Utah Jazz owner, Qualtrics cofounder Ryan Smith on rebranding his state
“I’m just, like, in grind mode,” Ryan Smith tells me as he shovels pad thai out of a takeout container. We are sitting in a glass-walled conference room on the Provo campus of Qualtrics, the software company he co-founded with his dad and took public in early 2021. It’s been a chaotically busy day for Smith and he’s trying to squeeze in a late lunch, but the multitasking has proven tricky. Employees keep popping in and out with quick questions and cryptic updates; his phone dings and buzzes; his signature is required on this document, and that one, and oh just one more.
Smith, the 43-year-old doyen of Silicon Slopes and new owner of the Utah Jazz, has a lot on his plate on this particular August afternoon — an NBA franchise to rebuild, a high-profile tech summit to plan, a $27 billion company to run. But he puts all that on hold and zeroes in when our conversation turns to an unexpected object of ire: Utah’s Office of Tourism.
“I think the state’s done a horrible job of branding themselves,” he tells me, his laid-back lilt suddenly taking on a harder edge. “Horrible.”
This, it turns out, is something of a sore spot for Smith. The way he sees it, Utah has existed unfairly in the national imagination for far too long as a punchline — strange and square and goofy and backward. “We’ve been the easy state to pick on,” he says.
State officials, rather than presenting a potent alternative to the tired stereotypes, have spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign designed, effectively, to remind people that Utah has national parks. As someone who lives on the other side of the country, I have to concede he has a point: If your only knowledge of Utah came from its commercials, you’d think the state consisted entirely of various majestic rock formations.
“I mean, the campaign is ‘Life Elevated,’” Smith says wearily, referring to the state’s tourism slogan. “Really? Yeah, we know, we’re at 4,000 feet. Where are we going?”
It’s a question that animates Smith more than any other. Like many of his tech-billionaire peers, he is prone to excited riffs on The Future of (fill in the blank): telework, social media, sports marketing, etc. He likes pretty mountains as much as the next guy, but he believes there’s much more to Utah than the story that’s being told. The economy is booming. The population is exploding. The tech scene is overflowing with new venture capital.
Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith looks on before the start of their NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
To hear Smith tell it, Utah is on the verge of becoming a global hub of business, technology, sports and culture. The future he envisions for his state is audacious. More unicorn startups. Way more development. Fortune 500 companies relocating in droves, followed by millions of transplants. He sees Hollywood studios filming big-budget movies in Salt Lake City. He sees the Jazz attracting tens of millions of basketball fans across Asia and Europe.
There’s a certain levitative quality to the way Smith talks about this stuff, and it can be hard to separate the serious plans from the rich-tech-guy hype. But anyone who has followed Smith’s expanding empire in recent years has seen how invested he is in putting his home state on the map. He flies in A-list celebrities and ex-presidents to speak at public events, and sits courtside at Jazz games with Dwyane Wade, the former NBA All-Star that he brought into the team’s ownership group. He’s also made a point of pushing back against perceptions of Utah as intolerant and regressive — wearing Pride T-shirts to games and sponsoring a scholarship program for students of color. “No one’s trying to show the highlights of Utah,” he told me. Smith is trying to fill that void.
He acknowledges that he would benefit personally from a modernized, rebranded Utah. The faster the state can shake its outdated perception as a national backwater, the easier it will be to recruit superstar players to the Jazz and top-flight executives to Qualtrics. But his desire to reintroduce Utah to the world is also motivated by something deeper.
This instinct isn’t new. Every generation of Utahns since the pioneers settled in Salt Lake Valley has harbored certain city-on-a-hill aspirations. The desire to sell the world on Utah exceptionalism is embedded in the state’s DNA, and a long line of proselytizers and pitchmen have tried.
