Mehul Sanghani: Innovation Campus is 'rising tide' that will benefit all of Virginia
Sanghani, who grew up in Blacksburg and earned separate bachelor’s degrees from Virginia Tech in industrial systems engineering and psychology, serves on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors.
July 9, 2019
When Amazon announced it would build a new headquarters in the National Landing area of Arlington, Virginia, Mehul Sanghani had every reason to be concerned — but wasn’t.
Octo Consulting, the technology solutions firm that Sanghani founded and for which he serves as CEO, already competes against countless other businesses in the Washington, D.C., metro area for talented tech workers. Amazon’s arrival meant that competition could become much more fierce.
Despite the short-term challenge, Sanghani ’98 was delighted with the announcement for a reason that involved his alma mater. As part of Virginia’s deal with Amazon, Virginia Tech will develop a 1 million-square-foot Innovation Campus in nearby Alexandria that will blend academics, research, and housing. The new initiative will be a magnet for tech talent, research, and education, while ensuring that Virginia meets a goal of producing 25,000 new degrees in computer science and related fields by 2039.
Sanghani, who grew up in Blacksburg and earned separate bachelor’s degrees from Virginia Tech in industrial systems engineering and psychology, serves on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, as well as on the board of directors for the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Tech Science and Engineering Regional Growth Enterprise. He is a member of the Pamplin College of Business Advisory Council, the Pamplin Finance Advisory Board, and Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region Leadership Council.
Octo has grown significantly in recent years. Where does it stand today?
We definitely have had tremendous growth. Last year, we grossed $100 million. We expect to have about 40 percent growth this year on the heels of some major wins last year.
We now have 500 employees. That number continues to grow. We added about 140 people to our payrolls last year. Of that group, we’re about 6 percent or 7 percent Hokie. There are lots of Hokie roots at the firm, at the leadership level as well as at the staff level. We’ve been aggressive with recruiting and hope to expand it on campus this year. Last year, we hired six graduates from Virginia Tech. This coming year, we may hire as many as 15 on campus.
From your perspective as a Hokie and CEO of a Northern Virginia tech firm, how do you see the forthcoming Innovation Campus?
I think we can look at it across a number of perspectives.
When you look at it from the perspective of my industry, as a government contracting and technology firm, the initial reaction is that being able to compete and retain and attract talent just got harder. When Apple announces an expansion of 20,000 jobs in Silicon Valley, they don’t flinch and worry about the impact to be able to attract talent. That’s only going to bring a broader talent market for our market. In the short run, there will be more competition for talent, but I think in the long run, you’ll see a significant increase in the talent that moves to Washington, D.C., as a result of this investment.
It’s self-explanatory for Northern Virginia. When you look at it regionally, at the stature of the school, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands has said we have a major opportunity to address not only the number of alumni, but also our research prowess to make this geographic region a major part of Virginia Tech’s growth plans.
Although it’s centered geographically here in Northern Virginia, the biggest game changer economically is for the Blacksburg community. I’m a Blacksburg High School alumnus and a town native, so it’s a big deal for me. Blacksburg stands to benefit from this tremendously.
From a school perspective, the visibility this partnership with Amazon has given Virginia Tech is astounding. Virginia Tech was a huge part of the reason that Amazon chose to go with this region as the focal point for HQ2. Virginia Tech was instrumental in helping drive that. There are endless opportunities, whether you’re talking about the expansion of next-generation skillsets and abilities and degree programs, or the number of graduates to meet what is insatiable demand for those skills. It’s massive — not just for the expertise but for the ability to turn out folks for the next-generation economy.
Why is this important for Blacksburg and Virginia more broadly?
You’ve got to look at it from the perspective of a rising tide lifting all ships. This is a commonwealth that is very diverse in terms of the types of industry it serves. You have agriculture. When you look at eastern Virginia and Northern Virginia, you see economies that are exceedingly dependent on the defense and government market for its economy. An investment of this size will not only bring all these new jobs to Virginia, but also benefit the Virginia Tech graduates who are going to attend these programs.
The governor has talked about the need for the Virginia economy to evolve beyond just servicing the defense market and broaden out. The technology economy is obviously a major economic engine. Being able to not only turn out graduates but attract 25,000 jobs to Virginia creates a rising tide that will benefit everyone. There’s a sentiment that Northern Virginia benefits more, but from the perspective of the state and school, and having all of this additional tax revenue and new folks migrating into Virginia, I can’t see how it won’t benefit every other part of the state and the university.
Virginia Tech will admit its largest, its most diverse, and its second-most academically competitive class in history next year. How does that tie into the Innovation Campus and Virginia Tech’s role as a land-grant institution?
I’m someone who grew up down in Blacksburg, who went to high school there and visited every nearby community playing baseball or basketball. In every community through southwestern Virginia, what you see is disproportionate access to education and disproportionate access to opportunity. Being here in Northern Virginia, I don’t know that everyone here has had enough opportunity to see the diversity we have in the state. When I say ‘diversity,’ I mean disproportionate access to people in Appalachia and to people in urban areas of eastern Virginia. I don’t know you can appreciate that unless you’ve seen both of those areas.
Given our land-grant mission and the realities of disproportionate access, you have to take steps. It begins at the leadership level, with the Board of Visitors and President Sands.
There are some communities in Virginia where it’s been several years since they’ve sent a single student to Virginia Tech. Is it because the students don’t qualify or because the opportunities don’t exist? If you’re going to be a land-grant university that serves the needs of the entire commonwealth, you have to take proactive steps to address that.
By Mason Adams