Black Techie Disrupts Downtown Jackson, MS, with Her New Tech Hub Plans

Black Techie Disrupts Downtown Jackson, MS, with Her New Tech Hub Plans

Landscapers Charles Harvey (left) and Louis Charleston, both with Big Oak Lawn Maintenance, remove vines and other debris from an abandoned Gallatin Street property in Jackson. The property will be renovated into a WiFi hotspot/event space and part of a new development, The Jackson Tech District.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Today.

Nashlie Sephus/photo by Terrence Wells, 242 Creative

Driving through the edges of downtown Jackson, