Former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt was, by almost any measure, the state’s first high-tech chief executive and helped usher in a period of explosive innovation well before “Silicon Slopes” became a thing.

At a public policy forum hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on Monday, an event marking the release of Leavitt’s five-part memoir, the former governor, EPA administrator and secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it’s time to double down on the effort.

While at the helm of state government from 1993 to 2003, Leavitt helped lead Utah’s charge into the digital age with a push to get residents wired following the advent of the internet, launching the nation’s second-ever state government website and vowing to spend more time in Silicon Valley “than California’s governor” in a running strategy to bring new technology investment to the Beehive State.

Awaiting a final decision on where the new facility would be located, Leavitt pulled his trump card during a phone call with eBay’s then-CEO Meg Whitman. At a 2019 tech conference in Salt Lake City, Leavitt said he’d done his homework on the service, including engaging in his own online sales to “figure out how the whole thing worked.” Turns out, that may have been a clincher on Leavitt’s quest to bring the new, 400-employee office to Utah.

Former Gov. Leavitt shares lessons of the past as leaders work to tackle Utah’s future

“Meg, I’ve got a suggestion for you on how you decide,” Leavitt recounted telling her. “Why don’t you find out if the governor of Arizona has an eBay account … and if he does, why don’t you compare our customer ratings and go with the highest one?

“It may be coincidental, but we got the deal the next day.”

Leavitt’s tech bona fides are numerous and include bringing semiconductor giant Micron Technology Inc. to the state in 1995; co-founding, along with former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, one of the country’s first online-only schools, Western Governors University; and later becoming the first U.S. Cabinet-level official to launch a blog.

A person walks through the cafeteria at Western Governors University in Millcreek on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, the school's 25th anniversary. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Leavitt said the seeds of the idea behind his engineering initiative — one that more than doubled the output of engineering and computer science graduates from Utah universities and amassing over 60,000 Utah graduates in those categories since the program’s launch in 2000 — were sown by a conversation with tech legend John Warnock.

Leavitt said Warnock, a computer graphics innovator who earned his doctorate at the University of Utah before going on to participate in the first incarnation of the internet as well as co-founding software giant Adobe, highlighted what Utah was lacking, at the time, through the eyes of the relatively new and burgeoning U.S. high-tech industry. And, according to Leavitt, it was a dose of harsh reality.

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt encourages state leaders to 'grab the baton' to keep tech economy booming

“Look, you want tech jobs in Utah, you’ve got to have more engineers,” Leavitt recalled of the conversation with Warnock. “Utah isn’t investing a fraction of what it needs to. Tech companies like Adobe can’t come to Utah unless you fix that.”

Years later, Leavitt noted, the circle was completed when Adobe did come to Utah, swallowing web analytics startup Omniture in a $1.8 billion deal in 2009. Less than a decade later, the company doubled down on its commitment to Utah, adding a $90 million facility expansion and over 1,200 additional employees.

Former Gov. Michael Leavitt gestures while talking as Utah policy experts gather for discussions hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 18, 2024. Tom Warne, former UDOT director, listens at right. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

At Monday’s policy discussion, University of Utah College of Engineering Dean Richard Brown said that before Leavitt’s engineering initiative launched, about 1,500 tech companies called Utah home. Now that number is hovering around 10,000 and the tech industry employs over 120,000 Utahns and pumps more than $21 billion into the state’s economy every year.

“The year before the engineering initiative began, we graduated 366 engineering and computer science majors,” Brown said. “Last year, there were 1,308.”

Silicon Slopes president/CEO Clint Betts said Leavitt is the “true founder” of Silicon Slopes, a name that arose to label Utah’s burgeoning tech sector after Leavitt’s time in office that is also shared by Betts’ nonprofit tech education and outreach organization.

While Leavitt worked diligently to attract interest, and investment, from California’s famed Silicon Valley, Betts warned that one of the goals now is to avoid the negative consequences of great success.

“The challenge that we have right now is how do we not become Silicon Valley,” Betts said. “Housing is going up, air quality is diminishing. In Silicon Valley, if you don’t work in tech you no longer live in Silicon Valley. We’re on the precipice here, if we don’t make some key decisions, if we don’t figure out how to not make that true ... that in 10 years you work in tech in Utah or you don’t live in Utah.”

Brown noted that Utah’s current and ongoing tech success has come as the result of a collaborative effort in which government, the private sector and public education system have worked in concert to address and overcome challenges.

And now the challenges have evolved to include new categories that will require realignments, by those same three groups, to continue Utah’s upward trajectory. Chief among them may be the emergence of highly advanced artificial intelligence tools.

Brown said engineering experts continue to be in high demand by labor markets but new areas are rising on that list including AI and cybersecurity and resources are needed to attract students in those disciplines and add faculty for the programs.

Leavitt said he believes there is a current opportunity to refocus and reconfigure for the needs and industries of Utah’s future.

“It may be time for the state to give serious thought to the engineering initiative 2.0,” Leavitt said. “And in my mind, it’s AI.

“We’ve been willing to take risks in the past. It was a choice of be afraid of it and die, go along or we can lead it. That’s where we have been, and where we need to stay.”