SALT LAKE CITY — Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, whose company has a retail outlet in Salt Lake City as well as an office in Lehi, called Utah's burgeoning technology sector an "exciting" opportunity for the state.
"The talent you have here is pretty amazing," Nadella said. "The entrepreneurs you inducted today ... you have people with high ambition for what can be done."
Nadella spoke to over 1,300 people at the Utah Technology Council's annual Hall of Fame Gala Friday at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
Nadella said while he loves the Puget Sound area where Microsoft and other heavy hitters like Amazon, Expedia and Starbucks call home, he believes the tech world is in a new era where homegrown talent is tending to stay put to build their companies. He noted that Utah has been very successful in creating its own highly successful tech environment.
"This place is awesome," Nadella said. "There's something in the air here. To see the innovation that's come out of here and changed the world."
And the three Utah Technology Council Hall of Fame inductees have been agents of that change. They included Amy Rees Anderson, founder and managing partner of angel investor firm REES Capital and former founder and CEO of MediConnect Global, which was sold in 2012 for almost $400 million; Patrick Byrne, CEO of online retail giant Overstock.com, which earned $1.8 billion in revenue in 2016; and Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of online education platform Pluralsight, a company whose valuation is believed to be well north of $1 billion.
Council President and CEO John Knotwell, who took over the leadership position in August, said the group's ability to bring Nadella, head of one of the world's largest companies, to the event is a reflection of the growing power of the Beehive State's fast-growing technology and innovation business arena.
"Satya Nadella joining us this evening is evidence of further solidification of Utah's growing technology power and reputation," Knotwell said. "UTC is working to continue to strengthen that community through building our tech ecosystem, supporting business research to optimize growth efforts and implement programs to support critical infrastructure like preparing students with the skills they'll need and these businesses are looking for — for the jobs of tomorrow."
Knotwell also acknowledged the event sharing a date with Veterans Day and announced a new technology council program aimed at increasing the number of armed services veterans in tech sector jobs through internships, scholarships and networking opportunities.
"In Utah County alone, unemployment among veterans 18-34 is 60 percent higher than for non-veterans," Knotwell said. "We aim to change that."
Bassam Salem, vice chairman of the council's board and CEO of software firm AtlasRTX, said Utah's ascension as a tech powerhouse was seeded by early, groundbreaking companies like Novell and Wordperfect but was now a force to be reckoned with.
"We have a community of highly trained and highly motivated entrepreneurs that are fueling the exponential growth in our tech sector," Salem said. "And, we currently have five unicorn tech firms (companies with valuations over $1 billion) that, when the founders exit, will result in dozens or even hundreds of more tech endeavors."
Salem also noted an issue that's been increasingly raised by leaders of Utah's tech community — the dearth of critical tech talent to maintain the sector's steep growth arc.1 comment on this story
"Our success as a country and as a state could end up being limited by the unmet need for talent," Salem said. "Retraining older workers to prepare them for in-demand tech jobs and being able to attract and bring in talent from the global workforce will be essential."
Nadella also highlighted the need to focus on cultivating computer science and technology skills early in the education pipeline. He also underscored the ongoing challenges and need to work toward better diversity in the technology industry, an issue he said was a top priority for Microsoft.