 3 million residents, about 200,000 of whom live in Salt Lake City. By comparison, Brooklyn, a single borough of New York City, is home to 2.6 million residents. Given the relatively small size of Utah, the number of edtech companies based in the state is particularly striking.
Back in 2004, PluralSight was founded in Farmington, Utah. While PluralSight no longer necessarily sees itself as an edtech company (a representative from the company recently told eLearning Inside News that although it has historically been written about as an edtech company, “we are no longer play in this space and are not considered an edtech company”), for many years it was considered a leader in the field. Following PluralSight, other edtech companies also appeared. In 2008, Instructure was founded in Salt Lake City. In 2009, the eLearning Brothers and Mastery Connect both joined the expanding edtech scene in Utah. And in 2012, Degreed, which has headquarters in Salt Lake and San Francisco, was founded. Other companies, including Practice, which was acquired by Instructure last fall, have gained a hold in the state via acquisition and still others have emerged from local incubators, such as the Salt Lake City-based BoomStartUp.
A 2015 study by the Brookings Institute found that Utah was not only attracting tech companies to the state but also generating them through a combination of talent development and incentives. First, Utah has great local universities that graduate a high number of both STEM and business students. The state has also developed a number of policies to attract and retain businesses, including tax breaks. This, however, still doesn’t explain the specific edtech focus. Could there be something else driving the edtech boom in Utah?
Not surprisingly, many of the eLearning companies based in Utah are run by people active in the Church of Latter Day Saints. While some list their LDS connections in their bios, in most cases, founders’ LDS affiliations are most visible via their link to Brigham Young University (BYU). Notably, BYU is not only a Mormon university in theory but also a university known to strictly uphold Mormon traditions in practice.
Andrew Scivally, co-founder of the eLearning Brothers, lists his LDS missionary work on his LinkedIn Page. Both Brian Whitmer and Devlin Daley, the co-founders of Instructure, are Bringham Young University (BYU) graduates, which presumably also directly links them to the LDS. Aaron Skonnard, one of the co-founders of PluralSight, is another BYU graduate. Before founding Degreed, David Young also completed a degree in economics at BYU, and his co-founder, Eric Sharp, picked up an MBA at the highly ranked Mormon university. But does any of this matter?
To consider this question, it is worth considering what it means to attend BYU. First, among the university’s many rules and regulations, there are no short-shorts, tattoos, or piercings permitted, and of course, don’t even think about busting out your gay pride on campus (according to the BYU honor code, “Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code” and to be clear, “homosexual behavior” includes not only same-sex sexual relations” but “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings”). If you take the BYU campus and transfer it to an average Salt Lake City startup, then, what you get is probably something that looks a lot different than the average Silicon Valley, Austen or New York City startup. In short, in Salt Lake City, you’re more likely to find tech companies that extend the squeaky-clean nature of the BYU campus than ones that replicate the edgy office-culture-meets-skateboard-park culture of San Francisco, Austin, or New York City.
While this may not have an impact on the technologies and platforms these companies develop, it is a point worth highlighting, especially as discussions of bias in algorithms continue to surface and more researchers are asking whether the people behind technologies may have more influence than once thought.