Small-town Native Recreates West Virginia
by Scott Kinard
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If you find your audience and speak directly to it, you can establish trust and begin to tell your story. Tell the story effectively, deliver on your promises and people become engaged. Loyalty builds. The story becomes the reality.
Jeff James is a storyteller, a myth-maker. In both his role as the chair of the volunteer action group, Create West Virginia, and as a marketing entrepreneur, James focuses on building compelling narratives about places, people and businesses. His favorite story to tell is about how West Virginia can carve out its own niche in the new economy – how the state can shape a new reality for itself.
Leaving and coming back
James grew up in Glenville, W.Va., a small town of about 1,500 in the center of the state. He was an intern for IBM while at West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he received his business undergraduate and graduate degrees. Following graduation, Microsoft offered him a position as a sales representative in Pittsburgh. He decided to leave the state he loved in 1990 to pursue a job with the company, which was budding with the success of Windows and the advent of the Office package.
Rising through the ranks of Microsoft, James eventually relocated to Redmond, Wash., the national headquarters, to work with its Internet division, MSN. After taking a new role as Director of Enterprise Marketing for the United States, he was told he could do his job and live anywhere he wanted while fulfilling his duties.
He chose West Virginia. He and his wife moved to Charleston in 2005, drawn by the quality of life and being closer to Pittsburgh, his wife’s home town.
For the last two years of his job, he was “commuting” between Charleston and Seattle every other week. Today, he is his own boss, a self-described serial entrepreneur. He has already started a marketing management firm, Mythology, which improves “revenue, profitability, customer satisfaction and loyalty” within companies.
A New Chapter: Create West Virginia
Create West Virginia is one committee of Vision Shared—an initiative of the West Virginia Council for Community and Economic Development. Based on the research of Dr. Richard Florida and the idea of the “creative class,” Create West Virginia brings together a diverse group of business leaders and seeks to bring a mixture of “innovation, artistic vision, connectivity, diversity, entrepreneurship, technology and growth” to West Virginia.
Author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida says cities should emphasize attracting the creative class—a wide array of people ranging from artists to technology specialists who live in areas of high economic development. In bringing them to localities, they would then create new businesses in these areas.
In other words, this program seeks to bring any organization which makes its living off of creating new ideas. To build financial security, James hopes West Virginia can complement its old economy of mining and manufacturing jobs with the new economy careers.
He knows young professionals are looking for exciting things to do. He believes West Virginia can compete with North Carolina, New York, or D.C. to offer those activities, particularly in the area of outdoor recreation or small town amenities.
How to do it
James names three strategies aimed at bringing their goals to life. “We want to work at the local level to help communities understand the new economy and how to make communities attractive for this economy,” he said.
Also, the group wants to support statewide initiatives that would help their effort, such as small business programs and statewide broadband access—he thinks the governor and legislature have been helpful in this aspect. Finally he wants to promote the state as a “great place to come and create.”
James’ native Glenville in Gilmer County is also beginning to partake in the development. “It was a community that wasn’t really doing anything for the new economy,” he said. Today, however, it’s a different story.
The county sent 15 people to Create West Virginia’s first conference in November of 2007, where dozens of business and political leaders learned how to improve their communities through 49 training sessions. The city has started a downtown revitalization project and the state college by the same name is establishing a high-tech criminal justice program.
To those who have yet to come home, he has a message: “I would encourage them to bring their ideas with them,” he said, “Once identified, people in this state bend over backwards to support people in pursuing great ideas.” He cites the quality of life of the Mountain State as a “healthier place to create. There’s fresh air when chasing your dream.”