State Politics

Idaho: Gay friendly? Anti-gay? Neutral?

Hundreds of demonstrators lined the Rotunda and halls of the Idaho Statehouse on Monday in support of "Add the Words" and against House Bill 427. By Wednesday, the bill was pulled from consideration and its sponsor, Rep. Lynn Luker, said it would not come back this session.
Hundreds of demonstrators lined the Rotunda and halls of the Idaho Statehouse on Monday in support of "Add the Words" and against House Bill 427. By Wednesday, the bill was pulled from consideration and its sponsor, Rep. Lynn Luker, said it would not come back this session. jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

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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