Three years ago, when Nashlie Sephus, Ph.D., created her nonprofit The Bean Path in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, she might not have been fully aware of where that decision would lead.
Sephus—whose day job is as an applied scientist in AI and tech evangelist at Amazon Web Services—says she started the nonprofit tech incubator and consulting organization because the city has so much untapped potential. The mission is to sow the seeds of technical expertise and fertilize networks within the community.
“Mississippi is often not talked about for anything good,” Sephus says. “So, how can we show people what we have to offer? How can we stop what they call the brain drain of people who are very educated, intelligent, very innovative leaving the state because they feel like they don’t have those opportunities within the state?”
The organization provides tech advice and guidance to both individuals and small businesses through a number of ways—engineering and coding programs for youth, scholarships and grants for students and community organizations, and tech office hours at the local libraries.
Since its creation, The Bean Path has helped more than 400 local businesses and people, and Sephus and her team are just getting started.
The Next Chapter: Expansion and More Workforce Development
Sephus’ vision expanded when The Bean Path started outgrowing its current location last year and she began searching for new office space. Having acquired 14 acres of abandoned land, groundbreaking for the $29 million first phase of the Jackson Tech District is scheduled to begin shortly.
“The Bean Path is the anchor of the tech district,” says Sephus. “But we’re also adding additional components such as entrepreneurship training, makerspace, an event venue center, restaurants, retail space. Also, office space for other entities because it’s not just us. We’re bringing together the entire tech ecosystem to drive this economic development in the Mississippi area.”
Sephus says, overall, the district costs are estimated to be about $150 million. Completion is expected in three to five years.
She notes that the impact will be broad. “It really touches everything from the K-12 school system to the local and state government, as well as the economic and financial opportunities available.”
“Talk about jobs. People think that AI and automation take away jobs. It also develops new jobs. And a lot of times those jobs are more highly skilled and higher paid. So, we’re constantly progressing everybody and moving everyone in the right direction.”
“It’s important also to develop tech talent and understand what that looks like if people want to change their career path at any stage,” Sephus explains.
Funding is coming in to boost career development and training, says Sephus. A grant from the Kellogg Foundation and matching monies from sponsors are also “funding workforce development to work with other entrepreneurship incubators and accelerators in the area. Also, developing the next wave of technology officers.”
The Role of Partnerships
There are a number of companies that are already partners or sponsors of the tech district, according to Sephus. Among them, Acer and Airbnb.
As for her current employer, Sephus says Amazon has been supportive since the beginning when she launched The Bean Path. “There’s different organizations that even reached out, ‘Hey, how can we help?’ Amazon Future Engineer has been one of the organizations within Amazon that has been really helpful by providing training to teachers, scholarships.”
Sephus says it’s important that stakeholders operate outside their silos. “The collaboration, the inclusion, and the live /work/ play aspect is what, to me, will bring and tie everything together to really build that support.”
Sephus says being able to give back to her hometown is a big motivator. “It really spirals out of control into this big thing that a rising tide lifts all ships. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”