Facebook Twitter

Opinion: Ever wondered why Utah doesn’t have a single Fortune 500 company?

Idaho has three, Arizona has eight. Is Utah lacking in ambition — or do we understand something others don’t?

SHARE Opinion: Ever wondered why Utah doesn’t have a single Fortune 500 company?
I-15 and the Silicon Slopes area in Lehi on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

I-15 and the Silicon Slopes area in Lehi on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Nearly a decade ago, a boss of mine in Boston remarked how unimpressed he was with my home state. “There’s just no real ambition in Utah,” he said. “Smart people, but very few great businesses.”

I’ve heard some version of that critique many times since. And in many respects, it’s accurate. Utah still does not have a single Fortune 500 company (Arizona has eight; Idaho, with half of Utah’s GDP, has three). Of the top 100 largest non-profits, none are headquartered in Utah. We have far fewer billionaires than other similarly sized states. All of that despite high rates of entrepreneurship. Utahns have always started new ventures, but at some point, we stop growing them.


For many, like my colleague from Boston, it is best explained by a pervasive low ambition. But to believe that is to misunderstand what makes this place so special.  

Utahns have always had high ambition, it’s just never been singular. Our ambition is holistic: community, work and family focused. We accept the natural tradeoffs inherent in the pursuit of a meaningful, multi-dimensional life. That quest for the good life goes back to the earliest days of the state, when Latter-day Saint pioneers worried that the pursuit of money, unmoored from deep commitments to community, would spell the end of Utah’s uniqueness. 

As such, the Utah ambition has always been more concerned with wholeness than bigness. We’ve always rejected the pressure of one-dimensional specialization that is increasingly required to achieve lucrative outcomes. Unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to scale from millions to billions.

That’s not because we lack ambition — it’s because we have a better ambition. 

This type of “small thinking” is antithetical to the American obsession with the enormous. Which is why it is so often derided and misunderstood. It’s not that Utahns are uninterested in the big problems. We are just skeptical that big institutions can solve them. We have always believed that if we tried to be good parents, good neighbors and good bosses, there would be enough of the good life to go around. 

And for most of our history, there has been more than enough. Utah has long had some of the lowest levels of income inequality in the country. Some of the highest levels of upward mobility. The most volunteer hours per capita. The second lowest levels of unemployment. No other place in this country has all of that in such abundance. No big organizational initiative could have created it. It’s the result of a unique way of life. One that, to quote Wendell Berry, “we have been willing to change far beyond our ability to understand.” 

In Utah, we believe that making money and doing good can happen simultaneously. Like the boss who is more generous than the market requires. We reject the extremes of rapacious profiteering followed by Giving Pledges and massive philanthropy. We give as we go. 

We believe balance is a daily pursuit, making time for family dinner and kids soccer games even though it constrains our professional success. 

We understand that while work is essential to the meaningful life, work alone is incapable of providing ultimate meaning. And so, we invest seriously in the religious, spiritual and metaphysical. Building deep community ties with fellow seekers. 

That way of life is undermined when we overvalue the superficial Silicon Slopes scorecard. It is undermined when we make billionaires an aspirational good. It is undermined when our best people are drawn away from the legacy Utah economy towards the bigness of companies controlled by people we’ll never meet. 

Utah is not perfect. We have been too slow to welcome those who are different. Often too fearful of the good that comes from far. Too patriarchal. And yet there is also something uniquely good here that is worth understanding and preserving — before it’s too late.

The day I left Utah to start my career in Boston, my childhood best friend Anthony asked why I was moving away. With all the hubris of youth, I told him I was leaving because I was ambitious. He replied, “Ryan, there’s more to be ambitious about than just your career.”

No one has ever summarized the Utah ambition more succinctly.

Ryan Beck is the managing partner at Tapestry Capital, a Salt Lake City-based firm focused on making long-term investments in Utah real-estate and businesses. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business strategy from Brigham Young University and a master’s from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.