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Esther Lee Named Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade

Thursday, January 11, 2018  
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Gov.-elect Ralph Northam has picked a Northern Virginia business leader with an extensive résumé to be secretary of commerce and trade, but he’s leaving another Cabinet slot vacant by splitting the duties of technology secretary in other parts of the executive branch.

Esther C. Lee, 43, vice chair of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, is Northam’s choice for a key position to fulfill his campaign promises to make the state’s economy — and workforce training to fill jobs for new and expanding businesses — the top priority of an administration that will begin with his inauguration on Saturday.

With Lee’s appointment, Northam says women will hold eight of the 15 Cabinet-level posts in his administration.

Lee served as senior policy adviser to the U.S. secretary of commerce under President Barack Obama, but she also brings an extensive business background in technology, media and finance, as well as degrees from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The New Virginia Economy is thriving, but it will take vision to ensure that it’s working well for everyone,” Northam said in an announcement on Tuesday at the Inova Center for Personalized Health, whose CEO, Todd Stottlemyer, had been considered a top candidate for the job.

Northam also named Richmond business attorney Brian Ball as special adviser for economic development, signaling the administration’s focus on restoring Virginia’s high ranking as a place for business investment. Ball, 65, is a veteran lawyer and lobbyist at the Williams Mullen law firm whose practice has included helping new and expanding businesses with tax incentives and workforce development. He also is a member of Northam’s transition team.

“I’m confident the team I’m announcing today brings the right balance of private and public sector experience to grow and diversify our economy, attract and keep the best businesses here, and to make investments in critical areas like workforce development that will ensure Virginia’s economic growth for the long term,” the governor-elect said.

However, Northam does not intend to fill the Cabinet vacancy created by the impending departure of Secretary of Technology Karen R. Jackson. Instead, he proposes to eliminate the post, created 20 years ago under the administration of Gov. Jim Gilmore, and divide its duties between two other executive branch secretariats.

The governor-elect proposed on Tuesday to move the Virginia Information Technologies Agency under his proposed secretary of administration, Keyanna Conner, and a deputy secretary to be named. “A deputy secretary role will implement data sharing among agencies to improve performance and to open up more government data for more public use, innovation and state technology needs,” he said.

Northam also proposed to add a deputy secretary for technology and innovation under Lee in the commerce and trade secretariat. The new role would include oversight of the Center for Innovative Technology, as well as high-profile state initiatives to nourish new business opportunities in high-tech sectors such as cybersecurity and unmanned systems.

The Richmond Technology Council welcomed the proposed technology restructuring.
“While Virginia’s secretaries of technology have served with great distinction, the reality is that technology no longer exists in a silo,” council President Robby Demeria said in a statement on Tuesday. “Technology is integral to all facets of Virginia government, and this reform will help improve our use of data and technology into the commonwealth’s delivery of government services.

“Additionally, restructuring technology and innovation programs within the secretary of commerce and trade will better align our economic development efforts to grow our economy and create good paying jobs,” Demeria said in a statement Tuesday.
The new commerce and trade deputy also would promote entrepreneurship across the state, which fits well with Lee’s background in the Obama administration, in which she created and led the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

She began her career as a business and technology journalist at CNN, but rose to senior roles at Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations firm, and CIT Group, a Fortune 500 financial services firm, as well as AOL/Time Warner.

In addition to her business background, Lee is co-founder of the Council for Korean Americans, participated in the term member program at the Council on Foreign Relations and was an Aspen Ideas Festival Scholar.

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