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How Silicon Slopes landed an all-star lineup for the return of its annual summit

Steve Ballmer, LA Clippers owner and former Microsoft CEO, talks with Utah Sen. Mitt Romney at the Silicon Slopes Summit.
Steve Ballmer, owner of the LA Clippers and former Microsoft CEO, talks with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, at the Silicon Slopes Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

With its last rendition going down in early 2020 just before COVID-19 shut down the world, the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit is back in action in a big way this week with a bevy of A-list speakers and a host of opportunities for an audience that now scales internationally.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, longtime Microsoft head and LA Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, NBA superstar and now Utah Jazz part-owner Dwyane Wade, Jazz majority owner Ryan Smith, both of Utah’s U.S. senators and many others are in the mix for the two-day event that kicks off Wednesday at the Salt Palace.

Since its debut in 2017, the annual summit has grown from an event that drew a few thousand stalwarts to a booming juggernaut that, in pre-pandemic times, had built its audience to one numbering in the tens of thousands.

While this year’s version will include both in-person and virtual attendance options, Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts said the summit stands out as a unique opportunity to reconvene a community that reaches far beyond Utah’s borders.

“Silicon Slopes Summit is, in one respect, a grand reunion for our local, and broader, startup and tech community,” Betts said. “We haven’t seen each other for over a year and a half. There’s a real hunger for it and to be able to finally make it happen is meaningful.”

Tech’s unlikely ringer: Mike Lee

Challenges and successes will be at the heart of many discussions this week at the Slopes Summit as will insight from some of the biggest names in the tech world. While Apple’s Tim Cook is a headliner this year, the 2020 event featured Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Interestingly, one well-known, non-tech Utah figure played a pivotal role in locking down both of these back-to-back mega-bookings.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee.

In a Deseret News interview Tuesday, Lee said he has known Cook since 2015 and speaks with the Apple leader on a fairly regular basis.

He also shared details of a surprise benefit that came out of his first meeting with the man who succeeded Steve Jobs. Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and longtime figurehead died from complications related to pancreatic cancer October 5, 2011.

Apple CEO Tim Cook waves to the crowd during a question-and-answer session with members of the Utah tech community in 2016.
Apple CEO Tim Cook waves to the audience during a question-and-answer session with members of the Utah tech community at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Sept. 30, 2016.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Cook reached out to me in 2015 and asked if we could meet,” Lee said. “He came by and we had a good conversation and it felt like we really hit it off. After we covered all the things he wanted to discuss I had the chance to ask him a few questions about Apple products and then I said, ‘While I’ve got you here, my iPhone has been acting up.’”

Lee said he wasn’t sure what Cook’s response might be and expected maybe he’d be deferred to a staff member. But instead, Cook asked Utah’s senior senator a few questions to zero in on the problem, diagnosed the issue and told him how to resolve it.

Lee said that debut experience with Apple’s top executive spoke volumes about the kind of business leader Cook is.

“I was speaking with the CEO of the world’s largest market cap corporation and I’ve got this really obscure question about one of his products,” Lee said. “And, he knew how to fix it.”

Lee said Cook’s deep acumen for the big, and little things, is a characteristic that sets him apart in a global tech market rife with aggressive and competent competitors.

“It was very telling to me that in addition to obviously having a very firm grasp of how to earn profits, expand the company, identify new product lines ... and what to do to maintain their relevance and appeal to customers, he also knows how the stuff works,” Lee said. “I don’t think there are a lot of leaders of businesses at Apple’s scale who can do both.”

And Lee will have a chance to explore the depth and breadth of Cook’s knowledge and insight when he joins him on stage Wednesday afternoon at the summit for a fireside format chat.

Connections big and small

Besides the high-octane speaker lineup and a long list of breakout sessions that cover the latest trends and issues on the minds of those in tech and innovation businesses, Betts said the gathering is a place where unexpected connections are made and, sometimes, seeds of future epic happenings are planted.

“Most people probably don’t know this but the last summit is when Ryan Smith first talked to Gail Miller about a possible Jazz sale,” Betts said. “To now come back, 18 months later as the owner of the Jazz, and having brought in Dwyane Wade as an owner who is also a speaker, is pretty amazing.”

Betts said that while the pandemic wiped out his nonprofit organization’s typical workload, going from hosting over 200 in-person events a year to zero for a time, the impetus behind their biggest gathering at the summit has not waned.

“This has been an effort eight years in the making,” Betts said. “The goal from the start was to go out and build a global tech event that took place in Utah. We wanted to put our state and our startup and tech community on the map at a level that very few ecosystems ever achieve.

“And we’ve done that.”

Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts works at the organization’s office in Lehi on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Silicon Slopes Executive Director Clint Betts works at the organization’s office in Lehi on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Bridging the divide, or how to avoid a catastrophe

While brimming with excitement for the event, Betts also shared his thoughts and concerns about how pandemic conditions have impacted his nonprofit organization, the local tech community and the whole of Utah.

“We’ve had to rethink and rebuild how we do things and along the way figure out how we could best support Utah businesses, and not just tech businesses, who were in dire need of help amid conditions that no one could have anticipated or planned for,” Betts said.

That work include dozens of virtual consult and information-sharing gatherings throughout the pandemic aimed at helping businesses learn about, and access, the tools and resources they needed to survive cataclysmic changes.

Betts said those efforts drew interest and participation from individuals and businesses both within and outside of the state’s tech sector and noted that while many tech firms have prospered in the midst of the public health crisis, many businesses outside that bubble have not. And within that recognition, he said, there are critical lessons to be learned.

“I think the pandemic showed, among other things, how interconnected we all are and how much we need each other,” Betts said. “We’ve lost so many small companies while the biggest businesses in the world saw profits increase tenfold.

“You’d think we’d be showing more empathy, more compassion and more understanding but the opposite has happened. These circumstances have divided us more and shown that we’re lacking empathy, compassion and understanding. And that’s not a great society to be in.”

Betts said Silicon Slopes has doubled down on its work to create broader access to opportunity pathways and ensure that Utah’s still booming tech community is one that helps drive prosperity across all of Utah’s business sectors. The state’s tech sector success has contributed to a whole host of challenges across the state that include traffic congestion, air quality challenges and skyrocketing housing costs. The goal is to “raise the tide” for all Utahns, an effort Betts said will help the state avoid the pitfalls and divisions that have beset other Silicon-monikered communities.

“These are the challenges that come with success,” Betts said. “Not to compare us to Silicon Valley, but they experienced all of this and now you’re seeing a mass exodus because they failed to fix the problems.”

Further details and information about how to join the event, in person or virtually, can be found at summit.siliconslopes.com.