Microsoft’s TechSpark initiative to expand tech education, business development in Mississippi

Long Beach native and Jackson resident JJ Townsend will spearhead a new effort in Mississippi by Microsoft called TechSpark.

Long Beach native and Jackson resident JJ Townsend will spearhead a new effort in Mississippi by Microsoft called TechSpark.

Long Beach native and Jackson resident JJ Townsend will spearhead a new effort in Mississippi by Microsoft called TechSpark.

The program is part of an effort to expand technology education and business development in regions like Mississippi that are short on such opportunities.

TechSpark was established in October 2017 when Microsoft chose six regions of the U.S. where it would invest staff, money and resources to help train today’s workers and prepare tomorrow’s leaders.

“Our president, five years ago, saw a need that we can do more around computer science education, broadband and workforce development in some of our more rural, middle America spaces,” Townsend said. “Since that time we have expanded and have had a lot of success and a lot of great things happen. Expanding to the Jackson area is really a celebration of our 5-year anniversary. So, we get to look at where do we go from here.”

The ultimate goal is not to turn Mississippi into Silicon Valley, rather to make sure that the region meets its long-term need for a technologically skilled workforce.

TechSpark does this by developing programs for residents at every stage of their education and career, Townsend said. Younger generations might start learning how to program grid coordinates into a robot in elementary school, take a computer science course in high school and then complete certificate programs at a local college or university. A person who is already working might find there is free training available that will help them get a better-paying job.

“We are excited Microsoft chose Jackson to launch a new TechSpark initiative,” said Janet Parker, director of business development and marketing for Innovate Mississippi in an email response. “It’s a cool program because it isn’t cookie cutter. They recognize that every community has their own unique challenges.

“J.J. Townsend has worked closely with community and economic developers to determine what the needs are specific to our region, and has coalesced all the resources that already exist to help us work better together,” she said. “Then, Microsoft is fueling all of that with resources they can offer to help us accelerate growth, economic opportunity and create new jobs for Mississippians. Ultimately, we hope this leads to attracting people to live and work in Mississippi, leading to brain gain instead of brain drain.”

J.J. Townsend, right, with Dr. Deborah Dent, Chief Information Officer at Jackson State University and Dr. Wilbur Walters, Dean at JSU at a computer lab in the campus library.

J.J. Townsend, right, with Dr. Deborah Dent, Chief Information Officer at Jackson State University and Dr. Wilbur Walters, Dean at JSU at a computer lab in the campus library.

Townsend is a Teach for America alum who has classroom experience and a knowledge of business and nonprofits, such as when he helped launch the Technology, Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program in Jackson to support high schools in building computer science education access. Prior to that, he founded Citizenventures, a startup that helps new tech be more efficient.

“We are going to take a lot of the work that has happened in these other regions and see where we want to apply it in Mississippi,” said Townsend, who graduated from Ole Miss with a degree in business and a master’s degree in education leadership. “After college, I really saw there’s more I could have done to introduce myself to computer science. I think that’s where a lot of people are.

“At that time, I really saw that need and then I saw the governor signed the legislation making computer science required in public schools by 2025. We’ve done a lot of work around computer science recently that is exciting.”

Kate Behncken, Vice President and Lead of Microsoft Philanthropies said TechSpark has seen progress and helped significant projects come to life in Central Washington; Southern Virginia; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Fargo, North Dakota; Northeastern Wisconsin; and the cross-border region of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

“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,” Behncken said. “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 ecosystem.”

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 No. 1 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,” Behncken said. “That’s why we’re fostering tailored solutions that emphasize and build on the unique strengths of each community.”

As an initial step, TechSpark has announced support for four 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, startup accelerator gener8tor launched a 5-week digital and workforce skills training program in collaboration with Innovate Mississippi. This short-term pilot program for unemployed people 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.

Innovate Mississippi’s CoBuilders Accelerator

This features a 12-week intensive and structured program designed to accelerate the growth of qualifying startup companies. 21 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

Bean Path, an incubator and technology consulting nonprofit, is helping 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.

Ross Reily can be reached by email at [email protected] or at 601-573-2952. You can follow him on Twitter @GreenOkra1.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Microsoft’s new TechSpark program to boost tech skills in Mississippi