livingstonmontana

Montana: The rural American revolution fuelled by tech

Diane Smith and her husband moved from Washington DC to rural Montana because they wanted to raise their daughter “in a place with place with less asphalt, more community, and more time spent outside”. When they got there Smith launched Avail-TVN, which has since grown into a large global provider of multiplatform video services, and is now called Vubiquity.

This whole experience has seen her become a champion of rural America. She wrote a book and launched a community, TheNewRural.com, as well as starting The American Rural, which aims to promote entrepreneurship in ignored areas across the states. We catch-up with her to learn more.

Can you describe the TheNewRural.Com and how you came to write it? 

After I founded a tech company that grew very fast and successfully, people would often ask me, “How did you start and grow a tech company in NW Montana?” My answer was, “In a coffee shop with wi-fi, just like you’d do anywhere else.” Because of these conversations, I was struck by how much people everywhere (in cities like DC or small towns like Whitefish, MT) didn’t understand how much the technology revolution had changed the ‘opportunity equation’ in remote locations.  I was also struck by how many ‘pioneers’ I had met across America living in off-the-beaten-path locations and wanted to tell some of those stories.  So, I wrote the book. 

What are the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs in rural and small towns in America? 

Firstly, their own confidence. Secondly, the confidence of others.

The national narrative for so long has been that it’s dismal out here in rural and small town America.  Sell that narrative for long enough and folks begin to believe it.  But what I’ve seen is lots of rural and small town residents who are pioneering, smart, and innovative, they just need to believe that they can build a business, raise sufficient capital for it, and have access to the intellectual and operational support necessary to get traction.  All of that is not only possible, it’s happening every day in a lot of locations beyond Silicon Valley and Boston.     

Going forward our most important challenge will be ensuring continued access to up to date communications technologies.     

Can you describe why you think people in these areas are so innovative and how this compares to urban environments you’ve experienced?    

Living in a community where you’re taught to take care of yourself often makes people more aware of their own skills and abilities as well as creative and innovative. Rural and small town Americans grow up around lots of folks that hunt for or grow their own food, mend their own fences (literally and figuratively), drive the kids to school every day (bus service might not be an option), or move fallen trees out of the road. Folks just ‘get it done’ without waiting for permission or assistance.  (I believe this is also one of the big political differentiators between rural and urban Americans.)   That kind of initiative and skills often make for successful entrepreneurs.    

As technology becomes better and more ubiquitous do existing challenges diminish or do new ones simply arise? 

Technology alone can’t change the national narrative, that’s part of why we formed American Rural.  Technology, however, makes it easier for us to challenge that narrative as well as to help others who want to build a business, raise capital, and access diverse intellectual and operational support. 

How did American Rural come together as a collective? 

It was originally a labour of love on my part.  I wanted a place to share the great stories I was learning across America, had a background in tech, and some time to devote to it.  Over time, others have joined us and the reception has been amazing. 

What are you doing to expand entrepreneurial opportunities across rural America?   

Our entrepreneurship mission is to inspire, educate, and connect. By the stories we tell, the work we do with economic developers and our technology expertise, we try to inspire new entrepreneurs in unlikely places.  Through our newsletter Ruralistically, our webinars, and our speeches, we try to educate entrepreneurs about ways to optimize their success.  And, we often informally connect entrepreneurs with folks who can help them either operationally or financially.

What do you think would surprise an international audience about working in rural America? 

Firstly, they might be surprised at how many Americans (59M) live in rural America. Another 28M live in small town America. That’s almost 30% of the U.S. population. Secondly, they might be surprised that it’s full of smart, friendly folks who are quite tech savvy. Rural and small town America are making great strides in e-commerce, medical and educational tech, philanthropy, alternative energy, traditional energy, the creative arts and so much more.

Can smaller, quieter tech centres like Utah, South Carolina and Colorado ever replace Silicon Valley?   

I doubt Silicon Valley will be replaced in my lifetime, but I hope it will be challenged.  The leadership there has done a pitiful job on diversity and inclusion and it fosters some pretty sad values.  I think the most successful future business leaders will make inclusion a priority, create wealth for all their employees not just those at the top, and leave a positive mark on their communities.  I think the quieter tech centres stand a much better chance of doing that than today’s Silicon Valley.  Steve Case’s ‘Rise of the Rest’ tour also speaks to this question and I think he’s really onto something. 

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