Microsoft TechSpark: A new civic program to foster economic opportunity for all Americans

By Brad Smith, President and CLO at Microsoft Corporation

October 6, 2017

Today we are announcing Microsoft TechSpark, a new national civic program to introduce digital initiatives designed to foster greater economic opportunity and job creation in six communities across the United States. Our focus with TechSpark is to do more work outside the country’s major metropolitan centers. By partnering closely with leaders and communities on the ground, our goal is to learn more about regional challenges and how technology can help better contribute to local economic growth, with a plan to share our learnings more broadly.

We’re excited to introduce our national TechSpark initiative today from Fargo, North Dakota with Governor Doug Burgum. We’ve been working to develop TechSpark since the beginning of the year, and the region around Fargo is one of the six areas where the program will focus. We’ve also announced today that Northeast Wisconsin will be the second of our six TechSpark communities, along with four regions that have been selected in Virginia, Texas, Wyoming, and Washington State, which will be formally launched over the next few months.

The rapid transformation of our economy is driven in part by the pervasive use of new technology that is creating both challenges and opportunities for communities across the country. It has challenged our educational leaders to think differently on how to best prepare youth for the future, like learning opportunities in computational thinking and computer science. It has created a responsibility for all of us to keep pace with the technology curve by committing to life-long learning, and a need for all of us to find ways to ensure that those already working can continue to learn new skills and find new jobs as the economy changes. It has created challenges for businesses that haven’t yet embraced digital technology to connect with new customers and access new markets. The world’s digital transformation also highlights the vital importance of fast and reliable broadband to support education, healthcare, agriculture and commerce.

While we see these challenges across the country, they can be especially acute in rural communities and in less urban areas where populations are more widely spread, sometimes making it more expensive to scale programs and services.

The TechSpark initiative will focus initially on five program areas:

·       Digital Transformation Initiatives. These initiatives, pursued in partnership with local institutions, will work with both new start-ups and young companies and will assist established businesses in traditional industries to develop their own digital technology advances to reinvent their business processes, deepen their connections to customers, empower their employees, and transform their products to foster business growth. We are looking to partner with companies in the six TechSpark regions to use the newest technologies to reinvent and reimagine how they design and build products, conduct business, and reach and serve new customers. We will announce our first major digital transformation investment later this month.

 ·       Digital Skills and Computer Science Education. We provide cash grants, technology, curriculum and resources to nonprofits, and partner with schools to strengthen their ability to offer digital skills and computer science education to the youth they serve. Through program’s like Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools Program (TEALS), Microsoft will bring computer science education to more high schools in each region. TEALS is an industry-wide effort that brings computer science engineers from Microsoft and other companies together with classroom teachers to team-teach computer science during the school day. Designed as a program that can be sustained by schools, TEALS currently is in 348 schools around the country, with nearly 1,100 volunteers from 500 companies teaching more than 12,000 students. In addition, in July we announced a partnership with Microsoft and National 4-H Council to join America’s largest youth development organization, 4-H, to provide digital skills training to youth, as well as teen-led learning programs in rural communities. Today, we're excited to share that North Dakota and Wisconsin are two of the communities where, together with 4H, we will bring the new Youth Community Leaders for Digital Transformation partnership. This new program empowers youth as partners in decision-making and community leadership, using digital skills to help drive economic opportunities for their communities. 

 ·       Career Pathways. This program will partner with community colleges and other institutions to expand learning opportunities for adults of all ages, including by providing greater access to technology tools and other resources. It will focus on enabling people to acquire the skills and connect with jobs that require less than a traditional four-year college degree. In June, we announced a partnership with the Markle Foundation to expand its Skillful Initiative, which is building an entire ecosystem to close the skills gap, helping Americans find and train for better-paying jobs, while connecting employers with the talent they need to thrive in the digital economy. We’re committed to doing more work in this space, learning as we move forward, and adding investments in this area in the TechSpark communities.

 ·       Rural Broadband. Through our Rural Airband Initiative, which we announced in July, we’re working to help eliminate the rural broadband gap for the 23.4 million Americans living in rural communities who lack access to the economic, educational, and health opportunities broadband provides. We’re partnering with telecommunications companies to use TV White Spaces technology to bring broadband connectivity to 2 million people in rural America by 2022, and we’re hoping to act as a catalyst for others to help close the whole gap. We’ll focus on bringing Airband projects to TechSpark regions where broadband coverage currently is lacking.

·       Support for Non-Profits. Supporting non-profits has long been central to what we do at Microsoft. It’s part of our mission to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Microsoft and its employees have donated more than $1 billion in cloud services to more than 90,000 nonprofits since the start of 2016. Recognizing the important role that non-profit groups play in addressing local needs, Microsoft Philanthropies will increase its financial and technology support for non-profit groups in each TechSpark region.

We’ve been building the foundation for TechSpark over the past ten months, including recruiting and hiring employees to work with the local community and with the different groups inside Microsoft that will help deliver these programs. Two new employees have already joined the company to lead these local efforts. Michelle Schuler from Appleton, Wisconsin will lead TechSpark Wisconsin, and Taya Spelhaug from Fargo, North Dakota will lead TechSpark North Dakota.  In addition to dedicated community managers, we will create new opportunities for Microsoft employees to volunteer and engage in projects, including for many, lending a hand in the communities where they grew up.

 Our hope is that TechSpark will help add to the ways that communities and businesses can work together to address critical economic challenges. We believe this model of a deep, long-term community partnership can help communities address their unique needs and create a future-ready workforce and be a catalyst for economic investment and opportunity for all Americans.

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