Smith, with his sneaker collection and his penchant for skateboarding around the office, is a distinctly 21st-century iteration of this figure. Tall and trim, with a bouncy quiff of hair and a wardrobe of expensive hoodies, he looks like a Pixar character in athleisure. He is also inclined toward name-dropping: Over the course of our interviews, he casually mentioned conversations he’s had with “Rich” (that would be Richard Branson, founder of Virgin), “Mila” (the actress Mila Kunis) and “Barack” (Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States).
When he bought the Jazz last year from the Miller family — old-school Utah stalwarts who made their fortune in car dealerships — it felt emblematic of a broader changing of the guard. The state’s new establishment is younger, richer and more connected to the global elite than any class of leaders that’s come before. And they may be better positioned to finally win Utah the prestige and recognition it’s always craved.
But not everyone is on board with their vision. For all of its recent aesthetic transformation, many in Utah are still governed by a small-c conservatism. Detractors fear that if Smith and his peers get their way, the state will be overrun with fleece-vested finance bros and Silicon Valley expats. They warn of a Utah diluted of its focus on family, faith and frontier frugality, and defined increasingly by workaholism and decadent consumption.
In some ways, the tension at the heart of Smith’s project is the same one that’s defined Utah for a century and a half: Can he remake the state while preserving what makes it distinct?
There’s a story that Smith likes to tell about himself, a kind of creation myth. He was 17 years old at the time and, by his own account, a spectacular screw-up. His parents had divorced when he was in the ninth grade, and he’d spent much of his youth checking off the boxes of cliched teenage rebellion. He stopped studying and picked up poker; he grew his hair long, dropped out of high school and followed the Grateful Dead on tour. He soon made plans to move to South Korea with a couple of buddies. It was supposed to be a grand adventure.
Instead, their jobs and housing fell through as soon as they arrived in the country, and they were forced to call home for help. His friends’ parents promptly bought them return tickets, but Smith’s dad refused to bail him out. If he wanted to come home, he was told, he’d have to figure out how to pay for the $2,000 flight himself. Looking back on the experience now, Smith is slightly mystified by his dad’s decision — “As a parent, I’m like what … was he doing?” — but in the moment, Smith took it as a personal challenge.
Scrambling for survival, Smith found a job at a school on the outskirts of Seoul making $7 per hour. He stashed his stuff two miles away in a goshiwon — a cubicle-sized room that Korean students use to study — and slept most nights in a sleeping bag at the school. He subsisted almost entirely on ramen, and spent the long walks back and forth between the school and goshiwon contemplating what kind of a person he wanted to be. “That’s what I was wrestling with every day,” he told me. “Are you going to give up? Are you going to give up? Are you going to give up? You have every reason to give up right now.”
The story takes a number of twists and turns, but suffice it to say: He did not give up. A providential encounter with some Latter-day Saint missionaries and a kindness from strangers at a critical moment convinced him he could stick it out in Korea. He made friends, found a home, rediscovered his faith. By the time he returned to the U.S., Smith was ready to begin his life in earnest — first a mission for his church, then college and marriage and a tech startup that would make him a billionaire by 40.
When Smith tells this story in speeches and interviews, it is usually in service of some broader rhetorical theme — overcoming adversity, perhaps, or God’s penchant for working in mysterious ways. But the experience also reveals something fundamental about Smith — a stubbornness that goes a long way toward explaining what would come later. Tell him he can’t do something, and he just might spend the rest of his life trying to prove you wrong.
That stubbornness is what fueled Smith’s yearslong quest to buy the Utah Jazz, the team he had rooted for since he was a kid. When he first floated the prospect to the Miller family, he was told emphatically that the team was not for sale. Undeterred, he made a project of befriending the family. He became a major sponsor of the Millers’ cancer charity, and ex- pressed admiration for the way they had run the franchise.
He also introduced Gail to his wife, Ashley, who became a kind of secret weapon in the charm offensive. A native of Las Vegas and a trained ballet dancer, Ashley has a warmth and an ability to talk about her priorities that connected with Gail. She also made clear that she would be running the Jazz alongside her husband.
