Job Creator, Community Builder
Tom White’s work in the Office of External Affairs, Partnerships and Economic Development is helping create opportunity across North Carolina.
As an English major and member of the golf team at Duke University, Tom White never imagined he’d launch into a long career in economic development.
In college he studied the works of Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley, and took a handful of public affairs and political science courses. “My mom loved reading and writing, which really sparked my interest in literature,” he says.
His dad, who at 97 is still more active than many 20-somethings, is an accomplished real estate developer who started communities along the Jersey Shore, chaired the New Jersey Real Estate Commission and founded Princeton Hills Golf Academy, among other job-generating projects.
“The staff at Duke’s Career Center suggested I check out the Durham Chamber of Commerce downtown,” White says. “The Chamber was led by Bob Booth, who was also a Duke English grad and a fine golfer.”
Curious and eager to roll up his sleeves, White joined the Chamber’s government and civic affairs arm, advocating for local, state and federal public policy in support of small to large businesses. The biggest draw? Creating opportunity for all citizens — including underserved communities.
After getting his feet wet, he went on to pursue a master’s degree in public affairs at NC State.
His early work at the Durham Chamber would lead to a 28-year career there, resulting in his position as president and CEO. He left to head up the division of employment training at the North Carolina Department of Commerce for three years, before getting the call to join the economic development team at NC State in 2008.
When asked what drew him to the role, White passionately describes NC State’s deeply rooted land-grant mission to advance North Carolina for all. And through his prior work, he had a firsthand look into how the university works side-by-side with industry and government to solve challenges, create jobs and prepare skilled workers.
NC State produces graduates who believe in a common cause: to solve the big challenges facing our world and to give back to those in need. This culture is who we are, it’s what we do as a Wolfpack.
To underscore NC State’s impact, he cites a quote from former UNC President Edward Kidder Graham, whose untimely death resulted from the 1918 flu pandemic: “Our hope is to make the campus coextensive with the boundaries of the state.”
“Tom is an unsung hero of sorts, diligently working on projects sometimes for years on end, but largely removed from the spotlight when they come to fruition,” says Kevin Howell, NC State’s vice chancellor for external affairs, partnerships and economic development. “He’s the man behind the scenes putting the right people in the room together for the common benefit of not just the university but the entire state. One brief conversation with Tom will show you how much he’s personally invested in his work, relishing the connections he makes, all the while performing his role with a big smile providing encouragement to everyone he meets along the way.”
The ripple effect of White’s work is the result of intentional collaboration culminating over decades and throughout communities. Working closely with statewide economic development partners to market NC State’s expertise has helped attract companies from around the world — not just to the Research Triangle, but across North Carolina.
In a traditional week, White’s long days often start in one part of the state and end in another. A typical day might also be capped off by one of the many community building organizations he contributes to, like serving on the board of LC Industries, an employer and job trainer for the blind, or as chair of the Research Triangle Foreign Trade Zone.
“In my more than 20 years doing economic development work across three different states, I have not met a more energetic and collaborative ‘connector’ than Tom,” says Chris Chung, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, the public-private organization recruiting new business through a contract with the N.C. Department of Commerce. “University partnerships have become a key strategy in how states and communities win major economic development projects, and we’re all fortunate that Tom is helping us leverage the tremendous resource that is NC State.”
Anyone who meets White will say he’s flush with know-how and experience, yet quick to recognize the contributions of others before his own. Even during this interview, he largely praised the folks he’s worked with along the way.
Read on to learn more about White’s impactful career — and how his work with partners across the state continues to create new opportunities for North Carolinians.
What are some milestones that helped shape your career?
While I was at the Durham Chamber, our team helped with expansion projects in Research Triangle Park. I was lucky to learn from economic development visionaries like Jim Camp, who left his career as a college football coach to recruit companies such as General Electric, GlaxoSmithKline and Nortel to RTP.
This led to collaborations with business leaders like Dick Daugherty, then site head of IBM and later of NC State’s Centennial Campus. Our teams partnered to create an IBM job training center in inner-city Durham. This catalyzed programs like the Ford Foundation’s Women in Electronics grant, which helped low-income women receive training at a community college and go on to work at places like IBM and other tech giants in RTP.
It was also impactful to be involved as North Carolina seeded the clusters of innovation strategy, which helped transition communities like Durham from industries such as tobacco to new pursuits, by creating unique partnerships with universities. Work like this made it clear that long-term impact is accomplished by taking a more regional and statewide approach to economic development — and by getting these companies integrally engaged with faculty and students.
These initiatives really helped grow my understanding for the significance of public-private partnerships. Most importantly, the long-lasting benefits stemming from collaborations between four-year universities, community colleges, government organizations and the private sector.
How do NC State’s economic development efforts bring opportunities to both rural and urban communities?
It’s always rewarding when we can help create jobs in areas where they’ll make a big impact. For example, Bharat Forge America, an Indian company looking to establish a center to manufacture automobile components, announced 304 jobs and a $127.3 million investment in Sanford last year.
Another great project is Merck’s vaccine manufacturing and distribution center in Durham which commits $680 million in capital investment and 425 new jobs, with an additional $57 million investment and 55 jobs in Wilson County.
For many of these recruitment efforts, our statewide economic development partners host business leaders at iconic places like Hunt Library on Centennial Campus, where we bring in researchers and faculty experts to showcase the university’s (and the state’s) unique strengths.
In 2020 NC State’s work with statewide partners led to more than 5,000 jobs and $1.35 billion in capital investment for communities across North Carolina. How do these partnerships help advance the state’s economy?
NC State’s critical role as an economic development partner is driven by the leadership of Chancellor Randy Woodson. In 2019 the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities named NC State an Innovation & Economic Prosperity awardee, recognizing innovative programs in economic engagement.
One of NC State’s most unique job creation assets is our Golden LEAF Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center. BTEC provides both traditional students seeking industry skills and professional workers looking to learn new techniques an opportunity to get hands-on training in biomanufacturing. Through its programs, BTEC continues to help transform North Carolina’s workforce and grow the state’s economy.
NC State prides itself in being a partner. In line with the university’s founding mission, we play a role, as part of a much larger ecosystem, to help facilitate selling North Carolina for new business. The N.C. Department of Commerce and the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina play the lead role, developing a customized recruitment strategy and bringing the state’s best assets together. Our job is to highlight NC State’s unique strengths within this context, which can be strikingly different depending on the company and its needs.
How can NC State continue to help move North Carolina’s economy forward post-pandemic?
It all starts with our students, who are the leaders and innovators of our future, and who learn from some of the best and brightest faculty in the world. They are why we get up and do what we do every day.
NC State produces graduates who believe in a common cause: to solve the big challenges facing our world and to give back to those in need. This culture is who we are, it’s what we do as a Wolfpack — and it’s why I’m proud to be part of the NC State family. That’s our secret sauce, and that’s what will drive our economy and our society forward long after the pandemic.
I’m reminded of this quote from the late Bill Friday, former UNC System President and ‘41 alumnus: “Every morning a million North Carolinians get up and go to work for wages which leave them below the poverty line so they can pay taxes that finance the education you receive. Your job is to figure out how you’re going to pay them back.”