Women in Public Affairs to Know: Mary Trigiani

July 6, 2021

Pardon Our Dust

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Mary Trigiani is an executive, communicator and commentator who resides in Southwestern Virginia. Formerly based in Silicon Valley and Chicago, Mary returned to her Appalachian roots in 2016. This pivot inspired her to join with others in ensuring that business and government leaders understand the vast opportunity within the Appalachian Region.

The interview below was conducted by Michele Satterlund, senior vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Virginia State Government Relations team and Margaret Rockwell, assistant vice president on McGuireWoods Consulting’s Infrastructure and Economic Development team.

Question: In 2019, you wrote in The Business Journal of Tri-Cities that “an Appalachian Renaissance is within our grasp.”  What do you mean by this and how would this proposed renaissance affect the political and economic future of Appalachia?

Mary Trigiani: Well before the 2020 pandemic, the parallels between Appalachia and the Italian Renaissance struck me as compelling. The Italian Renaissance happened over the course of four hundred years, and while it was not all lollipops and roses, there was the embrace of innovation, which led to inventions we use to this day. We have a legacy of innovation and entrepreneurship in the Appalachian Region that dates to the 1880s. Back then, as the coal industry grew to meet a global need, entrepreneurs from other places came into the region, often redirecting their profits elsewhere. The management style evolved to become very command-and-control, which left us with something of a mindset of letting others do the deciding for us. Our entrepreneurial spirit was squashed. We capitulated to “I work for the man and the man takes care of me. My union takes care of me.” Today, we celebrate the winning of government-funded grants as much as we celebrate the creation of new businesses, yet we’re not measuring the impact – or revisiting the purpose – of those grants. We are celebrating the redistribution of wealth, not the creation of it.

Given the many taxpayer dollars that are about to pour into infrastructure, we could fuel an Appalachian Renaissance. We would want an era that takes us beyond our entrenched viewpoints and processes and instead of building institutions and agencies to maintain the status quo, living with the problems, we would kickstart private enterprises that deliver solutions to make us competitive. Well-run government initiatives would deliver a measurable return-on-investment to taxpayers, via the private sector, in the way of attracting jobs, tax revenue and growth. These initiatives would be projects with a beginning and an end. So, the key success factor for an Appalachian Renaissance is to approach the region’s economic and infrastructural development with a solutions orientation. 

 Mary Trigiani with Virginia's 7th Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson, Dr. Leanna Blevins, and middle school students. Capital One's Women in Tech Summit, 2019.

Mary Trigiani with Virginia’s 7th Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson, Dr. Leanna Blevins, and middle school students. Capital One’s Women in Tech Summit, 2019.

Q: At this writing, President Biden has said that he wants to spend $33 billion for coal and power plant community revitalization and $6 trillion on infrastructure. How do you see this playing out in rural communities?

Mary: First, if that money pours into any rural regions without key performance indicators, and if there is no model for collaboration among stakeholders, then it’s not going to move the needle. We would not enjoy a renaissance. What I would love to see is a public-private endeavor that defines outcomes, results and measures for every dollar spent – with an eye to a return so we can move on to fix the next problem or the next region. Second, funding should go to initiatives that eradicate problems, increase the taxpayer base, and give everyone a chance to become prosperous. Examples of initiatives that could do this include making internet connectivity as ubiquitous as other utilities; stackable certifications that fill the vast white space in our education system; ensuring that coding is taught alongside reading, writing, and arithmetic; and creating community experiences that invite newcomers, including businesses.

As an Italian-American, I love the stories around the renaissance. I love the art it engendered and the craftsmanship it inspired. I am excited that we could be doing the same. But it is going to take focus, new players alongside established players, and bold thinking. If we’re going to get big chunks of change from the federal government, let’s think about a new way to invest this money. Let’s set an example for outcomes, for workers, for satisfaction, and for prosperity being extended to all. Many of the social problems we see will be solved if people are working. In our region, we must stop mourning what we’ve lost and start celebrating the chance we have, in full recognition that our nation is going to invest in this. We’re the coalfields – an invaluable legacy – so we must remember and remind the world that talented, hardworking, innovative Appalachians went down into the ground and powered this planet for decades. So now, because we must move to something different, why can’t we expand our legacy and position ourselves as the energy fields? To get there, and to a fully diversified industrial scenario, we must be honest with ourselves. Let’s look at the recent initiatives that actually yielded jobs and injected money into our economies and learn from these and other global examples so we can design approaches that achieve maximum ROI for taxpayers and real results for all Appalachians.

 Mary Trigiani with Justice (ret.) Elizabeth A. McClanahan, Virginia Tech Foundation CEO; Carly Fiorina, Carly Fiorina Enterprises CEO; and Justice Cleo Powell of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Image Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Mary Trigiani with Justice (ret.) Elizabeth A. McClanahan, Virginia Tech Foundation CEO; Carly Fiorina, Carly Fiorina Enterprises CEO; and Justice Cleo Powell of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Image Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Q: I’ve heard it said that you have adopted a philosophy of “leaning in.” What does this mean and how does it apply to your efforts to grow the region’s economic landscape?

Mary: When Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg conceived the “leaning in” theme, she was talking about women at work. It is an arresting concept and I found it worthy of expanding to everything we’re discussing here. At the same time we dive into the problems – not denying or sugarcoating them – we must lean into creating solutions.

Leaning in signifies the adoption of a collaborative model in which we agree on the problems, want solutions, and are honest with one another. Getting to the other side of problems – to solutions – requires transparency, which itself requires an ethical sensibility. It requires accepting that perhaps every one of us is doing something to hold others back. In Appalachia, as in all of rural America, we are the keepers of the flame of fairness. That’s the best in us. And we have to use it expand both access and performance. To lean in today requires courage.

 Mary Trigiani

Q: You are the co-author of a memoir-meets-cookbook, Cooking with My Sisters, that highlights family recipes from Italy to Big Stone Gap. Tell us about the process of creating a cookbook and what surprised you most about putting a book together.

Mary: Throughout most of the 90s, I helped clients write books. It is one thing to work as a collaborator in business teams and a completely different kettle of fish when working with family. One of the greatest things that happened was the book tour experience. Every single audience included women from every possible ethnic background, and they talked about keeping their recipes secret – or the grandmother, aunt, sister or cousin who did. 

So I came up with what I call the Secret Recipe Phenomenon: for centuries, women couldn’t own property, and in many cases even were property, so the only intellectual capital they had would have been their recipe collections. We discovered a shared experience with many other families from different walks of life. And we grasped how much we can learn from one another in moving fairness forward.