Microsoft has tapped a University of Mississippi grad to lead its new philanthropic efforts in Jackson through its “TechSpark initiative,” which targets communities vulnerable to being left behind in a tech-driven economy.
JJ Townsend, a Bay Saint Louis native, will manage TechSpark Jackson, the tech giant announced Wednesday.
“There’s a lot of talent and drive in Mississippi, but not a lot of opportunity,” Townsend told Mississippi Today. “TechSpark is providing digital skill training, workforce development, and entrepreneurship support. That’s really big. We are last a lot of times, in a lot of categories. But in computer science, there’s a chance for us not to be.”
Microsoft has launched the program already in Central Washington, Southern Virginia, Wyoming, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Texas and Mexico. TechSpark aims to close gaps in economic opportunities through skills training and by supporting local startups and nonprofits, according to Microsoft.
Townsend’s passion lies in computer science education. He’s a Teach for America alum who already helped develop an existing Microsoft program to get computer science education inside Jackson high schools.
“I know what it’s like to be a teacher and what it looks like when a student learns to code,” Townsend said. “Technology can transform their trajectory.”
That program will be in every public high school in Jackson this coming school year and teach about 200 students, according to the tech company.
Microsoft’s goals with TechSpark largely mirror what the state has acknowledged as shortfalls through its year-old workforce development office Accelerate Mississippi. Accelerate Mississippi and the state’s economic council have both pointed to Mississippi’s lack of qualified workers as the top concern for businesses across the states.
The program’s immediate focus is on Jackson, but Townsend expects that to change over time.
“We recognize that part of Mississippi’s success is based on a thriving Jackson,” he said. “Pilots have kind of been the name of the game, but we’re tracking the success.”
And those programs that perform well could be scaled across the state, he said.
In the program’s launch, Microsoft said it is helping bolster Jackson State University – a historically Black college – cyber-readiness program to build career opportunities. Microsoft says the program will train at least 100 students and help get them real-world cybersecurity experience.
The company is partnering with Innovate Mississippi, a 20-year-old nonprofit that supports local entrepreneurs, to run a 12-week program to help grow Mississippi startups. The program is already in the process of training 21 founders – more than 300 applied – on how to secure funding and win investors.
A different five-week program pilot with Innovate Mississippi offers free career coaching to unemployed participants. Its goal is to have 80% in new or better roles within six months of graduation.
Another partnership plan will create a “makerspace” in Jackson, a building space that can host programming this summer.
“The beauty of TechSpark and Microsoft is we can use our name to get other philanthropic partners. We’re on board and happy to be the first mover,” Townsend said. “We’re really excited about what’s happening on the ground right now and how we can plug in and support it.”
Editor’s note: Microsoft Corp. is a funder of Mississippi Today.
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