Utah tech leaders throw down $5M education gauntlet at Silicon Slopes Summit

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Just hours into a packed first day at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit Thursday, a group of Utah tech leaders took the stage and threw down the gauntlet on Utah lawmakers with a $5 million challenge to make a move on computer science education this session — or leave the money on the table.

Five co-founders of Utah’s nonprofit tech advocacy group Silicon Slopes committed to each making a $1 million personal donation to help put computer science courses in every school in Utah.

Additionally, the group will rally Utah tech company colleagues to match, dollar for dollar, any computer science funding that comes from legislators this session in excess of $5 million.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who appeared alongside Gov. Gary Herbert for a conversation with Pluralsight co-founder and CEO Aaron Skonnard, lauded the chance for a public-private education effort and noted Utah’s underperformance in public school computer science offerings.

“The private sector working with the government sector to make this happen … it doesn’t happen everywhere and it’s a really big deal,” Cox said. “Only 54 percent of (Utah high schools) even have a computer science offering. And only around 30 percent have an Advanced Placement offering for computer science.”

Skonnard is joined in the funding pledge by four other founders/leaders of well-established Utah tech companies: InsideSales CEO Dave Elkington, DOMO CEO Josh James, Vivint SmartHome CEO Todd Pedersen and Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith.

Skonnard, whose tech education company had one of three Utah tech mega-deals last year, has been an outspoken advocate for bolstering computer science education and featured the issue in a presentation at last year’s tech summit.

This year, he upped the ante.

“We’ve rallied as Silicon Slopes founders to personally commit $1 million of our own personal resources to match what the government does,” Skonnard said. “And we’re going to go rally the rest of the tech CEOs in the state to cover whatever is left.”

Skonnard also noted the money comes with a catch. The Utah Legislature has to pass a computer science funding bill this session to score the private cash infusion.

“If they don’t pass it, it’s not happening,” Skonnard said. “If they don’t pass it, we’re not doing it.”

Smith noted that should the Legislature successfully pass funding to boost computer science curriculum and earn the private matching, it would be the first program of its kind in the country.

“No state has been able to do this,” Smith said. “Everyone wants to do it, and it makes sense. And, we’re going to be the first.”

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