Northwest Arkansas should work to be a major tech hub

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 270 views 

It’s not enough that Northwest Arkansas be considered a bedrock of retail expertise, some say it now must become a technology hub in its own right as retail and every industry sectors move in sync with digital demand.

“The fly wheel is rolling here and we can become a major technology hub. … We are not going to become Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas, but we do have some unfair competitive advantages in Northwest Arkansas,” said Jeff Amerine, director of Arkansas Technology Ventures.

Amerine was the morning keynote speaker at the NWA Technology Summit on Monday (Aug. 11) held at John Q. Hammons Convention Center in Rogers. The Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce event packed in 400 tech professionals for a half-day of conversation and collaboration about growing the regional tech sector

“I wouldn’t normally think of Arkansas as a tech haven but we’re in the midst of creating a Northwest Arkansas venture ecosystem with some amazing things happening in the tech and startup scene,” Amerine said.

He admits that to much of the outside world sees Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas as a place where “gap-toothed, gun-toting rednecks drive huge pickup trucks.” He adds that Sam Walton and J.B. Hunt faced similar perceptions about the region when they sowed their entrepreneurial seeds years ago. 

“That perception is a constant we have to overcome and show the world what we have to offer,” Amerine said. “Growing this tech sector with a supportive venture ecosystem matter because that’s where future economic growth will come from.”

He said the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank for entrepreneurial interests, indicates that 85% of all net new job growth comes from startup businesses.

“If you look at the areas that have this bubbling activity, this churn of disruptive activity, we see talent migrating to areas where there is good quality of life and where innovation occurs. That feeling of innovation and the support that comes from a local ecosystem is very, very important,” Amerine said.

He explained that the formula is not magical, it begins with STEM education – focusing on science, technologies, engineering and math. 

“The creatives and technologists have to be nurtured, it has to start early on. That’s the call to action,” Amerine said. “Tech talent is crucial to keeping the movement going and that’s one of the key problems we face. But that’s not unique to us. That’s every flyover state in the country as talent tends to concentrate on the coasts. We have got to grow our own.”

He added that entrepreneurial outreach and networking opportunities are also key as are more angel investors networks that can provide needed capital at all stages for local startups.

“We need a large scale locally based venture fund that is focused on tech,” Amerine said. “We’re making progress, but there is more work to do.

Angelo Welihindha, head of mass market retail sales at Google, said during Monday’s panel discussion that retail is not just retail anymore because technology is a natural follow-up given the collision between physical and digital commerce.

He said Northwest Arkansas can be an important tech center because of the retail expertise centered here. Welhindha spent more than two years with Nestle after graduating from the University of Arkansas. He worked six years at Wal-Mart before moving to Google earlier this year. 

Stan Zylowski, president of Movista, said Northwest Arkansas is a logical place for tech energy given that there are so many Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies with top retail professionals based here. He said as retailers and suppliers move toward seamless digital and physical interaction they all require top technology talent.

Carol Spieckerman, CEO of NewMarketBuilders said, the lines are blurring like never before between suppliers and retailers who are finding ways to share content. She said technology is the link that will allow seamless transitions between physical and digital shopping and customer experiences. Spieckerman said Wal-Mart has been a leader in the retail space integrating technology and thinking more like a start-up. 

“Macy’s is playing a quick game of catch-up and Target is woefully behind, but perhaps that will change under the new leadership of Brian Cornell and some other outside tech hires,” she added.

As a new guy at Google, Welihindha said he sees firsthand how important it is for large companies to think like startups and to foster a climate of networking among its staff, which is something Google does every day.

Welihindha said corporate giants need to foster and support the creative disruptions from technology talent knowing there will be some failures along the way. When Welhindla was a University of Arkansas student in 2004, his entrepreneurial team developed a concept for e-receipts. They were able to pitch the concept to Wal-Mart.

“They told us that e-wallet was the answer and they dismissed our idea. They shooed us out the door pretty quickly and we never heard from them again. We were so disappointed and we thought that if the world’s largest retailer didn’t see the value, we should give up. We had been in revenue sharing talks with IBM but we gave that up and took corporate jobs,” Welihindha said. “Last year when Neil Ashe, CEO of Walmart e-commerce, stood up and said Wal-Mart would be offering e-receipts, I was so angry but at that point I was already headed to California (Google). Keep your minds open and you will understand how emerging technologies can make your company better.” 

Michael Stich, chief innovation officer at Rockfish, said since 2006 the company has grown to more than 250 people across 10 locations and trying to keep that startup mentality and agility has been a challenge. He said one of the core missions at Rockfish is to foster an environment that welcomes entrepreneurs to try new ventures, with the support of Rockfish. He said the company demands a lot from its people, but also supports their dreams for entrepreneurial ventures.

Karenann Terrell, chief information officer for Wal-Mart Stores, said she was proud to be an engineer in a family of teachers, but her parents never really understand what her job is. Terrell said Wal-Mart is a retailer and that will never change, but it’s also tech invested and that’s the future for giving customers what they demand.

She said Northwest Arkansas has got to do a better job fostering STEM education.

“We have the opportunity here to make the University of Arkansas great. Wal-Mart and other companies have to be able to co-exist with entrepreneurial ventures and companies have to elevate the role of technology within their corporations investing in talent,” Terrell said.

She said the UA, like many colleges, must put more emphasis on computer science graduates. Just one in 17 technologists nationwide graduated with a degree in computer science. In a room of roughly 400 technology professionals there were less than five computer science graduates from the UA. There were 50 or so who claimed to be graduates of the UA business school. 

“As we see the business school’s entrepreneurial program feed the talent pool, there is much more to be done in computer science education,” Terrell said. “If we don’t, we will miss an opportunity.”