Juliann Tenney can hardly believe her luck.

There she is, the new head of a major regional agency charged with proposing solutions for the economic problems of her beloved South.And to think she almost passed up that opportunity. When folks with the private, non-profit Southern Growth Policies Board approached her several months ago about the post, she told them she wasn't interested. She was quite happy as director of economic and corporate development for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Nevertheless she handed in a resume the last day they were being accepted, assuming that would be last she'd hear of it. When she was invited for an interview, then offered the job, though, she got excited.

``I became intrigued with the opportunity that it presented,' the 38-year-old lawyer said last week as she talked about the formidable tasks confronting her staff of 14. ``How many people have the opportunity to leave a law practice and try public service for a while, then wind up in a position where they can explore their culture?'

Tenney has that opportunity, and she's going at it with the zeal of the committed. Those familiar with her work give her high marks for the depth of understanding she brings to her job and the infectious excitement she generates.

``She demonstrated from the very beginning a really impressive grasp of what the Southern Growth Policies Board is all about, what the major problems are that confront the Southern states today and demonstrated a great perception of how to go about solving some of those problems,' said William Winter, a former board chairman and former governor of Mississippi.

In the end, he said, it was no contest.

``It was a unanimous vote,' Winter said of the board's decision to hire her.

For Tenney, who had previously co-chaired a commission appointed by the board and was familiar with the board's activities, this is the latest of an impressive succession of posts she has held since giving up her Chapel Hill law practice five years ago.

In August 1985 she was named executive director of the North Carolina Technological Development Authority where she oversaw programs supporting the state's small company research effort and assisting communities seeking to develop small business incubators.

Both programs were greatly expanded during Tenney's 27-months with the authority.

Afterward, she spent nearly a year as assistant secretary at the state Department of Commerce where she focused on the state's emerging industries, women in the economy and economic development.

In August 1988 she moved to the N.C. Biotechnology Center at Research Triangle. There she developed an innovative low-interest loan program for North Carolina companies researching biological solutions to technological problems and launched other initiatives to support research by businesses and non-profit organizations.

She was charged with stimulating economic opportunities in the biotechnology industry and helping secure funding for the center's activities. She also used her law background to draft and review some of the center's contracts.

``Juli is a very energetic, enthusiastic and innovative person,' said Charles Hamner, president of the biotechnology center. ``She has a wonderful capacity to reach a common ground with people.'

When Tenney took over as executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board in August, adult literacy became a consuming passion. She barely had time to learn her way around the office before she confronted the first major task of her administration - preparing for the board's annual meeting in October during which a major report on literacy was presented.

Gov. Jim Martin, who started a year-long term as chairman of the board in October, designed the problems of adult literacy in the south as the board's primary theme for the third straight year. In doing so, he signaled the board's recognition that the region's economic future is directly tied to qualifications of its workers.

Tenney knew about the problems illiteracy was causing in the increasingly sophisticated workplace long before taking over her new position. Now she talks with authority about them, although she insists she is far from an expert.

``Prior to World War II, a fourth-grade education was probably sufficient to get by,' she explained the other day while downing a bowl of homemade Brunswick stew at her desk - a quick lunch for a busy person.

No more. Workers who want an adequate living are finding they must now have at least a high school diploma and sufficient math and readings skills to operate modern machinery. In many cases, Tenney said, workers are finding they need continual re-education in order to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change.

In the South, there had been ways of making a good living for those who didn't finish high school, Tenney said.

``We dropped out of schools and dropped into the trades,' she said. ``For years we in the South could always fall back on ... agricultural roots. So the South was slower to recognize the need for skills because there was always something to fall back on.'

Both those safety nets are quickly becoming inaccessible to people without the proper backgrounds.

Tenney traces the beginnings of concern over illiteracy in the South to manufacturers in the 1970s who, realizing they were rapidly losing ground to the Japanese and to plants in other parts of the nation, upgraded their equipment only to find that their laborers couldn't operate them.

They pressured the educational system to develop courses of study that meet the changing demands of the workplace. Now high schools, community colleges and technical schools are offering more training for people headed into the trades and manufacturing. Those kinds of skills are now more readily accepted as a viable alternative to the college-bound curriculum. In fact, college graduates who can't find good jobs are enrolling in increasing numbers in technical curricula at community colleges.

But there are still many who fall through the cracks. A third of the South's population, she said, can't read well enough to get good jobs. Her challenge is to make them productive.

Tenney finds it exciting to be on the cutting edge of these shifts in the workplace, and to plan strategies to meet those challenges.

``I feel so lucky to be in a position to look into these kinds of things,' she said.

Those who work with her and for her think they're the lucky ones.

``Juli has an impressive and well-ordered intellect,' said Robert Donnan, director of communications under Tenney.

Added Gov. Martin: ``Juli has proven herself to be a good administrator, full of energy and good ideas.'

Perhaps as important as Tenney's keen understanding of the issues and ability to organize is her capacity to work with people. She shuns formality whenever possible and prides herself in a kind of laid back intensity that seems natural and puts people at ease.

That curious blend may be rooted in her fond affection for the the out-of-doors.

``There are no pretenses when you're outside,' she explained.

While outside she pursues exercise - mostly bike riding, sailing, jogging, windsurfing and tennis - with the same intensity as her job.

The focus of life is the 40-acre tract she and her husband, Bill Rippy, a Duke University law professor, bought near Chapel Hill 10 years ago. On it they built a technologically advanced two-story home outfitted with solar collectors and a hook up for cells that convert sunlight into electricity when the technology is available.

Part of the 1983 movie ``Brainstorm' was shot at the house.

Tenney is proud of her southern roots and is pleased she has a part in charting its future.

``I think the South is a special place,' she said. ``A lot of what the South is is certainly worth preserving.'

BIO

Name: Juliann Tenney Occupation: Executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board Birthplace: Fort Hood, Texas. Moved to Chapel Hill three weeks later Education: B.A., the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1974; J.D., Duke University School of Law, 1979 Career highlight: Working with innovative people both in the business world and in the public sector Likes: Bicycling, ice cream, the beach, wind surfing and sailing Dislikes: Messiness, cheaters Keys to success: Patience, the ability to listen, perseverance, courtesy Family: Husband, Bill Reppy

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