Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. Rapid advancement in technology is creating new opportunities in a digital economy, changing how we communicate, learn, work and access healthcare and other essential services. But these opportunities remain out of reach for many in rural communities, small or midsize cities, or underserved areas of larger metropolitan areas.
Five years ago, Microsoft launched the TechSpark program to accelerate economic growth in six communities across the United States and Mexico. Through TechSpark, we work with local community organizations to develop digital skills, support nonprofits and create jobs. Today, we are announcing the expansion of the program to all 50 states via a new TechSpark Fellows model.
We will expand from our eight existing TechSpark locations to communities across the United States, honing what we’ve learned and delivering a combination of funding and hands-on mentorship and training. In partnership with a local organization in each state, we will supply a grant to support a TechSpark Fellow to spearhead local efforts. This new work will be hyperlocal and partner-driven. And, as we have learned, having someone on the ground from the community, and deeply embedded in the community, is crucial to driving change. We’ll focus on four key issues:
- Digital access: Building broadband infrastructure so people have access to essential online activities
- Computer science education: Helping build computer science classes in local schools
- Digital skills: Helping people learn the skills they need for the jobs of the future
- Digital transformation: Helping nonprofits, startups and local businesses leverage technology to grow, innovate and compete
And we want everyone to benefit from what we’ve learned to date, which is why we’re releasing a playbook and a resource hub to replicate and build on the things we’ve tried over the last five years. We hope it can be a resource for anyone looking to drive change in their community and help bolster the local economy.
Solving local problems
Communities across America are facing significant headwinds, especially in this economic environment. As the Brookings Institution notes, “Digitalization divides across and within places now stand as one of the nation’s starkest limits on opportunity.” There are certainly some constants across geography and demographics. Rural small business owners feel more uncertain about their future than urban counterparts. Significant areas of the country either don’t have access to, or can’t afford, broadband internet, according to Microsoft’s own research. And it’s often tough to raise money for startups outside major, coastal metropolitan areas – venture capital is overly indexed on the coasts.
It goes without saying that what one community in Wyoming needs might not be what one in Virginia requires. Needs vary tremendously even one town or one street over, as our Digital Equity Dashboard has demonstrated. That’s why broad national or state-wide programs often lack the focus to erase entrenched local problems. Instead, we should be listening to, and working directly with, the community first. TechSpark’s motto has always been: “Meet the community where they are.”
Our approach and impact
Since its inception, TechSpark has catalyzed new funding resources for communities, helped create new jobs, helped people gain critical digital skills, and supported new startups and local organizations.
- We helped create the Grand Farm, a partnership between farmers, businesses, government and entrepreneurs in Fargo, North Dakota, to create the farm of the future and spur the next generation of agricultural innovation.
- We helped found the Bridge Accelerator, a cross-border technology accelerator in El Paso and Juarez that works with manufacturing companies to help them succeed in this bi-national economy. To date, this work has helped 78 companies create over 500 new jobs, generating over $61 million in new sales.
- We helped expand computer science education to 88% of schools in Northeast Wisconsin.
- We helped build a brand-new building in South Boston, Virginia – the first new building to be built in downtown South Boston in over 40 years – now home to the SOVA Innovation Hub, teaching the local community digital skills and entrepreneurship.
- We partnered with the Green Bay Packers to help build TitletownTech, a seed-stage venture capital firm that has secured $25 million in venture funding for the region and sits across from historic Lambeau field, now home to over 25 growing startup companies.
- We helped launch CoBuilders in Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s first startup accelerator, guiding 21 new startup companies.
Through trial and error – and thanks to the advice and support of our local partners – we’ve learned a lot over the past five years. While some of the lessons were only applicable to a certain community – El Paso is very different than Southern Virginia, after all! – some lessons and learnings were universal:
- Cross-community convening is vital. As we expanded beyond our initial few TechSpark communities, we increasingly convened conversations between organizations across focus area but also region. We were able to succeed best when businesses, the non-profit sector, and government worked together.
- Finding THE local partner is often better than finding many partners. By working with a single organization or a select, small number of organizations we found we could empower them to make change faster and more efficiently. By hiring local managers who are from and live in these communities, we were better able to understand a community’s needs and tailor solutions that were needed.
- Community buy-in is paramount. Creating real, lasting change requires commitment from the community and ongoing investment – both money and time. That’s why we worked with local organizations who have demonstrated they are committed to the long haul.
As the new TechSpark Fellows model unfolds, we’ll continue to share our learnings, providing regular public updates so that organizations outside the program can learn from what worked, and what didn’t – in line with our goal of empowering every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.
We launched TechSpark five years ago, to help communities realize the potential of technology and foster greater economic opportunity in U.S. cities. We’ve learned a lot, and found incredible people, partnerships, successes, and surprises. And we’re excited – and hopeful – to bring this community-first, community-driven model to the rest of the country.
For more information, we’ll be holding an information session on March 1 – sign up HERE.