Can Big Professional Dreams Thrive in Small Towns?

People leave cities to improve quality of life. But what about their ambitions?

Posted Aug 25, 2019

ImagineerInc / Shutterstock
Source: ImagineerInc / Shutterstock

I am a statistic: I am one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have abandoned big cities in recent years. In my case, I moved from San Francisco to Charlottesville, Virginia, population 48,000. I did it for the same reasons that many others do: To raise a family with a decent quality of life. And I did it with the same conflict that others feel: “If I leave the energy and opportunities of the city, am I leaving the chance to make a difference in the world?”

A recent Washington Post article titled “How San Francisco Broke America’s Heart” captures some of the pain that drives people away. There are many problems. Hyper-competitive schools is one. City commutes that can all but eliminate personal time during the week is another. But the biggest is cost of living. The tech boom has created droves of millionaires, who have transformed the city and what is possible within it. The median price of a single family home is 1.6 million dollars, and you do not get much house for that median price. The government now classifies as “low income” a family of four in San Francisco making $115,000 per year. For most of us, that cost of living drastically affects what raising a family in San Francisco could look like. The result has been that many thousands of young families do what we did: They leave. Only 13.4 percent of the population are under 18, compared to 36.5 percent nationally. 

And it is not just families who have to leave. The businesses that made San Francisco the eccentric, imaginative town it is, the kind of town that could have been at the heart of a creative boom like it has been, are leaving in droves due to the lack of affordability. Of a town that once produced The Grateful Dead, the generation of beat poets, and the Summer of Love, one musician who left earlier this year said, “I don’t know anyone in San Francisco who is making a full-time living as an artist.” Once the center of LGBT culture, the gayborhoods are being transformed by young tech workers who are gradually pricing them out of existence. The Sierra Club, founded in 1892 in San Francisco, left three years ago, as have scores of other non-profits. Teachers and social workers are priced out. A friend of mine who is a teacher asked me recently, “If people like me cannot afford to live there, why would you want to?” Good question. Once one of the most diverse communities in the world, longtime San Franciscans complain it is becoming a monoculture, because everyone outside of the tech industry has to play the earning game at a level they have no interest in just to be able to stay.

And yet, with all of that, there is -- in addition to its impossible beauty -- a creative energy in San Francisco that is unlike anything else in the world. The tech community there is made up of some of the smartest and most visionary people anywhere. Leaders know they are transforming the world’s culture, and there is a shared desire and exchange of ideas in how to make that change the most positive it can be. High standards of excellence and clear ideas about how companies and organizations can reach them are passed around in coffee shops and on the streets. To leave a city, do you have to leave that sort of crucible of visionary excellence behind too?

I have been in Charlottesville for a year now. The beauty has the same effect here. Just like in San Francisco, you often hear people say, “I look out sometimes and want to pinch myself because of my luck living in a place like this.” We have a top level university and medical center. Intellect and interesting conversation is no harder to find here than in San Francisco. But I have been discouraged by some people who see so much less happening in Charlottesville than in cities. One of them, who moved from Charlottesville to San Francisco after we got here, said, “People move to Charlottesville for quality of life, not for growth. I want to grow.” Is he right? Do ambitious people grow and thrive here? 

I decided to talk to someone who has a clear vision for the Charlottesville working community and what it can become. James Barton has developed the two major co-working spaces in Charlottesville -- with ideas for the first one arising before the concept of a co-working space was familiar anywhere. James is a tall, quiet man in his 30’s. He has a trimmed beard and always looks you in the eye when he speaks, usually with a gentle, genuine smile. He shares a vision of a work community that is simple: There are a lot of smart people who want to do good. Get them talking to each other, and they will naturally support and strengthen each other. He has a way of helping people meet each other who have common interests and then getting out of the way to let the new relationship grow. I work in one of his buildings; and, to get to my office, I regularly walk past a community lecture hosted by a non-profit working with an underserved population or a party with local art and music. Whoever it is, whether a famous musician or a new arrival in town without her feet under her, James will always introduce us as if we are both people with something unique and special to offer. The idea is to get everyone who stitches together this community talking to each other and recognizing how they can work together to create what they want here in Charlottesville and beyond it. In his spaces, he has created intimacy, warmth, and a sense of being part of something inspiring and good. There is a pulsing conversation about the community by the people who are shaping it, and you become aware of the responsibility of being one of those people. As I talked to James, he showed me a few reasons to be excited about the potential of small towns.

