Idaho: Gay friendly? Anti-gay? Neutral?

Idaho’s reputation hinders recruitment of talented young workers, but sexuality is just one of several issues, tech leaders say

zkyle@idahostatesman.comFebruary 23, 2014 

  • Voices on Idaho’s ‘image issue’

    On Idaho’s friendliness toward gays:

    “A very small percentage of people we talk to during recruiting talk about that. They say, ‘You were in the Wall Street Journal three times saying Idaho won’t tax the cloud.’ That’s progressive.”

    - Jay Larsen, President and CEO of the Idaho Technology Council, which recruits tech firms to the state

    “This might really be a great way for us to start promoting Idaho as a more friendly place for more companies or startups to come here. But at the same time, at the risk to what? Would we have support of the governor? Would we have support of local industry, or would we just be beating our head against the wall because Idaho is Idaho?”

    - Pat Lawless, founder of Voxbright Technologies Inc. in Boise, founder of StartupBoise, former Microsoft employee and 2013 Idaho Technology Council nominee for Innovator of the Year

    “The perceived and potentially legislated anti-gay stance of Idaho is in fact keeping talented tech people from considering Idaho as a welcoming home. We need to create an Idaho reputation that is inclusive and supportive, not discriminatory. It's good for people. It's good for business.”

    - C.K. Haun, Boisean and senior director and developer of technical services at Apple Inc., in a letter to the Idaho Statesman

    “I have a daughter in college and a son who is a senior in high school. For that generation, these aren’t issues. To them, of course, people should have equal rights. And I feel that way, too.”

    - Eileen Langan Barber, Keynetics director and cofounder

    On Idaho’s attractiveness to employers and workers:

    “We’ve tried to recruit folks from outside the area, and there is no question we have an image issue. But the LGBT thing has never come up, ever. It has always been an image of, ‘You’re not a tech hub, so if I come there, what happens if I lose my job? It’s not like there’s a bustling tech industry to get another job.’ That’s the image we are always up against.”

    - Matt Rissell, founder and owner of TSheets in Eagle

    “Idaho has not given protected status to gender orientation. I don’t think that translates into a bad reputation. I’m not going to adopt anybody’s words, but I’d generally agree with the governor that we have a very strong and robust economy in Idaho compared to what you see in many other places. We have very strong and capable fiscal policy, and I’d think employers around the country and around the world would see we have an inviting state right now because of our posture.”

    - U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo

    “We will never attract companies with high paying jobs with these types of discriminatory laws on the books. Successful companies recognize the value of equality for all in the workplace and care enough about their employees’ emotional well being to protect them from discrimination. Idaho is heading in the wrong direction, and it is national news. “

    - Karen Meyer, who decided to bring a tech manufacturing operation to Nampa in 2002 when she was vice president of operations of SafeView, which made 3-D security scanners used in airports. Meyer is married to Apple executive C.K. Haun.

    On the need for diversity:

    “Diversity is important to the fabric of Idaho National Laboratory, and we try to convey this fact to potential recruits through corporate policies such as domestic partner benefits, which we instituted in 2011. Such policies serve our recruiting efforts well.”

    - Amy Lientz, director or communications and governmental affairs at the Idaho National Laboratory.

    “So long as the law remains silent on the workplace rights of gay and lesbian Americans, we as a nation are effectively consenting to discriminate against them.”

    - Tim Cook, Apple CEO, in an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “Workplace equality is good for business” in which Cook supports a federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act.

  • HP ADDS THE WORDS

    Don Curtis, a former general manager at Hewlett-Packard’s Boise campus, said HP strived in the 1990s to create a supportive workplace that embraced diversity in all of its forms.

    In 1992, HP’s upper management solicited personal accounts from gay and lesbian workers and were dismayed by stories of harassment and bullying. Curtis and other general managers throughout the country stood in front of their workforces to deliver a message: HP welcomes all. If you don’t like it, you had better make peace with it.

    Curtis said the cultural change was rapid. “The jokes stopped. The names stopped,” he said. “That kind of insidious stuff that drags a workplace down stopped. There were business reasons for this as well as the humanity side of the whole thing.”

    Some of the most talented and energetic leaders he worked with at HP were openly gay, he said. No numbers can be crunched to determine the bottom-line effect of extending workplace protections to LGBT workers, Curtis said, but the benefits are obvious.

    “Getting data is difficult, but implicitly, this is only a positive from a business standpoint, and the potential negatives (of not changing the policy) are really, really strong,” he said.

    Micron Technology Inc. in Boise added LGBT employees to its nondiscrimination policy in 2007 after resisting for several years.

    Today, 91 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 81 percent of the top 50 federal government contractors include “sexual orientation” in their nondiscrimination policies, according to the Corporate Quality Index of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group.

  • ZACH KYLE

    Zach joined the Statesman in April after working at the Post Register in Idaho Falls for five years. As a business reporter, he focuses on banking, housing, small businesses, business policy and technology.

Young, hip and welcoming. That’s the picture of Boise that recruiters paint as they try to lure the tech professionals the Treasure Valley needs to blossom into an industry hub.

The Boise Valley Economic Partnership and other groups created a recruiting website, growideashere.org, with vignettes profiling six employees at Boise tech firms. Christina Tierney, of Balihoo, talks about her short bike-commute as she sips coffee and surfs online at Cafe D’arte. Another video shows Brandon Scott of Kount, wearing square-rimmed glasses and a Batman shirt, shopping for comics at Record Exchange and attending a concert at the Knitting Factory with his green-haired wife.

“My biggest surprise about the Boise music scene was that there was one,” Scott says in the video.

