Gladys Washington (left) of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation speaks while other participants at the March workshop in Pinehurst, North Carolina, listen. Others are, from left to right, Karen Kocher, Microsoft; Gary Officer, Senior Service America; and A., William "Bil" Wiggenhorn, Main Captiva LLC. (Photo by Hrishue Mahalaha)

Technology giant Microsoft has transformed the way people learn, communicate, create, and conduct business. That’s true both in the United States and abroad.

The corporation recently launched a new initiative to look at technology and rural communities. Karen Kocher, who is leading the project for Microsoft, said the company would like to create intentional ways for technology to support rural economic and workforce development.

As part of their idea-gathering phase, Kocher and Microsoft convened a panel of a dozen leaders in rural development and economics to talk about technology and rural. I attended the two-day workshop.

Microsoft’s ambition is to help technology enthusiasts around the world become economic catalysts. By helping rural businesses and institutions unlock their global potential, Kocher said, these local technology leaders would jump start activities in their local communities.

Following the two-day meeting, I had a chance to sit down with Kocher and talk about Microsoft’s vision for its rural efforts.  What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.


Hrishue Mahalah: So why is Microsoft interested in getting into this world?

Karen Kocher: Great question and I think most people don’t appreciate that Microsoft has been involved in this type of work for many years. …  What’s different over the past several years is Microsoft has embraced a mission to empower every individual and organization on the planet to achieve more. Period. So it doesn’t say achieve more with only Microsoft technology, it’s just to achieve more. And so our focus over the past several years has now evolved to one where we want people to be able to do the jobs of the 21st century and to do them well and to benefit through employment. But we’re going to be doing it in subject areas like data science, like artificial intelligence, others where, in some cases, Microsoft does have technology and in other cases, we don’t necessarily, but they are the jobs that are needed and we have unique knowledge and skill to be able to help people be able to do that.

Mahalaha: So globally you’re looking to create better pathways for people to help attain their own potential. And in doing that, they are creating greater technologies, innovation, plugging into the businesses that can then drive their own local economic growth. Talk a little about the rural piece in this. How do you think about rural in that context?

Kocher: I think a few things. One, in rural America, or rural anywhere around the world, you have a situation where the environment doesn’t necessarily know what is possible with technology because you don’t necessarily have talent who has any experience or exposure with the technology. I think what’s really possible is to be able to harness this knowledge that we can help create within people so that they now have a new vision of what is possible and through that vision can help their communities become more successful and productive, etc. I think that’s what fascinates me about it. It’s not necessarily “here’s a job opening, [or] let’s educate somebody and then they’ll take that job opening.” It could be that. In a lot of cases it would be that, but in rural, it isn’t that clear because the job doesn’t necessarily exist because people may not have the vision of what’s possible.

So our job is ideally to help people begin to aspire as individuals and as a community towards some greater outcome than probably what they can even imagine right now.

Mahalaha: So this idea around data scientists, you can have small rural communities, 5,000, 10,000 people where you don’t really see folks excelling in that particular domain. But what was incredible [in the workshop was] your vision around how we can bring virtual capability to a place so a person living in Salem, Missouri, could be working in a data scientist capacity for businesses whether it’s in LA, New York, Shanghai. That connectivity, it’s amazing. Can you please talk a little more about that concept?

Kocher: I think it’s twofold. In almost every community right now on Earth, there seems to be a person who has more computer related savvy than everybody else. And that individual is the one everybody in the community calls. They want them to come by the house because your computer froze up, you have a virus, whatever. And in a lot of cases they’re getting paid or in a lot of cases, maybe they’re getting a barter situation. But still, there’s this person who’s got this disproportionate level of knowledge compared to everybody else and they’re very in demand.

And so it’s really the same thing, except instead of it being basic computer repair, it’s data analytics, because every business has data, and we talked about this in our meeting today. Restaurants have data. Restaurants need to understand why do some people come, why do some people come again, why other people don’t and so if you think of it that way, somebody whose skills as a data analyst or data scientist, if there’s a corporate job and they happen to be conveniently located, great they can get that.

But if not, they can work in a rural setting. They can work with these rural businesses to make them better. They can get paid by these organizations or do bartering, whatever works for everybody. Or, the great thing about it is, a third option which, up until X number of years ago, wasn’t possible, they can basically become a provider, a purveyor, of these types of skills to all sorts of organizations around the world because it’s the connection, the virtual connectivity is what makes all that possible.

But I don’t think it means that the individual won’t work for the community. I think it simply means that that individual can work with the community but also can work with others where that is necessary or possible, which is great. That means that person has more business than they would otherwise. Now ideally, in a world where the individual’s working the restaurants and others, dry cleaners, as each of those businesses becomes more successful, that individual gets more and more business from the local community and therefore has to rely less on any business coming from outside the community. But in the beginning, what is the harm of it coming from both places? Because that’s what the person needs in order to have a livelihood.

Mahalaha: What can communities expect? What’s something people in rural communities should be thinking about, how could they be getting ready for these opportunities?

Kocher: First and foremost it’s really incumbent upon the community to have the leadership and the vision and the aspiration for itself. What are they hoping to be as the future unfolds and where do they see opportunity not only for the community at large but for individuals? Because we will have a solution that can help people develop the skill to ultimately be employable in some of these wonderful 21st century jobs, but that’s going to be just a subset of something far broader, this context that has to exist, which is really up to the community to help create. We see [Microsoft] aligning with communities that have those types of aspirations and those types of visions and so I’d start there. What is it they envision and do they envision being a place where these types of jobs would exist and people would thrive in those types of jobs? If so, then the likelihood is there’d be an opportunity for partnering and some real potential there.

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