Great Ideas Come from Strange Places

The first thing James reminded me was that great ideas do not spring fully formed from big cities or any other place. They are messy constructions woven together from scraps picked up over years, and they are picked up by the kind of people who adventure outside of their comfort zone looking for something that inspires them. In this day and age, people in small towns have as much opportunity to explore a world of experience as anyone. When what is immediately around you does not feel like a complete universe in itself, as it can in a big city, you may be even more likely to travel past the familiar.

James described his ideas taking root in simple, personal interactions as an RA in a small Virginia college. He loved learning what people wanted to accomplish and helping them make it happen.Then, being curious how things were done outside of the small town of Farmville (yes, really), Virginia, he moved to Shanghai for several years. That is where his thinking opened up and came together. He saw work situations that were the epitome of gloomy isolation; and, in his business school there, he saw people working in open spaces where collaboration and idea sharing were natural. He came upon a large retail business run in a converted old home, creating a cocoon of intimacy around a wide-ranging enterprise. That is when the idea started to come together for him of creating a workspace with that kind of intimacy, pulling people and their diverse projects under one roof. The idea hit him when walking past a largely deserted mansion in Shanghai. He ended up looking into the status of the building. 

The idea went nowhere, but he brought it back with him when he settled in Charlottesville. He also left a big city for a better quality of life. He moved back because he had two air filtration units in the room with his infant daughter to protect her from the polluted Shanghai air and because he wanted longer term relationships than he was developing in a city where expats are mostly transient. After working a routine job while getting his feet on the ground in Charlottesville, he realized there were more interesting people out there doing more interesting things. He wanted to know those people and be part of their community. And so he started creating spaces where he could facilitate just that kind of community.

His path is a reminder that creative ideas come from exploring in a process that is largely personal and often independent of established norms. When paths to achievement are more established, as they can be in the tech world of San Francisco, our ideas can become overly shaped by the thinking of the group around us. It is no coincidence that any list of the most influential people of the 20th Century is made up almost to the person by people with a strong component of quirky, idiosyncratic self-education. David Epstein’s recent book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World is one of a number of excellent books that explore the cognitive science underlying a link between creative thought and diverse interests. There is no magic formula to not having a formula, and small towns certainly do not have a lock on adventurers. But the relaxed openness of a small town can do a lot to create the context for creative growth.

The Unique Opportunity for Small Towns

One of the themes you hear in Charlottesville, including from James, is that it is on the cusp of taking off in new ways. I imagine this sense of anticipation is present in many other small university towns as well at this particular moment in time. The intellectual capital of a university combined with a livable town like Charlottesville creates its potential. It also is an inspiring atmosphere. Thomas Jefferson designed it, and his house can be seen on the hill above it. Walking around it leaves you feeling his faith in human intellect and the sense of potential that existed at the beginning of a new nation. But towns like Charlottesville have always been the ones where people have come to study but have had to leave for “the real world” in order to work. In the last few years, that has changed.

The town is filling with more and more professionals who have found a way to work remotely -- maintaining ties to big cities while putting down roots here. Prior to the extensive use of videoconferencing and broadband, these possibilities did not exist. As more bright people become invested in small towns like this one, and fewer university students have to leave, they will want more and more to bring their professional energy to creating local businesses, so that all of the opportunities do not have to be via tele-commuting.

A significant example in Charlottesville is the case of Jaffray Woodriff, who tried living in San Francisco and New York after graduating from the university here, working as a banker and trader before starting a small investment company in New York. In 2003, he brought his new hedge fund back to Charlottesville. He was one of a number of major investors who have done so, investing being one of the first businesses that easily could be run from anywhere. 

