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‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author and Steve Case join forces to bring tech jobs to the heartland

J.D. Vance. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

J.D. Vance, a California venture capitalist who wrote best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” said Wednesday he has joined Revolution, a D.C. investment firm co-founded by Washington-area business leaders Steve Case, Ted Leonsis and Donn Davis.

Vance plans to scout for promising technology companies as part of Revolution’s “Rise of the Rest” campaign, an initiative to invest in promising technology companies outside of established urban tech hubs. He plans to split his time between D.C. and his home in Ohio, while also remaining engaged at Mithril Capital Management, a San Francisco venture capital fund co-founded by Peter Thiel, where he is a principal.

“There are a lot of people who are feeling left behind by digitization and we need to address that,” Case said when asked why he brought Vance on board. Vance “has a platform, a voice and a ton of credibility.”

Vance’s memoir hit bookstores in the summer of 2016 when the world was just beginning to view Donald Trump as a serious political figure. Few predicted then that the election could be decided by disaffected Rust Belt voters in states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Vance’s book uses his childhood in a rural Ohio town as a flashpoint for the economic and social disconnectedness of America’s heartland. He describes how he weathered a difficult upbringing in a now-decrepit steel town before escaping to college at Ohio State. He later graduated from Yale Law School, made a fortune in the biotechnology industry, and became a part of the highly-exclusive Silicon Valley venture capital scene that holds tremendous weight in picking winners and losers in today’s technology industries.

He joins AOL founder Steve Case, who helped build an industry-defining technology company outside of Silicon Valley. Case established AOL in Virginia and helped it grow into one of the pioneering firms of the early Internet. He engineered what turned out to be an ill-fated merger with what was then Time Warner before eventually making his way into the investment world.

Case and Vance say they are trying to remedy the gaping inequalities in the economic benefits flowing from emerging technology industries. Part of the problem is that technology investors — who often provide critical fuel for tech companies in their early days — have historically clustered in established urban hubs.

As a result, the country’s rural areas experience a certain “brain drain” as start-up founders leave in search of funding.

“I think there’s a lot of energy and a ton of talent, but these regions don’t have a lot of access to capital,” Vance said Wednesday.

Vance says his strategy will not focus on a single technology sector but will instead focus more geographically on untapped regions with promising assets. In his home state of Ohio, for example, Vance says he thinks Cincinnati shows promise as a hub for branding and marketing technology companies, by virtue of their proximity to consumer products giant Procter & Gamble.

The problem Case and Vance want to address seems to only be getting worse. A recent Brookings report noted that 86 of the nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas have seen their share of the technology sector shrink since 2010, while San Francisco, San Jose and New York continue to increase their dominance.

Case says he’s seen some initial progress over the past year but admits they have a long road ahead.

“Things are starting to happen, starting to percolate. … We’re just trying to throw some kerosene on it so it happens faster,” Case said.