Growth prompts Danville institute to reorganize

A “wave of growth” at the Danville Institute for Advanced Learning and Research sparked a nationwide search for the organization’s first president. The IALR Board of Directors selected someone with experience in education and economic development and, more importantly, community connections.

Telly Tucker. Courtesy of IALR.

Telly Tucker, 43, a former Danville director of economic development, returned to the city after two years in Arlington, where he was also director of economic development. He began his work as President in May.

The Institute also recently appointed an Executive Vice President.

IALR, a self-proclaimed catalyst for regional economic transformation, has five divisions – Applied Research, Manufacturing Advancement, Advanced Learning, Economic Development and Conference Services.

Programs in these departments are attracting “tremendous interest,” Tucker said, noting controlled environment farming, a growing partnership with the Department of Defense and the GO TEC talent development program, which originated in Danville but is expanding to other Virginia communities.

“Our board leadership wanted to ensure that the institute had the human infrastructure to support this growth,” said Tucker.

IALR has grown since its inception more than 20 years ago, said Charles Majors, chairman of American National Bank and Trust Company, who serves on the institute’s executive committee and board of directors.

“However, in recent years there has been more growth, both in terms of the types of roles it plays and the opportunities that we have had,” Majors said.

After eight months of strategic planning, the board and staff of IALR decided that this growth warranted someone “who can provide strategic leadership, both for what we are already doing and for what we see as opportunities going forward ‘ said Majors.

Before the position of President was established, IALR was governed by a board of community, regional and state leaders. And that growth has been difficult for the board to handle alone.

“I like to say that we have become victims of our own success,” Majors said.

After a national search, five finalists were selected for the presidential position. The board was looking for someone with a background in business who also understood government agencies and how to work with other entities, Majors said.

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The introduction of a presidential position will help the institute move more cohesively internally and work more collaboratively externally, Tucker said.

“We are in many ways an organizer of disparate groups that don’t typically work together, but we bring them together to support the regional goal of transformation,” he said. “I am responsible for developing and strengthening these relationships.”

IALR serves six counties and two cities: Patrick County, Franklin County, Henry County, Pittsylvania County, Halifax County, Mecklenburg County, and the cities of Danville and Martinsville.

With so much regional and local collaboration, it helps that Tucker has a history in the area.

Born and raised in Lynchburg to two educators, he graduated from James Madison University and eventually taught at the school himself. While teaching, he volunteered at a camp where children learned about entrepreneurship, sparking his interest in economic development.

“I wasn’t very well versed in what business developers actually do,” Tucker said. But six months later he applied for a job in business development in Lynchburg, where he worked for three years.

Since then he has worked in many locations in Virginia including Hampton Roads, James City County and at the state level in Richmond.

“Even when I was working for the state, we worked a lot in Southwest Virginia, so I feel like I’ve worked in every region,” he said. “I’ve got my basics covered. And it’s fascinating because Virginia is a truly diverse and unique state in terms of its assets and challenges.”

He said he looks forward to using his wealth of experience from working in other areas of the state to lead IALR.

Tucker’s diverse work experience stood out to the board, Majors said.

“He has worked for the state government, local government and regional government, and he has also done economic development work,” Majors said. “He had also spent several years here in our region and worked there [IALR] in his function as the city’s economic promoter. So many of the projects we are working on now were familiar to him.”

While Tucker’s background in economic development was a plus, Majors said IALR doesn’t seek to be a leader in this space.

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“The city has an economic development team and the county has one,” he said. “We also have a regional business promoter who actually works with the institute. So we don’t want that. Our mission is economic transformation for the region, which is much broader.”

And being from the region, Tucker was more inclined to accept the position. The Lynchburger native said he considers the entire area “home” and is excited to return to Danville, where he worked from 2014-2020.

“One of the things that really motivated me was going back to an area that I was really passionate about and had put a lot of time, energy and effort into,” said Tucker. “Through the relationships I’ve already built, I see the passion that people in this community have for positive change.”

Everyone points out how different Danville and Arlington are, Tucker said. But there is actually some overlap in economic development initiatives.

“The strategies you use are similar,” he said. “The goals may differ in relation to the goals you want to achieve for your community. But the best practices in economic development somehow apply wherever you are.”

Working in Arlington is challenging, he said. The region, much larger and more metropolitan than Danville, is less focused on manufacturing and more on technology and corporate headquarters.

Tucker arrived in Northern Virginia on the heels of Amazon’s HQ2, an extension of the company’s Seattle headquarters in Arlington.

In the midst of the pandemic, he, among others, helped build this project — recruiting Boeing’s global headquarters to Arlington and increasing Microsoft’s presence.

Those experiences have equipped Tucker with new knowledge and skills to bring back to Danville, he said.

While at Arlington, he learned how to form relationships with Northern Virginia universities, which is useful since IALR works with schools such as Virginia Tech, Averett University, Danville Community College, and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia is funded.

Tucker said he also learned how to lead a larger team. In Arlington, he worked with over 50 full-time employees, which is comparable to the size of his new team at IALR.

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That was something else the board liked about Tucker, Majors said — he knew how to lead a group of people and lead initiatives.

And when Tucker got the offer to return to Danville, it was “too great to resist,” he said.

“Growing up in this region, I haven’t had enough opportunities to continue to give back and make a difference,” said Tucker.

His goals for his new role as President include strengthening regional collaboration and helping the community understand what IALR is doing.

“I want every young person in this community, and also some who are not so young, to understand what is happening at the institute and what opportunities are available for them as residents of this region or even just visitors to this region,” said Tucker.

This can be accomplished through community engagement and by bringing members of the community to the institute for events and tours. IALR receives requests for tours at least once a week, Tucker said.

“Many of them come from outside,” he says. “They’ve heard what’s happening in Southern Virginia and the Institute’s role, and they want to come and learn more.”

Visitors even came from Arkansas, he said. And many neighboring Virginia towns have also come to tour and learn about collaboration opportunities.

The most exciting part of his new position is the opportunity to contribute to real change in the community, Tucker said.

“There’s something rewarding about knowing that the work you do is changing the lives of those around you and the community,” he said. “But I’m not doing this alone. I stand on the shoulders of many giants who have preceded me in the institute’s 20-year history.”

Majors said Tucker “had a blast” in his first few months as president.

“He probably feels like he drank out of a fire hose,” Majors said. “I’m very happy with his performance in the first few months and I’m very excited about the opportunities his leadership offers us.”

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