New VEDP leader aims to build on predecessor’s success
On Aug. 29, 2005, Jason El Koubi’s first day as research and policy director for Louisiana’s Baton Rouge regional chamber of commerce, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the state, resetting El Koubi’s and the state’s trajectory. It was a fast lesson in crisis management, but also one in economic transformation.
That job was among his first since returning to the U.S. after earning his master’s from The London School of Economics and Political Science. El Koubi was one of the first hires at the newly formed Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which was then headed by Stephen Moret, whom El Koubi had met at Louisiana State University when he was a student and Moret was assistant to the school’s chancellor.
After Moret became Louisiana’s secretary of economic development in 2008, he tapped El Koubi as an assistant secretary. And then in 2017, when Moret was named the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s president and CEO, Moret recruited El Koubi to join him in Virginia, hiring El Koubi as VEDP’s executive vice president.
During Moret’s well-regarded tenure at VEDP’s helm, Virginia landed Amazon.com Inc.’s $2.5 billion-plus HQ2 East Coast head- quarters and secured back-to-back wins as CNBC’s Top State for Business.
Moret departed VEDP at the end of 2021 to become president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Strada Education Network. And in March, VEDP’s board of directors chose El Koubi, who had been serving as VEDP’s interim leader, to succeed Moret as the state economic development agency’s next president and CEO.
Since joining VEDP, El Koubi, 43, has orchestrated major initiatives, including the development and implementation of VEDP’s Strategic Plan for Economic Development of the Commonwealth. He’s also been a key player in securing major deals, including Amazon’s HQ2, the $714 million Blue Star NBR LLC medical glove plant in Wythe County, CoStar Group Inc.’s $460 million Richmond expansion and CMA CGM Group’s $36 million expansion in Norfolk.
One of the biggest economic development issues El Koubi has worked on is addressing Virginia’s shortage of large, ready-to-build industrial sites needed for the commonwealth to be competitive in attracting major projects.
El Koubi says he chose to work in economic development because he “feels a very strong calling towards service” and enjoys finding opportunities and solving problems that add value to communities and help advance society.
“I believe collaboration and communication are important,” he says, “not only because economic development is a team sport, but also because strong, collaborative approaches and relationships tend to produce solutions that are more effective and have greater potential for enduring impact.”
As VEDP’s leader, he says, “I get to advance opportunities that are intrinsically important and work with a wide variety of other people who want to contribute to the growth and prosperity of their state and communities and it’s a tremendously enriching experience.”
Virginia Business spoke with El Koubi in March, days after he was named VEDP’s president and CEO.
Virginia Business: Why did you choose to follow Stephen Moret to Virginia after working with him in Louisiana? What did you see in the commonwealth that drew you here?
Jason El Koubi: Some of the things I really value in Stephen, in our professional relationship — it all starts with his great integrity, his intelligence, his collaboration with a wide range of partners, his orientation towards problem solving and pursuing a big, worthy vision for the communities he’s trying to serve. Those are all things that I really value and try to emulate as a leader for Virginia.
Virginia is just such a special place and, as an American, I am attracted to Virginia because it’s such a big part of the story of the country that I love. On a personal level, Virginia is a beautiful state with four mild seasons, great access to the ocean and to the mountains and a wide range of cultural communities and the nation’s capital. It’s just a wonderful place to live and work and explore. My wife, Allison, and I have just fallen in love with Virginia over the last five years and think of it as our adopted home.
VB: Some would call you Stephen Moret’s protégé or his heir apparent. How will your approach to running VEDP be similar or different than his?
El Koubi: There are many qualities that Stephen embodies that as a leader that I would aspire to emulate: his integrity, his character, his collaboration with partners across the commonwealth in a steadfast commitment to advance the transformational goals of the Strategic Plan For Economic Development of the Commonwealth, positioning Virginia as a leader for job growth and growth in median earned income [and] doing that in a way where every region of Virginia participates in that prosperity. Those are all things that I’m very committed to and look to continue. The charge that I have been given by VEDP’s board is to stay the course and accelerate Virginia’s economic trajectory.
