Two months after its release, Hillbilly Elegy hit the top of The New York Times bestseller list, thrusting author J.D. Vance somewhat reluctantly into the spotlight. The book’s release hit at exactly the right moment, with Vance’s memoir providing blue-leaning America some much-needed insight to the inner workings of a segment of America central to the rise of Donald Trump.
In the nine months since the book’s release, Vance has been something of a lightning rod for both the left and the right. Now the author is using his newfound platform to join forces with Revolution LLC, the D.C.-based investment firm founded by AOL co-founder Steve Case. Vance will be tasked with expanding the company’s Rise of the Rest initiative, which is focused on growing investments in startups outside the Silicon Valley and New York City tech bubbles.
“I don’t know if I’m ever going to be comfortable with being the media-dubbed spokesperson,” Vance tells TechCrunch. “But I do think you can talk about the issues and try to raise awareness or you can do something about the issues — my goal here is to try to do both. There’s an opportunity I’ve been given here with the platform the book has afforded.”
Since last April, Vance has served as a principal at Peter Thiel’s VC firm, Mithril Capital Management LLC, a title he’ll retain even as he becomes a partner at Revolution and moves back to his native Ohio from San Francisco.
“J.D. and I first connected about six months ago, after his book came out,” says Case. “He grew up in Ohio, moved around the country a bit and most recently was in Silicon Valley and just moved back to Columbus, because he really wanted to be part of helping the communities in that region. It was a perfect fit with our initiative and that’s why we decided to join forces.”
Vance will initially serve as something of a spokesperson for Rise of the Rest, a position that will eventually evolve into more of an investment role at the firm, as the team works to raise awareness of startups outside of California, New York and Massachusetts, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of VC funds last year.
“For a lot of Silicon Valley investors, if they can’t get in a car and drive to the company, they’re not interested investing in it,” says Case.
The blunt force trauma of the last election has apparently served as something of a wake-up call for some investors, who, much like many others in coastal blue states have looked to works like Elegy to provide some insight into a disillusioned middle of the country that played such a pivotal role in November’s election. The Washington Post has since dubbed Vance the “voice of the rust belt,” while The New Republic issued the slightly less catchy title of “the liberal media’s favorite white trash-splainer.”
In spite of his newfound prominence, Vance says that Washington hasn’t come knocking.
“I’ve haven’t been approached by folks in the government,” he tells TechCrunch. “My thinking about this has always been that there’s obviously a policy element to addressing some of the problems that I write about in the book, but there really has to be a private sector element, too.”
Not that one can’t do both, of course. Vance’s own rise to national prominence occurred at roughly the same moment as Thiel’s transition from investor to political firebrand, scoring a pivotal speaking spot at July’s Republican National Convention and eventually earning himself a spot on Trump’s transition team.
Vance avoids the temptation to get too political when discussing the Mithril co-founder. “Peter is a friend and I’m a big fan of his,” he says. “I’ve been incredibly disconnected from some of the interactions that Peter’s had with the administration. I don’t know how close those contacts have been, but to the degree that he’s advising them at all, that makes me pretty pleased.”
For now, Vance says he’s fixated on Rise of the Rest. In a few weeks, the organization will hold a summit in DC, where he’ll serve as a keynote speaker. “The focus is really getting this Rise of the Rest initiative off the ground,” he says. “To build on some of the momentum that Steve and folks have already delivered and developed, but also to use this media moment to get out the word. A big part of this is trying to get out the word on what we’re trying to do.“