Almost five years ago, we launched a targeted initiative to respond to the growing digital divide in communities across the U.S. and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The TechSpark initiative recognizes that too many people are at risk of being left behind without access to the skills, support and connectivity needed to truly be part of our rapidly developing digital economy.
To date, we’ve seen progress and helped significant projects come to life in Central Washington; Southern Virginia; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Fargo, North Dakota; Northeast Wisconsin; and the cross-border region of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Today, we’re expanding our commitment to the American South and launching TechSpark Jackson, Mississippi. We are excited to learn more about this region and partner with new and existing organizations across Mississippi to accelerate digital equity and support inclusive economic opportunities. And we’ll do this with a focus on digital skills training and connections to jobs, computer science education, broadband connectivity, and digital transformation of the nonprofit and startup ecosystems.
Lifelong Mississippian and Jackson resident JJ Townsend will spearhead this effort. JJ is a Teach for America alum who combines classroom experience with business and nonprofit leadership and organizational expertise. He helped launch Microsoft’s Technology, Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program in Jackson to support high schools in building computer science education access to students. Before Microsoft, he founded Citizenventures, a startup that helps social ventures leverage new tech to be more collaborative, efficient and nimble. JJ continues to advocate for computer science education in communities facing systemic racism and poverty, and building technology that brings together people, businesses and governments to collaboratively fund projects communities hope for.
As Mississippi’s most populous city, Jackson has vibrant deep cultural and historic roots. But we also know that longstanding barriers to opportunity continue to persist. The COVID-19 pandemic grew the digital divide across the U.S., disproportionately impacting people with disabilities, racial and ethnic communities, women, and those who have less formal education.
At the same time, Mississippi employers are looking to hire more people with strong digital skills as a potential driver of economic recovery and growth. Recent analysis from the Mississippi Economic Council identified the lack of qualified workers as the number one issue impacting the business climate in the state. We see these challenges across the U.S., but we’re convinced that launching a one-size-fits-all solution without regional input is the wrong response. That’s why we’re fostering tailored solutions that emphasize and build on the unique strengths of each community.
By launching TechSpark in Jackson, our goal is to help local partners address these challenges by building digital skilling opportunities, computer science education, tech enablement and impactful, sustainable projects.
As an initial step, today we’re excited to share our support for four unique collaborative programs:
- Jackson State University’s Cybersecurity Readiness program
Microsoft provided a gift to Jackson State University’s Computer Science, Engineering, and Technology (CSET) department to bolster its cyber-readiness program that builds workforce development opportunities for JSU students. The program will recruit and train at least 100 students, and expose students to internship opportunities that will provide them with practical, real-world cybersecurity experience.
- gener8tor Skills Accelerator Mississippi
Earlier this month, nationally recognized startup accelerator gener8tor launched a five-week digital and workforce skills training program in collaboration with Innovate Mississippi. This short-term pilot program for unemployed people and the historically underrepresented includes one-on-one career coaching, technical and workplace skills training, and access to local hiring partners with the goal of having 80% of students in new or better roles within six months of graduation. Beyond funding support, Microsoft brings the community together to help with recruiting and placement efforts while making it possible for the program to be free of charge to the community.
- Innovate Mississippi’s CoBuilders Accelerator
This Microsoft-powered partnership features a 12-week intensive and structured program designed to accelerate the growth of qualifying startup companies. Twenty-one founders of home-grown startups are currently undergoing rigorous training on how to transform their vision into reality – and secure funding from investors. More than 300 startups applied to this statewide accelerator program, which culminates in a cohort-wide “pitch day” that takes place at the end of July.
- Jackson Tech District Makerspace
Microsoft is working with the Bean Path, an incubator and technology consulting nonprofit, to build out the first operational building in Jackson’s emerging Tech District: a makerspace building that will serve as a community hub for innovation and will host a STEM program for learners and inventors this summer.
We are also continuing to work with local high school teachers and students through Microsoft’s TEALS program. 100% of Jackson public high schools have applied for TEALS support in the upcoming school year, which will include nearly 200 students and 33 industry volunteers. The expansion of TEALS in Jackson is part of Microsoft’s broader commitment to racial equity, with the goal of significantly increasing computer science access among Black and African American students. In addition, we are continuing our journalism initiative in several newsrooms covering Jackson and the Mississippi Delta by looking at ways to provide journalists and newsrooms with new tools, technology, and capacity to expand reach and efficiency for local news outlets.
These joint collaborations are a starting point as we continue to listen and learn from community stakeholders and leaders, and develop additional partner-driven response strategies. This approach has helped us understand unique community needs in other TechSpark regions, quickly respond, and replicate sustainable success.
As we have learned from across our TechSpark regions, technology is rapidly changing our economy, including how we communicate, learn, work and access health care and other essential services, creating opportunities as well as challenges. Jackson, Mississippi is not immune from these changes. We understand that no one company, organization, or nonprofit can solve these issues on their own. Our goal is to bring educators, businesses, governments, nonprofits, and other civic organizations together to build an inclusive future that leaves nobody behind.
Tags: broadband access, computer science, connectivity, digital access, digital divide, digital skills, Internet access, Microsoft TechSpark, TEALS, Workforce