A program from Microsoft that has brought digital access and digital skills training to several rural communities across the U.S. is set to expand to all 50 U.S. states.
Five years ago, Microsoft launched the TechSpark program to accelerate economic growth in six communities across the United States and Mexico. Through TechSpark, Microsoft has worked with local community organizations to develop digital skills, support nonprofits and create jobs.
Now, TechSpark is set to expand from eight sites to all 50 states.
“We think it’s great to skill and educate everybody,” Egan said. “But let’s be honest, if there’s not a job, at the end of the day, they’re going to still try to move to the big city. And that’s not what we want. The goal here was to really provide the opportunity. So you start to build tech ecosystems.”
The goal with the expansion, Egan said, is to have someone cover the Plains regions and someone cover the Midwest and someone in the South, and throughout the entire country.
“It’s so important to have place-based community development, right where somebody is there and tethered to the ground,” he added.
In Northeast Wisconsin, for example, TechSpark helped expand computer science education to 88% of schools.
And in South Boston, Virginia, the program helped build a brand-new building – the first new building to be built in downtown South Boston in over 40 years – now home to the SOVA Innovation Hub, teaching the local community digital skills and entrepreneurship.
Currently, the hubs are led by a manager who knows the area well.
“I wouldn’t call them all tech experts. But they’re all great community experts is really what we were looking for,” Mike Egan, senior director at Microsoft, told the Daily Yonder.
Each of the managers focuses on four areas: STEM education, upskilling training, broadband and digital transformation.
“It’s actually proved to be hugely beneficial,” Jeremy Satterfield, Microsoft TechSpark manager, told the Daily Yonder. “The doors opened during Covid. So we’re just now starting to ramp up. But to be able to have a convenient space for the entire region – this facility actually does serve five-plus counties – to where you can bring in and talk about some of the local industries that we have here.”
Those industries include advanced manufacturing, agriculture, education, health care, and motorsports.
“So we’re working in ways, kind of having some discussions and ways in which we can partner with both of those to hone in on some opportunities for upskilling and training in those capacities as well,” Satterfield said.
He said that officials recognize every day that opportunity is not everywhere.
“The talent certainly is, but trying to really hone in and sharpen the skills, that subset is what we’re really focusing on,” he said. “So in rural communities, where we usually have the least amount of resources, of course, we have some phenomenal resources, don’t get me wrong, but they’re very limited in what they can do at times…as a convening power to be able to bring some of these nonprofit and NGOs around the same table, and really help drive and deepen impact across all of these areas.”
The Innovation Hub opened in March 2022, and since then, more than 600 people have come through the Hub, to take part in trainings or learn about the Center, Satterfield said.
“We’re trying to do everything that we can to make sure that we have those same opportunities here in rural America,” he said.