Long Beach native and Jackson resident JJ Townsend will lead a new Microsoft effort in Mississippi called TechSpark.
The program is part of an effort to expand technology education and business development to areas like Mississippi that lack such opportunities.
TechSpark was created in October 2017 when Microsoft chose six regions in the United States where it would invest people, money and resources to help train today’s workers and prepare tomorrow’s leaders.
“Our president, five years ago, saw that we could do more in terms of teaching computing, broadband and workforce development in some of our more rural areas of Central America,” Townsend said. “Since that time we have grown and had a lot of success and a lot of great things have happened. The expansion into the Jackson area is really a celebration of our 5th anniversary. So we can see where are we going from here.
The ultimate goal is not to turn Mississippi into Silicon Valley, but rather to ensure 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 pursue certificate programs at a local college or university.
A person who is already working may find that there is free training that will help them get a better paying job.
“We are thrilled that Microsoft has chosen Jackson to launch a new TechSpark initiative,” Janet Parker, director of business development and marketing for Innovate Mississippi said in an email response. “It’s a cool program because it’s not cookie-cutter. They recognize that each community has its own unique challenges.
“JJ Townsend has worked closely with community and economic developers to determine what our region’s specific needs are and brought together all the resources that already exist to help us work better together,” she said. “Then Microsoft fuels all of this with resources they can offer to help us accelerate growth, economic opportunity, and create new jobs for Mississippians. Ultimately, we hope this will inspire people to live and work in Mississippi, resulting in brain gain instead of brain drain.
Townsend is a Teach for America alumnus who has classroom experience and knowledge of business and nonprofits, such as when he helped launch the Technology, Education, and Literacy in Schools program in Jackson to help secondary schools to increase access to computer education. Before that, he founded Citizenventures, a startup that helps new technologies be more efficient.
“We’re going to take a lot of the work that’s happened in those other areas and see where we want to apply it in Mississippi,” said Townsend, an Ole Miss graduate with a business degree and a master’s in leadership in education. . “After university, I really realized that I could have done more to learn about computers. I think that’s where a lot of people are.
“At that time, I really saw that need, and then I saw the governor sign the legislation making IT mandatory in public schools by 2025. We’ve done a lot of work around IT recently, which is exciting.”
Kate Behncken, vice president and head of Microsoft Philanthropies, said TechSpark has made progress and helped important 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 to partner with new and existing organizations across Mississippi to accelerate digital equity and support inclusive economic opportunity,” Behncken said. “And we will do this with a focus on digital skills training and connections to jobs, broadband connectivity of computer science education, and digital transformation of the nonprofit ecosystem and startups. .”
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. A recent analysis by the Mississippi Economic Council identified the lack of skilled workers as the #1 problem affecting the business climate in the state.
“We see these challenges across the United States, but we believe that launching a one-size-fits-all solution without regional input is the wrong answer,” Behncken said. “That’s why we favor tailored solutions that focus on and build on each community’s unique strengths. »
Initially, TechSpark announced support for four programs:
Jackson State University’s Cybersecurity Readiness Program, which will help create 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 hands-on real-world cybersecurity experience.
gener8tor Skills Accelerator Mississippi: Earlier this month, startup accelerator gener8tor launched a five-week digital and workforce skills training program in conjunction with Innovate Mississippi. This short-term pilot program for the unemployed includes one-on-one career coaching, technical and vocational training, and access to local hiring partners with the aim of having 80% of students in new or better roles in the six months after graduation.
Innovate Mississippi’s CoBuilders Accelerator, which offers an intensive, structured 12-week program designed to accelerate the growth of eligible startups. Twenty-one local startup founders are currently undergoing rigorous training on how to turn their vision into reality and secure funding from investors. More than 300 startups have applied for this statewide acceleration program, which culminates in a cohort-wide “pitch day” that takes place in late July.
Jackson Tech District Makerspace: Bean Path, a nonprofit technology incubator and consultancy, is helping build the first operational building in Jackson’s new Tech District: a makerspace building that will serve as a community hub for innovation and host a STEM program for learners and inventors this summer.