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Governor's Office of Economic Development
Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at the 2016 Utah Economic Summit.

SALT LAKE CITY — Val Hale points to an adage that is never far from his mind, even as accolades and recognitions of Utah's robust economy and business environment continue to pile up:

"The only thing harder than reaching the top is staying there."

Acknowledging challenges, sharing the latest ideas and helping mediate new partnerships is what will help keep Utah an economic leader, said Hale, the executive director of Utah's Governor's Office of Economic Development.

And those are at the heart of Friday's 11th annual Utah Economic Summit in Salt Lake City.

"The summit provides us with an opportunity to bring together government officials, business leaders, topic experts, educators and others to talk about pertinent topics," Hale said. "This event helps us stay on top because we identify the issues we share and work together to address them."

The event is hosted by Gov. Gary Herbert, with sponsorship support coming from Utah Media Group (of which Deseret News is a partner), and noted conservative author and president of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, slated to deliver the event's keynote address.

The real nuts and bolts of the summit can be found in the 17 breakout sessions that offer opportunities for smaller group discussions with topic experts in a wide range of areas, from how to manage social media tools to international business strategies.

Priyanka Bakaya is the founder and CEO of Salt Lake City's PK Clean, an award-winning, clean energy company started in 2012 that has developed a highly efficient system for processing waste plastic back into fuel, essentially reversing the process of making petroleum-based plastics. Bakaya, who will be a panelist for a session focused on disruptive startups, said she hopes by sharing some insight on her experiences she can help entrepreneurs who may be making their first foray into business.

"We've been incredibly fortunate in gaining so much support, and much of it has come from just being located here in Utah," Bakaya said. "Many new businesses may not realize what's out there. … Salt Lake City may seem like a small place but the startup eco-system in the area is not."

Bakaya said financial assistance from local sources, like GOED and the Salt Lake City Economic Development Loan Fund, were critical in getting her operation off the ground. PK Clean also received strategic support from the University of Utah, that helped with development of an early prototype of her company's system.

Tema Laussen is the executive director of Utah tech giant InsideSales' Do Good Foundation and charged with overseeing the company's philanthropic efforts. That outreach includes playing an active role in the work to ensure Utah students are acquiring the skills they need to succeed in the modern work world.

"Giving back is so core to our values," Laussen said. "Part of that effort is about preparing our students to be hireable."

To that end, Laussen said InsideSales has been engaged in a program to teach coding skills to Utah fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. Teams of company employees, who volunteer their time, are teaching coding skills to students at two Utah schools using a curriculum developed by non-profit group code.org, aimed at expanding access to computer science skills.

Laussen said her company is working to grow the program and has even enlisted the help of fellow Silicon Slopes tech companies Domo and Vivint which have also "adopted" schools for free coding instruction. For InsideSales, it's an effort that is all upside.

"Our employees love it and we're actually playing a role in making change," Laussen said. "We're helping to teach computational thinking skills which have a positive effect on all their subjects."

And, it's programs like this that are helping address one of Utah's most pressing economic issues — job skills that match current job demands.

Hale said he attended a recent meeting of economic development leaders from 13 other states and the collective No. 1 challenge for every one of them was the lack of a workforce suited for the available jobs.

"A lot of businesses in this state want to grow and just can't find qualified workers," Hale said.

The networking, brainstorming and learning opportunities available at the economic summit, Hale said, play a part in finding solutions moving forward.

"Keeping Utah in its leading role takes an ongoing effort," he said. "And we're consistently looking to improve what we do at the summit to help all our businesses meet and address the challenges ahead."

For more information on the Utah Economic Summit, visit https://utaheconomicsummit.com/.