“I felt reassured that they had the same feelings about what it was all about, and that they espoused the same values,” Miller told me.
When the Millers did start thinking seriously in 2020 about selling the team, Smith was the obvious choice. It wasn’t until the opportunity was in front of him that he paused to consider whether he actually wanted to take it.
Ashley recalls a long, sleepless night at the kitchen table, where the two would talk through the pros and cons of buying the team, then break to pray and pace around their Orem home. Eventually, Ashley told me, they drilled down on the uncomfortable question of their motivations: “I said to Ryan, ‘This can’t be about ego. If this is about pride and ego, this will destroy us.’”
That epiphany had a clarifying effect. Once they acknowledged the bad reasons to buy the team, the better ones started coming into view. “It’s the biggest media platform in the state outside of the church,” Ashley told me. “A lot of people are listening and watching.” The Smiths decided they would use the team to tell a new story about Utah — the one nobody else was telling. “We want people to be more curious about Utah because … the people are accepting and loving and unified. We want that story to get out.”
Ashley Smith, left, and her husband, Qualtrics founder and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, speak during a press conference for Encircle at the Silicon Slopes Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Ashley was quick to acknowledge that Utah isn’t perfect; the best way to improve the state’s perception might simply be to improve its reality. She and her husband have helped raise money for Encircle, a Utah-based nonprofit that supports LGBTQ youth, and under their direction last year the Jazz gave away one full-ride college scholarship to a student of color for every game the team won. (The program was a hit and they’re running it back this season.)
They’ve also signaled a zero-tolerance policy for the kind of ugly — and sometimes racist — behavior that has long tinged the reputation of the Jazz fan base. During the 2021 playoffs, when three Jazz fans were caught harassing the parents of Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, Smith acted quickly: He banned the fans from Vivint Arena, publicly apologized to the Morants and gave the family courtside seats, a car service and hotel rooms for the duration of the series. Morant’s father was so impressed that, after his son’s team was eliminated, he said he would be rooting for the Jazz.
To those who are impatient for social progress in Utah, these gestures might feel like baby steps. But to Ashley — the kind of person who listens to self-improvement podcasts on 2X speed and fills notebooks with quotes that inspire her — there is power in forward motion, even when it’s halting and difficult.
“The situation with the fans — I’m not glad that happened,” she says. “But sometimes, to get people to listen takes those uncomfortable moments.”
As they’ve gotten busier in recent years, the Smiths have worked to ensure that their family remains their top priority. Both of them grew up with divorced parents, and they know how fragile a marriage can be. They are in the process of renovating a building on the Qualtrics campus to include side-by-side personal offices for the two of them. The offices will sit above a dance studio that Ashley runs, and will allow them to check in with each other throughout the workday.
That commitment to family is one of the things that drew Gail Miller to the Smiths. A year after selling her NBA franchise, she told me she has no regrets: “They’ve brought a lot of glitz and glamor to the Utah Jazz, but I think basically their value system is very strong.”
“I do hope, though, that (Ryan) will remain grounded,” she added: As his profile and status grow, “it would be easy to let all that influence you and make you think you’re something that you’re not. He’s a good person. I’d hate to see any of that compromised.”
Utah has always had a sense of destiny about its rightful place in the world, defined by lofty ambitions that often seem hopelessly out of reach.
In the beginning, the mission was explicitly religious, as exiled pioneer settlers labored to turn their scrap of inhospitable desert into a divinely ordained utopia. The project required a certain amount of creativity — modern scholars credit the settlers’ decision to cluster homes in planned villages surrounded by shared farmland as a triumph of urban planning — but they were driven by the zeal of true believers. “We are not going to wait for angels,” Brigham Young declared. “We intend to build up Zion on the Earth.”
