The Link Between Innovation and Productivity: An Interview with Natalie Gochnour

Pete CodellaArticles

This is the fifth of a series of conversations with Utah women building disruptive technologies.  I’m Kimberly Zhang. I set out to speak to the women behind the business, research and ideas that are changing the world. They share their work, thoughts and advice. Note the opinions expressed by interviewees do not necessarily represent those of GOED, but they do promise to be interesting.

I sat down with Natalie Gochnour, an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, as well as the chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber. We chatted about her own economic work in conjunction with the state of Utah’s economy from a disruptive innovation standpoint.

What brought you to Utah and why did you stay? What do you love?

I’m a native Salt Laker. I have both my undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Utah. I spent time in Washington D.C., but my roots are really deep here. I like the size of Salt Lake City. It’s sophisticated enough to have  major league soccer, an NBA team and a vibrant arts and restaurant scene, but still small enough to be convenient and have incredible access to the great out of doors.

Tell me about your career path – what led you to where you are now?

I studied economics in college and took every economics class I could take. Right out of college, I landed the perfect job for someone like me—I went into the research arm of state government and cut my teeth on economic work, working for three Utah governors. I worked for fifteen years as a state economist and worked with Governor Levitt as his policy and communications director. I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and Health and Human Services in Washington D.C., and then worked for the business community doing public policy work with the Salt Lake Chamber. I also worked Leavitt Partners, a healthcare advising firm, and now I’m at the University of Utah.

What are you most proud of through the course of your career?

I would say the 2002 Winter Olympics Games were a big highlight for me. I was Governor Leavitt’s spokesperson during the games, so I worked a lot with the international media and many prominent people.

I also loved my time working in Washington, D.C. as a political appointee. You learn things there you can learn in no other way.

What does disruptive innovation from an economic standpoint mean?

The first question you have to answer is what makes an economy grow? I would say economies grow because of investment and productivity. You invest in human and physical capital, and it helps you transform a lower value input into a higher value output. In that process you create growth. Innovation and disruption are important because they affect productivity. We’re doing more with less. When a new innovation occurs, suddenly the means of production change and economies are able to create more value. To me, that’s the link.

What has made Utah so attractive to technology companies?

The investment in this state in both public and private education has created a talent pool that’s very attractive to technology companies. In 2000, Utah made a public policy decision to double the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates at our public institutions. That type of investment takes a decade or more to pay off. I would say a lot of Silicon Slopes growth we’re seeing is because of that investment. Technology companies are here for a whole variety of reasons, but one reason is the labor needed.

We have an attractive quality of life. Our outdoor recreation opportunities are  important to our tech prowess. We’re meeting the human capital test. We have life quality. Our investment in physical capital has been extremely helpful. I don’t think Adobe locates here without the recognition that they are within grasp of having transit provided for their facility. The investment in Frontrunner, Trax and even I-15 core in Utah County and the rebuild in Salt Lake County all created a context for this investment to occur.

Our location is very attractive. All roads lead to Utah, quite literally. We are centrally located in the western United States, and that gives us easy access to Silicon Valley and the West coast. It’s easier to put a business location here knowing that you have dozens of flights a day to other tech centers to transport your executives. Our location in the interior west also means our business costs are lower.

What are you worried about?

I worry about two things: labor shortages and educational investment. Our unemployment rate is so low that we have labor shortages in nearly every industry. That makes it difficult for companies to grow. Wages are rising, which is a big help.

I also worry about education. There has never been a time in human history when an educated workforce was so important to society. Globalization has eliminated some jobs, while created many more. It’s critical that Utah’s workforce be trained in the areas where they can secure gainful employment. This requires innovation and investment in education.

We hear a lot of discussion, particularly among Utah’s Silicon Slopes, about the importance of diversity. Why is human diversification important to Utah’s economy?

Economies prosper when great ideas come to life. Diversity helps. I’m particularly interested in the contribution of female leaders to this process. There are extraordinary women leaders in this state. The Salt Lake City International Airport, Federal Reserve Bank of Salt Lake City and several major local entities are run by women (Regence BCBS, SelectHealth, Rocky Mountain Power are three great examples). That being said, there is an extraordinary need for more. I think it’s right for our state to be proactive in training and recruiting female leaders and creating a place for women to thrive.

What policies should be implemented to help women in business? 

One of the greatest needs is for high-quality childcare. What I mean by high-quality childcare is the ability to license and monitor the quality of childcare, particularly for people who are not well-resourced. Some of it has to with the state’s role in licensing and regulating childcare, but it’s so much more than that. I don’t want state-funded child care, but I think you could do some things to incentivize private initiatives in high quality day care.

How do disruptive technologies affect public policy decisions?

It permeates everything. For an example, Google Fiber infrastructure in Salt lake City affects our industry mix and our economic development strategies and policies. The hardware and capital infrastructure changes things. It frames it because there are so many innovations in public policy that you can do, such as big data and algorithms used to create data driven decisions. In public policy, you can make decisions with much more information and certainty. Technology also supports the data analytics we use to inform public policy decisions. In public policy, you can make decisions with much more information and certainty. It increases our productivity.

Here’s a simple example in my own life: I have an office at home, the University of Utah and downtown. Everything I do is the on cloud and no matter where I am it feels almost the same. That is a radical departure from what my life used to be like. The cloud improves my productivity and my work outcomes.

What advice would you give to a young person?

I would pay most attention to what your passions are. Figure out what you like and get as educated in it as you can. Education will serve you in everything you decide to do whether you are going to be a stay at home contractor, a working professional who climbs the corporate ladder, or raise a family and be an intelligent part of society who contributes in public ways and votes. It’s so important for people to improve their skills and know about how the world works and what is going on in the world.

I was at the Salt Lake City Airport this morning. I’m on their board. I was watching over the construction field all that was going on. It was huge. It is the largest public works project in our state’s history and you can see this dirt being moved and columns being raised. I was thinking about all those skill sets…who knows how to redirect water or run a backhoe. I’m not just talking about university training, but training in the trades. If you like to work with your hands, get really good at it. If you work with your mind, get really good at it. Develop marketable skills that can support your family and contribute to the community.