Caren Merrick, Alexandrian and Virginia secretary of commerce, talks path to statehouse

Caren Merrick, Alexandrian and Virginia secretary of commerce, talks path to statehouse
Photo/Lisa Damico

By Kimberly Jackson |

Caren Merrick was the first woman in her family to get a college degree. It wasn’t easy. Once her parents divorced, she felt her support system shift and she found herself striking out on her own.

“My parents went through a divorce as I was finishing high school. And so the conditions were not great for me to live at home and go to college. So, I went out and I got a job. And I worked to support myself but I always knew I wanted to go to college,” Merrick said.

Merrick grew up in a rural area, farmland north of Los Angeles, California, and didn’t know then that her hard work would eventually land her one of the top jobs in the administration of new Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin – that of Secretary of Commerce and Trade. But it did.

Born with a strong will, Merrick used that drive to reach her goals. Merrick said she paid for college herself, by going on the game show, “Press Your Luck.”

“I took the test. I did the audition. I got on the show. And I won $11,500. And this was back in 1984. And that was enough money for me to go to college and to just say, ‘Ok, now I have got the money. I am going to go to college,’” Merrick said.

The City of Alexandria is again home for Merrick after many years of living elsewhere in Northern Virginia.

“My husband and I got married in Old Town 28 years ago and that is where we dated and what not, and now we moved back two years ago,” Merrick said.

Merrick and her husband, Philip, built a life together in love and business – and it all started in Alexandria.

“We always loved it, but when we first got married, we started a business and it was an enterprise software company that needed a lot of broadband and a lot of connectivity, and Old Town wasn’t quite ready for that 28 years ago. Now of course it is. And we always wanted to move back and now the kids are in college. We downsized. It has been great,” Merrick said.

The Merricks have two sons: Hudson Merrick, who is working on an MBA in aviation business administration at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and Jackson, who studies mechanical engineering at Southern Methodist University.

Merrick is now leaving their home, at least on weekdays, for a townhouse in Richmond, where her new appointment has her serving in a key state position.

“The Secretary of Commerce and Trade is the quarterback in the administration to help economic growth, to help people achieve their potential through good jobs, but also to help companies start to expand and grow, relocate companies,” Merrick explained.

The secretary of commerce and trade also oversees several agencies, including the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Energy and the Department of Small Business and Supplier Diversity.

Youngkin has stated that he appointed Merrick to help revive Virginia’s workforce, which suffered during the pandemic.

“Virginia’s jobs machine has stalled out, and Caren is going to play a pivotal role on the team that will jumpstart our economy and reinvigorate job growth here in the Commonwealth,” Youngkin said in a statement.

Merrick expected to fulfill an important role assisting the governor because of her recent work, but also because of personal and professional connections. Merrick previously headed the Virginia Ready Initiative, a nonprofit that Youngkin co-founded with his wife, Suzanne.

“I felt a calling to this role because obviously I supported the governor. He is an old friend of mine. We worked together on our children’s school board together. We worked together on the Virginia Ready Initiative. He and his wife cofounded it, and I helped them stand it up. And then when he decided to run for governor, I was very excited because I know him personally,” Merrick said.

Prior to her appointment by Youngkin, Merrick was a serial entrepreneur, with her most successful venture as co-founder, along with her husband, of WebMethods, Inc., a software company. According to Merrick’s LinkedIn page, the company grew from their basement to a $200 million global, Nasdaq company with 1,100 employees.

“I have been a company founder of a start up from a very early stage, growing it through all the stages to being a publicly traded global company of 1,100 people. I did all of that in Virginia. It was a Virginia company. We were asked to relocate our company by Silicon Valley investors, and we said no because we wanted to stay in Virginia because we love Virginia,” Merrick said.

As the Virginia Ready Initiative’s chief executive officer, Merrick worked to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on the economy. Merrick left that position in order to serve in Richmond, where she hopes to help recover jobs the state lost over the last two years. Merrick said Virginia is ranked 27th in the nation when it comes to pandemic recovery.

“We still have not recovered 200,000 jobs, so we are 200,000 jobs fewer than we were at the outset of the pandemic,” Merrick said. “There are many states that have recovered all the jobs they lost, so I think about that every day. How can we help employers find the talent they need and find the skill [and] talent we need?”

She is hoping to forge a number of partnerships to fill the need and plans to take a deep dive into analyzing what Virginia must have to move forward.

“Some of those jobs have gone away and they are not going to come back. So, what we want to analyze is, what percentage of those jobs can come back? What are the reasons why workers have not come back?” Merrick said. “And we are collaboratively working with the private sector, with educational institutions, with organizations that help people to gain skills and help to create incentives and awards for people who go to back to the workplace.”

To complicate the challenge of finding workers for these jobs, Merrick said each area of the state has a different need. Her task is that of a matchmaker’s. She’s also part of the effort to support new businesses.

“Virginia is such a wonderful place in terms of being diverse, diverse skills, diverse talents, diverse terrain. It is such a remarkable combination of our regions that makes [us] strong. And that is why I am really optimistic about building out these 400,000 jobs and 10,000 startups,” Merrick said.

While she is working to recover jobs and jump start business development, Merrick said she is optimistic about the new challenges she is facing.

No stranger to big jobs, Merrick has come a long way from her rural upbringing in California. Merrick said she has always wanted to change the world. She’s chosen to do it in the state capitol of Virginia – and the Port City.

“I am really honored to be able to serve Virginians this way and to be with such a talented group of people, and … I welcome hearing from Virginians and I am looking forward to a very productive four years,” Merrick said.