When I mention this history to Smith, he gets excited and immediately begins reframing it in terms he can relate to. “No, Utah is a startup,” he says. He pauses for a moment and then says it again, as though trying to feel how the words taste in his mouth. “I mean, if you actually think about it, Utah is a full-on start- up.” I start to say something but he cuts me off. He has decided the idea agrees with him. “The startup of Utah,” he proclaims grandly.
Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith walks through the office in Provo on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. Qualtrics is a global leader in the realm of customer experience analytics.Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
And maybe it’s a stretch but there’s something to the idea. The hallmarks of Silicon Valley startup culture — innovation, adaptability — have long been central to Utah’s story. Most notably, its success has rested on a relentless, almost deluded optimism.
Smith is the ultimate Utah optimist, a trait that’s on full display in his stewardship of the Jazz. Not content to remain the owner of a scrappy small-market team, Smith believes he can turn “Utah” — which most people outside of the U.S. know little about — into a high-value global brand.
As the NBA becomes less geographically rooted and more tailored toward expanding its international fan base, Smith plans to position the Jazz to compete with legendary teams like the Lakers and the Celtics. The first phases of the plan are already in motion: Redesign the uniforms, crank out cool merch, generate Twitter hype around the team’s young stars. Whether any of this will actually lead to teenagers in Shanghai wearing Donovan Mitchell jerseys is an open question. But Smith is, as ever, optimistic.
He has spent his brief time as an NBA owner trying to convert the rest of the league to his vision. On Zoom calls with the league’s board of governors, he has become known for his evangelizing on this subject.
“There’s a traditional way in the NBA that owners think of small markets versus big markets,” Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, told Sports Business Journal earlier this year. “Ryan has made it clear that he doesn’t accept that way of looking at it. Technology has been a great equalizer.”
For now, Smith is still contending with the traditional challenges that face teams like the Jazz — most pressingly, convincing superstars who could play anywhere to move to Utah. He admits it’s not easy, but in conversations with players he’s identified some key selling points.
“It’s clear that if someone has a family, there’s not a better spot,” he told me. Smith is also uniquely positioned to help veteran players who are thinking about life after basketball take advantage of Utah’s booming tech economy. These factors might help explain why Mike Conley, the 34-year-old All-Star and married father of three, chose to extend his contract this offseason.
“But what do you do if you’re 19, without a family, and you want to go out at night?” Smith says. “I mean, LA is pretty appealing.”
What Smith doesn’t say but seems to believe is that this is a temporary problem. Utah might never have a beach to sell, but as money floods into the state and developers rush to keep up with the stampede of coastal transplants, LA-like amenities will naturally follow.
If Smith worries at all about what might be lost in all this growth, he doesn’t let on. At one point, I toss out a hypothetical meant to be jarring — 20 million people living in Utah — and he treats it like a foregone conclusion. “Oh,” he replies casually, “it’ll happen.”
He might be right — but is that what Utahns want?
Team owners in the NBA frequently become magnets for criticism from fans, and Smith has been no exception. But the increasingly polarized reaction to him in Utah has little to do with the performance of the Jazz, which pulled off the best regular-season record in the league last year. Instead, he’s hearing from a noisy chorus of traditionalists — on the right and left — who are afraid of what he’s turning their state into.
Some of the criticism has come, predictably, from conservatives who accuse Smith of yoking their beloved franchise to progressive political causes. Earlier this year, the Jazz’s minority scholarship program incurred an angry backlash in the right-wing media, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson deriding it as “totally immoral” and “racist” for excluding white students. More recently, Republican Congressman Chris Stewart announced that he was boycotting Jazz games this season because the team is requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend games. “In a world where so many things have turned contentious or divisive, the Jazz were an opportunity to bring us together,” Stewart wrote on Facebook. “That’s why I will miss them.”