While we’ve made a lot of progress over the past few years, there’s a lot more work to do. I’m excited to work with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration and the leaders in the General Assembly as well as with partners across the commonwealth to accelerate Virginia’s economic growth and to fulfill the potential of generating growth and prosperity in every region of Virginia.
VB: Virginia was ranked CNBC’s Top State for Business for the second time in a row last year. How do you see VEDP’s role in continuing to keep Virginia on top of rankings like that?
El Koubi: Virginia has made some significant progress towards securing a top position in state business climate rankings, and while we are at the top or near the top in some, there are certainly others where we have much more room to grow.
There are a number of things we need to do to secure a top position across the board. Those things broadly fall into three categories: The first is our actual economic performance as measured by recent historical performance, as well as expectations of future performance. Virginia is lagging somewhat in its economic recovery from the pandemic and needs to accelerate, and that will be an important factor.
The VEDP’s goal and Virginia’s goal of being an economic growth leader is an essential part of what it will take to position the commonwealth at the top of the state business climate rankings.
Secondly, a big part of what the rankings measure is the business climate, which is largely a reflection of the policy and programmatic choices we make, so it’s very important to maintain and strengthen Virginia as a pro-business location.
Finally, Virginia’s reputation as a location for businesses is also a significant factor in many of the rankings, particularly those that are based on surveys of site selection consultants and corporate executives.
A big part of what we need to do there is make sure that we are marketing Virginia’s strengths as a business location for existing businesses and for new businesses to business decision-makers, and this is an area where there’s a lot of room for improvement. Virginia does not invest as much in economic development marketing as many of our peer states or competitors, and we need to really focus on this opportunity to tell our story and to articulate Virginia’s value proposition to business decision-makers across the country and around the world.
VB: Which industries have the most growth potential in Virginia?
El Koubi: We take a portfolio approach with 14 different target industry sectors that we are trying to cultivate at the state level. It’s important to have a portfolio approach because we’re trying to generate outcomes that not only position the state overall for economic success, but we also want to ensure that each region of Virginia is able to participate in the growth of the economy. When you look at that group of targeted niche industry sectors … it includes some areas of traditional strength in Virginia — things like data centers, things like software, things like supply chain management, food and beverage processing, advanced materials. It also includes emerging sectors like offshore wind, life sciences, aerospace and cybersecurity. It is a portfolio that is designed to ensure that we achieve strong growth overall as a state, but also that we do it in a way where each region of Virginia can participate in that progress.
When you look at those target sectors, there are some that are critically important. The tech sector in general, think about software development. Think about cybersecurity. Think about data centers, tech centers. The tech … sector generally will be a strong sector with a strong engine of job growth for Virginia. My aspiration is that we not only see strong growth in that sector, and the large markets that have traditionally seen growth, including Northern Virginia, but that we see the tech sector growth spread across other regions of Virginia going forward.
I will also say that for small metros and for rural regions, it’s going to be very important that we maintain our focus and have success in the manufacturing sector. For many regions, manufacturing represents a majority of the jobs that get announced, in terms of economic development projects and in some cases, manufacturing represents the strong majority of announced direct jobs. So those are two sectors that I would put particular emphasis on.
VB: What is it like to work with a governor who has a background as a CEO in private industry, like Gov. Youngkin?
El Koubi: It has been a tremendous pleasure to work with Gov. Youngkin and his team. He has made economic growth and economic development a top priority in terms of the time he’s willing to spend to personally engage and helping Virginia businesses grow and helping to recruit new business to Virginia. He is a tremendous asset, and we’re already hearing that affirmed by the site consultants and the business executives that have interacted with the governor on competitive economic development projects. His sophistication, his deep experience [and] his relationships all make him tremendously effective and helpful in Virginia’s economic development progress.
VB: What was your role in bringing Amazon’s HQ2 to Virginia?