Jaffray did particularly well, and he is trying to use his resources to make the town he loves a place where the smartest people aspire to come to learn and stay to make their mark on the world. He recently gave $120 million to the University in order to establish a top-level school of data science. As he told Joe Nocera of Bloomberg, “It is a field that already plays a central role in shaping our future.” But for Charlottesville to be a place that contributes to that future, it needs space where these people will want to start businesses. So Woodriff is building a 160,000 square foot building with space for tech startups on Charlottesville’s welcoming Downtown Mall. 

Jaffray’s example shows the practical change that new opportunities to live in small towns will continue to cause. As people return, their love of their towns will decentralize the creative contributions that in past decades have been compartmentalized in two or three over-developed areas of the country. People will contribute from the communities they love and, in the process, reshape those communities into places from which it is easier and easier to make an impact. 

The Vital DNA of Small Towns

Does that mean that small towns will become “lite” versions of cities? The greatest concentration of resources and talent will always be in big cities, after all. But small towns offer something big cities cannot. They are personal. That simple fact shapes the leaders who live there and the products they create.

James reminded me why he is grateful that his formative experience is tied to a small town: “The reason I am the way I am with people is because I grew up in Farmville. In a town that small, every relationship matters, so you take care of every one of them. I wouldn’t have the same vision of community without that.” You hear a terse version of this message often in Charlottesville: “Treat people with respect. Don’t pee where you drink.” 

As one person told me when I first moved to Charlottesville, “This is the kind of town where, if you don’t like the way things are done, you can work for a couple of years to become mayor and have a reasonable shot of making it happen.” More seems possible in a smaller community. Even the most influential leaders take meetings with friends of friends, and everyone is a friend of a friend with everyone here, so you feel like you can make the connections to make things happen. 

When you go to lunch in a small town, you run into people you know from all walks of life. You make friends with them, because you will run into them over and over again. Big cities can be so over-stimulating that you look at the diversity of people you see as an anonymous sea and talk only to the people you are already familiar with. The small town experience diversifies what you talk about and think about, and it leads to imaginative collaborations that would not happen otherwise. There is an old warehouse space here that was an eyesore in the middle of town. A venture capitalist, a filmmaker, and an artist got together and completely re-imagined it. Now it is a space surrounded by an art park with lots of businesses, a brewery, a great restaurant, and a children’s gym. It reflects the vibrancy of the town, and these sorts of collaborations happen because the artists and the business people have the time and the incentive to talk and dream together.

It makes you think: Which kind of community do you want producing the leaders who shape the experiences of the next generation? Technology will continue to reshape our lives, and technical products are developed by people. Do you want all of the products you will come to depend on to be developed by people who spend most of their time talking to other tech people? Do you want them developed by people who have to work so hard that they do not have much time to read, to chat with different kinds of people, to explore? As smaller towns play a bigger role in developing technologies, they may produce technologies of a different character, ones that reflect the personal nature of their communities.

Change is coming to small towns. They are going to grow, and their character will be affected as small startups becoming thriving enterprises who employ thousands of people. People who love towns as they are do not necessarily want them to change, and so the reflex is to fight it. Anyone who lived in San Francisco a few years ago when protesters were harassing Google’s commuter buses is aware of what that can look like. But resistance to change does not always make change healthier. The very thing you are trying to protect can get lost in the struggle. San Francisco’s housing laws were intended to protect long-standing residents and the established character of the city, but they ironically have limited the availability of housing so much that many of the less wealthy have had to leave. These well-intentioned attempts to protect what people loved about San Francisco have ironically forced out some of the best of the city.

But the people who are afraid obviously have a point. Small towns have unique qualities that they want to weave into their futures and, by extension, into all of our futures. The DNA of small towns is something to be treasured. Hopefully if it is, it will shape the imaginations of the people who lead the world forward. Jaffray Woodriff’s 160,000 square foot space for tech startups is just now being built. I hope Jaffray and his partners keep talking to people like James, who are always inviting in more of the richness and diversity of the town and facilitating conversations. If they do, the imaginative solutions those people come up with to the need to grow and yet maintain the character of the town will shape something really powerful. We will have high-energy small towns with the imagination and expertise to contribute to the world and the humane character to do it in a way that makes all of our lives richer. Quality of life and making a difference in the world can go together.

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