Smith’s defenders would argue that these are not inherently “divisive” positions. Supporting vaccines and giving away scholarships does not exactly make you Che Guevara, after all. But the pushback isn’t coming only from the right. Smith’s expansive vision for Utah is also bumping up against a loose coalition of conservationists, environmentalists and general nature lovers, who fear the havoc a massive influx of new residents will wreak on their state’s topography. It’s not uncommon to see “UTAH SUCKS DON’T MOVE HERE” bumper stickers on the Subarus and Priuses parked in Salt Lake City.
Smith sees a lot of the criticism as generational. “The state’s gone young,” he tells me. The governor is a baby-faced Twitter addict who wears sneakers and slim-cut jeans. The business community is led by tech entrepreneurs who contract drones and film crews to create Utah hype videos they can use to recruit out-of-state employees.
“We’ve worked really hard to be an arm of state branding,” Smith says. “Some people like that, some people might not.”
I ask him who doesn’t like it.
“Well, I think it’s back to the group that’s like, ‘Hey you young kids …”
“Get off my lawn?”
“Yeah, a little bit.”
He is trying to be diplomatic, but it’s clear that he takes a certain amount of glee in provoking his critics. That conservative-media pile-on over the scholarship program? “If Ann Coulter is against something,” he said in an interview earlier this year, “that’s probably a pretty good sign.” The complaints about the vaccine requirement? Smith has no time for it. He proudly tells me about a tweet he posted the night before that triggered Utah’s anti-vax minority: “Scratching my head at those who believe the recent rain is an answer to prayer for a drought … but that the vaccine is not for the pandemic.”
“As soon as we posted that, it was like —” he makes exploding noises and uses his hands to simulate a bomb going off.
Smith insists that he’s not trying to fundamentally alter Utah’s identity. He struggles to articulate exactly which ingredients are essential to the state’s secret sauce. (Is it the entrepreneurism? The high levels of civic trust? The religious influence?) But he doesn’t want to lose any of it.
“We don’t have a content problem,” he tells me. “We have a packaging problem.” To illustrate this, he routinely tweets uplifting quotes from Latter-day Saint general authorities with the hashtag #SundayThoughts. But instead of using religious titles — “Elder” or “President” — in the attribution, he simply uses their first and last names. With altered packaging, the quotes get retweeted by professional athletes and celebrities.
In some ways, Smith represents a refreshing departure from the contrarianism that so many Utahns practice — that strange, pathological impulse to constantly put down their own state as if to signal that they get it, they’re cool, they’re not like those other Utahns.
To Smith, who has traveled the world extensively, this type of haterism is even more parochial and embarrassing than blinkered boosterism. “This is the only place I’ve ever seen where people will choose to live here and have a bad attitude about it,” he says. “I don’t know, those are the people I don’t want in my life.”
But Smith also embodies the growing distance between Utah’s elite and the rest of the state. When Utahns hear him talk enthusiastically about bringing international renown to the place they call home, some will detect a certain paternalism. They don’t want 20 million new neighbors. They don’t want Utah to look like California. They don’t want their home team’s lovably chaotic color scheme (that kaleidoscopic mix of purple and gold and orange and yellow) to be replaced with stylish black-and-white uniforms that look like they belong in a Tom Ford ad.
I thought about those people in October, as I watched coverage of Smith’s 2021 Silicon Slopes Summit. The event was a success by any measure. For two days, celebrities and CEOs shuffled on and off the elaborately outfitted stage in Salt Lake City. Apple CEO Tim Cook, the event’s headliner, heaped praise on Utah’s tech scene: “What I look for when I go places is people who want to change the world … and that’s what I see here.” Afterward, Smith accompanied Cook to a Jazz game, where they sat courtside with Wade.
It was a glimpse at the Utah that Smith is trying to build — a scene that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, and that may well become commonplace in the decades to come. It also felt, in that moment, almost inevitable, whether his fellow Utahns liked it or not.
Back at his office, Smith had made it clear to me that no amount of resistance would slow him down. “I always say the hashtag for everything we’re doing is #kickingandscreaming.”
This story appears in the December/January issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.