El Koubi: I was part of a small leadership team at VEDP that oversaw the Amazon HQ2 project on behalf of the commonwealth from start to finish. We’ve worked collaboratively with many other important partners at the local, regional and state levels. I was involved in almost all aspects of the project, but the place where I contributed the most sort of direct leadership was in working with transportation partners to design and develop and deliver the nearly $300 million investment in public transportation improvements. That became a core part of the overall package that secured the project here in Virginia.
VB: How has the pandemic changed economic development, and do you think it will have a long-term impact?
El Koubi: In general, the pandemic has accelerated a number of trends that are already underway, and the impacts of the pandemic are likely to be seen in that respect permanently.
One is the acceleration of the sort of digitalization of our economy with a pronounced shift towards online activity, including e-commerce, and that’s showing up not just in the tech space, but also in warehousing and distribution. So that’s very significant. The shift towards telework among many professions, I think, particularly towards hybrid work now that we’re coming out of [the pandemic], is likely to stay, at least to some extent.
The move towards greater resiliency in supply chains has created quite a wave of manufacturing investment that is generating a lot of economic development project activity.
The final thing is, and I don’t know if it’s just directly a result of the pandemic or just coincidental, but we’ve seen a pronounced increase in the scale of many projects, particularly in the advanced manufacturing space over the last couple of years, and we have seen a much greater frequency of mega projects — those that represent more than 1,000 direct jobs, more than a billion dollars in capital investment. We’re seeing that from a range of sectors, including electric vehicles, including semiconductors, including battery manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing enterprises.
VB: Workers are increasingly becoming unable to find affordable housing near where they work, particularly in Northern Virginia. How does this play into the equation as Virginia is working to attract and retain businesses?
El Koubi: Affordable housing has become a major challenge for most successful large metros, including Northern Virginia, but I would also say that the availability of affordable housing is a challenge that we are seeing in markets across America and certainly in other parts of Virginia. It’s clear that partnerships between the economic development community and in the housing community are going to become more important in the coming years to ensure that our communities and our state can manage growth appropriately and maintain a competitive cost of living for Virginia citizens.
VB: VEDP developed the Virginia International Trade Plan in 2019, with a goal of increasing Virginia exports by 50% by 2035. How is that being implemented?
El Koubi: VEDP’s international trade team helps more than 300 Virginia businesses sell their goods and services to international markets around the world. Every single year, those activities help Virginia businesses generate more than $600 million in new international sales. They help support more than 6,000 trade-supported jobs across the commonwealth, and the Virginia businesses that use those programs are overwhelmingly positive about their experience. Nearly 100% of those businesses that use the programs say that the programs are of high quality and that they would recommend Virginia’s international trade programs to other businesses.
There’s only one problem and that is that those international trade programs are highly oversubscribed. In order to open these valuable resources to more Virginia companies, a steering committee was established to develop a comprehensive international trade plan for Virginia. The committee included private and public sector representatives and important stakeholders — including the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Agribusiness Council and the Virginia Manufacturers Association. We worked with our agency partners at the Port of Virginia, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Virginia Tourism Corp. and the Virginia Department of Forestry to ensure the plan represented all sectors of Virginia’s economy and the organizations that serve those sectors. The resulting International Trade Strategic Plan for Virginia provides a blueprint for expanding Virginia’s export promotion services, VEDP’s international trade programs, as well as makes recommendations for other initiatives that would expand Virginia exports and that would ultimately enhance the trade intensity of Virginia’s economy.
VEDP’s international trade team is leading the implementation of the plan and has executed several important initiatives in the last year, including launching a brand-new program focused on assisting companies in managing their international supply chains. The team is also regularly meeting with the partner organizations who helped to develop the plan. This work is guided by the Virginia Advisory Committee on International Trade, a 10-member body made up of private and public sector leaders who advise VEDP and the commonwealth on trade matters and how they impact our economy.
We’re pleased with the progress being made and hope that, with full funding for the plan, we can serve several hundred more Virginia companies each year with our services, leading to more exports for those firms and even greater trade-driven job growth for Virginia’s economy.
VB: What can the Virginia business community expect with you at the helm of VEDP?
El Koubi: I aspire to be a collaborative partner … someone who’s a champion for their success and a partner in advancing the commonwealth and its communities together.