The American Enterprise

The U.S. brain belt: the next centers of our information economy may surprise you.(information technology boom)

When A. T. Burgum came to the Dakota Territory in 1880, the way to riches lay in the deep, rich soil of the Red River Valley. A generation later, his son J. A. Burgum founded an elevator company in a small town called Arthur (current population 400). The company remained in family hands, and after A. T.'s great grandson Doug Burgum graduated from Arthur's high school, he left town to attend North Dakota State University and then Stanford. In 1983, after working in Chicago, he returned to North Dakota, lured back by another kind of natural resource: its people.

"My business strategy is to be close to the source of my critical inputs," states Burgum, dressed casually in jeans and down vest. "And for me it's not fertile land or a raw material that's most important, but educated people."

Burgum found his opportunity by joining, and then buying, a fledgling local firm called Great Plains Software. Over the next 15 years, Great Plains became a force in the information business, and was acquired by Microsoft in 2001. Today, the company employs 1,000 people in its sprawling, wooded complex on the outskirts of Fargo, and plays a critical role in the overall strategy of the world's dominant software company.

Burgum believes his insight about the high quality of Fargo's people is more relevant today than a decade ago. Once considered an oddity in tech circles, the greater Fargo region of some 180,000 people is becoming a force not only in software, but in electronics manufacturing, research and development, and biotechnology.

Burgum sees North Dakota's edge not just in its abundance of cooperative and educated workers (North Dakota has among the highest high school test scores in the country) but also in other qualitative factors. Today's Midwesterners from farms and small towns, he believes, approach life and work in a manner perfectly suited to the challenges of the information age.

"You have to start with the character of the people," Burgum suggests. "These people come with a strong work ethic. They also have a sense and aptitude for risk--all farmers have that." There is a stability and responsibility about his neighbors that makes them highly competent and reliable brain workers.

A heartland strategy?

In some senses, the movement of technology industries into the vast interior of America reflects one of the nation's fundamental strengths. America has always relied on its continental girth for economic advantages. …

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