Tech workers are the kind of young highly educated and highly paid workers that Idaho leaders say they want more of.

But some techies say the welcoming image is being undermined by a sense that Idaho is unwelcoming to gays — a perception deepened by national attention this month to the Idaho Legislature’s handling of gay-rights issues.

Forty-four protesters were arrested Feb. 3 outside the Idaho Senate as part of a failed eight-year campaign to “Add the Words” and extend civil rights protections to gays. Thirty-two were arrested in another protest Thursday. Meanwhile, Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, proposed the Idaho Free Exercise of Religion Act to let people refuse to serve customers whose practices offend their religious beliefs. Luker withdrew the bill last week.

“Most techies are on the progressive, ‘you live your life, I’ll live mine’ side of things,” said Ryan Woodings, founder and CEO of Metageek, which makes wireless network equipment. “If you look at some proposed legislation and changed ‘gay’ to ‘black,’ you’d think, ‘wow. This is 1960.’ ”

Woodings’ wife, Holli, is a Democratic state representative from Boise’s North End who is running for Idaho secretary of state.

Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican, says Idaho doesn’t have an image problem — or a business recruiting problem — stemming from concerns about gay rights.

Not so, said C.K. Haun, a senior director and developer of technical services at Apple Inc. who lives in Boise. Otter’s statements are “ill-informed and incorrect,” Haun wrote in a letter to the Statesman. “He has not had personal experience because companies, particularly in technology, simply don’t consider Idaho for, partially, its noninclusive reputation.”

One ex-tech executive suggested that Otter couldn’t point to any company — and likely wouldn’t be able to in the future — because no company would say it bypassed Idaho over the sexuality issue.

Friendliness to gay employees “is a business issue,” said Don Curtis, who oversaw 1,600 employees as general manager of Hewlett-Packard’s Disk Memory Division in Boise before retiring in 2000. “You want to get the best people possible. You never want to be taken off of a list as an employer or as a state on the basis of people perceiving it’s not the best place to be. Because they’ll never tell you why they don’t come. You won’t have any data. You just won’t have the best people. That has a corrosive effect over the years.”

Curtis added “sexual orientation and gender identity” to HP’s corporate anti-harassment policy in 1992, more than two decades ago.

Some local tech leaders say their recruiting challenges are caused mainly by other problems, including negative perceptions that have little or nothing to do with gay rights.

“Anywhere you recruit, there’s the stigma that Idaho’s an agricultural state and not a high-tech state,” said Mitt Rissell, founder and owner of TSheets, a timecard software development firm in Eagle. “It’s very difficult.”

ClickBank, a subsidiary of Keynetics, opened a second office in a Denver suburb in 2006 because it couldn’t recruit the workers it needed to Boise. Fifty people now work there. Keynetics and its subsidiaries would hire 45 more employees today in Boise if the talent were available, said Eileen Langan Barber, a Keynetics director and co-founder in Boise.

“Boise has all the right ingredients for tech,” she said. “It’s a great place. We have lots of outdoor stuff. Now, we need the rest to attract professionals with college degrees. (LGBT equality) is one of many issues. We need to be more progressive in general.”

Patrick Lawless owns Voxbright Technologies Inc., which creates voice recognition products, and founded StartupBoise, a support group for startups.

Lawless said Idaho’s low access to startup capital is a barrier for tech entrepreneurs.

Jay Larsen, president of the Idaho Technology Council, a trade group in Boise, said tech companies he recruits around the country are more interested in a proposal to strengthen Idaho’s year-old law protecting cloud-computing services from taxation than in talking about LGBT equality.

“Every state will have some battles when it comes to social issues,” Larsen said. “Tech people should come to Idaho because of the quality for business set by the Legislature. That’s what we focus on.”

Idaho is not the only state struggling to boost high-tech employment, particularly in software development.

“There are a lot of growing pains happening across the country when it comes to finding talent,” said Clark Krause, executive director of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership, the recruitment arm of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, said.

Krause said he hopes the recruiting videos will attract hundreds or even thousands of talented workers to the Treasure Valley. BVEP will pay for sponsored ads resulting in the video appearing on 60,000 LinkedIn user accounts in the Bay Area with “software developer” in their titles.

He notes that the chamber and BVEP backed the city of Boise’s antidiscrimination ordinance, enacted in December 2012. Theordinance “shows how progressive some of the vision is available through the local community,” he said.

Idaho isn’t beholden to Silicon Valley, Larsen said. Targeting Stanford University graduates, for example, is inefficient because they are unlikely to come here, he said. Larsen said recruits in Montana, Oklahoma and other places may be more likely to be politically aligned with Idaho.

But Lawless said Boise will have to dip into the larger talent pools to grow.

“It’s like when Jesse James said he robs banks because that’s where the money is,” Lawless said. “That’s why we go to Silicon Valley. That’s where the talent is.”

Chris Mecham, a gay man and a political science student at Boise State University, said Boiseans and Boise workplaces are generally welcoming, though he’s seen three talented LGBT couples move to Seattle and Denver in the past year and nearly 60 LGBT friends leave the area in the past 17 years.

“The discrimination happens at the legislative level,” Mecham said. “Luker’s bill just made us a joke. Idaho has earned its reputation as a punchline.”

Idaho lacks diversity, Lawless said: “It’s a lot of potatoes and white men.”

But Boise has a growing base of LGBT, artistic and foreign-born residents that Lawless said recruiters should highlight in efforts such as the BVEP vignettes.

“You’ll never see costume balls inside Boise gay bars in efforts to attract people here,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things we might need to do to celebrate our ethnic and sexual diversity. But that means changing the way Idaho is looked at today.”

Zach Kyle: 377-6464, Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle

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