Anthony Copeland graduated from Duke in 1978 with a B.A. in political science and history. He has been North Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce since last year following an appointment by Gov. Roy Cooper. He was back on campus Wednesday morning for a meeting with Dean Bill Boulding at the Fuqua School of Business. He sat down with The Chronicle to talk about HB2, Amazon and the North Carolina job market for Duke’s soon-to-be newest graduates. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The Chronicle: Tell me a little about what brought you to campus today. 

Anthony Copeland: [These visits] have always been a priority. I was confirmed in April a year ago, and now I’m actually having time to reach out and do my job, and reach out to the parts of North Carolina—whether it’s the dean of the business school at Duke or the dean of Kenan-Flagler at [UNC-Chapel Hill] or [North Carolina] State or [University of North Carolina] Asheville. The universities here—not just Duke but all the universities here—are perhaps one of the biggest incentives we have for attracting companies and employees from all over the world. Just in the Triangle, the big universities graduate 30,000 graduates a year—Duke, State, UNC and NC Central. And that diversity component is really a large piece of our attraction in the Triangle also. 

TC: You mentioned that you were sworn in a year ago. What were the defining moments of your first year in office?

AC: Every day is exciting. We came in when North Carolina was in the vertex of HB2. One of the governor’s first objectives—at least from the Department of Commerce, dealing with economic development—was the repeal of HB2, which was having a stranglehold on our economic growth and recruiting companies, particularly international companies and public companies. And it was really a stain on our reputation. In 1982, you had North and South Carolina, and North Carolina was considered an economic and progressive dynamo. When I was [at Duke], Terry Sanford was president—one of my idols to say the least. But the repeal of HB2 brings stability back to the economic development process. And this year, with the Department of Commerce, we were back to the job recruitment numbers we were at in 2006. We’re the ninth most populous state in the country, rapidly going to eight. We’re growing by a city the size of High Point every year. Fifty percent of our residents are non-native—that’s pretty shocking—with an economy larger than Sweden.

TC: How do you view the role of schools like Duke, particularly in terms of an international presence and especially with Fuqua, in the North Carolina economy?

AC: Well, the North Carolina economy is the one I’ll speak to, and Duke in particular, with the alumni network—and even the student network—that you have currently in different countries. If you talk with any executive in Japan, the three things they can tell you about North Carolina are Research Triangle Park, Duke University and Pinehurst No. 2. So we’ve got it all—we’re a destination place, we’re a state of minds and incredible learning institutions and quality of life.

TC: You mentioned HB2 and that you walked into that and tried to stabilize it. But a lot of people have criticized HB142—the bill intended to repeal HB2—as being an incomplete solution. Can you tell me about the effects it had economically on the state?

AC: One can talk about "incomplete," and perhaps I don’t think we should let down our perseverance for a pure [repeal]. But at this point, it was a matter of getting people of good will on both sides of the aisle. Perhaps it is an incomplete compromise, but I think it gets us almost where we need to be and allows us to go to the next step—a full repeal. And, I know that would be the governor’s desire.

TC: One of the big topics right now at Duke—where a lot of people are interested in tech and business—is Amazon. 

AC: How did I know you were going to ask that? Just speaking with the dean over at the business school. [Amazon] gets more of their MBAs from Duke than anywhere else. Anywhere else might not be true, but they get a tremendous number of their MBAs out of the Fuqua School at Amazon. That has not gone unnoticed by me. 

TC: What do you think is drawing Amazon here?

AC: Some of the things that are drawing Amazon are what would draw any tech company, a company looking for intellectual horsepower. We’ve gone from horsepower to megabytes and gigabits now, but we’re a destination place for employees. No one is going to locate somewhere they expect the employees to fall out of an airplane. To speak about the Triangle, not just North Carolina but the Triangle in particular, it is a destination place for people all over the world. There have been criticisms, perhaps, or people point out a lack of mass transit, perhaps the airport. But if Amazon were looking at us—and this is publicly in the papers what they’ve said—[it would need] 50,000 to 60,000 employees over up to 16 years. They won’t fall out of an airplane all in one day either. It’s a period of time. We have an infrastructure that could quickly accommodate that type of growth—airport, rail, those types of things. 

TC: What do you think it would mean if Amazon were to come here—particularly for Duke but also in general for North Carolina?

AC: There’s speculation about what the workforce would perhaps look like. Perhaps more than 40 percent of those would have at least a master’s degree. You’re adding 50,000 to 60,000 just [in] employees. Now you multiply that perhaps by four for families coming here, we would have to work very hard to accommodate their infrastructure needs, which we can do. I mean there’s no accident we have a direct flight to London while [GlaxoSmithKline] is here. 

TC: One of the big topics of conversation right now in Durham is gentrification. Are there any steps the state is taking to address that? Do you think there are any steps the state could take to address that?

AC: Let me talk some specific issues rather than globally, because the answer is yes, of course. But housing, in general—and then we’ll talk about affordable housing—is a constant need. Even in rural economic development, available housing is a huge need. People forget that, so housing in general—not just affordable housing—is a big issue. We continue to look at the federal government, which has been responsible for a lot of the affordable housing, and we continue to monitor that. But we’ve got to continue to address housing number one. Gentrification is a problem everywhere I suppose. You want that economic growth, you want that money to come in to an area. At the same time, we have to [somehow] transition people perhaps. We don’t want them left behind. And government has a job, a duty in that to help—just like unemployment. 

TC: One thing that you mentioned is growth. And it's getting close to graduation time, so one of the things that's weighing a lot on seniors' minds right know is finding a job after graduation. What are the jobs prospects in North Carolina like for people coming out of college? S

AC: It has to be, in this century, the most opportune time to graduate if you look at the unemployment numbers. We'll just talk about the urban areas right now—we're near full employment. Some people would say when you're around 4 to 4.5 [percent unemployment] you've got a labor shortage. So the opportunities—and if you just look at the companies that have come this year to the Triangle alone—you look at Mphasis and Credit Suisse, you're looking at Fidelity, you're looking at all of these 21st century companies that are creating opportunities. Among others, the biotech industry here is growing gangbusters. You've got NovaNortis, Biogen, among others. Perhaps that's not enough, but in this century I can't think of a more opportune time to find a job. 

Finding a house after that, maybe, it's another issue. I look at rents here in downtown Durham when I lived here, if you paid $500 a month for a two bedroom townhouse, that was expensive—now it's like $2000 a month for what, 800 square feet, one bedroom? 

[Duke] just opened horizons for me that I wouldn't have seen at other universities, but I didn't go there, so I can't say that. But for me, it just opened the world for me. Duke was my school, but it made the world my campus. And I don't say that trivially. I grew up in a small town in eastern N.C. My family had basically been here for nine generations, and to see the phenomenal growth in N.C. and Duke, it did enlighten me and help me understand tolerance. And once again, it surely allowed me to enjoy a world larger than the one I was born into and continue to [live in]. I'm just sorry I only have a finite time to enjoy the world. I had a son that was tragically killed last year, and so you start seeing the world and some things just don't matter anymore. 

This is my 40th reunion. I have people coming in from all over the country this weekend staying at my home in Raleigh, and the network of people I have from around the world that I still stay in contact with from 40 years ago and are still dear friends—I wouldn't trade that for anything.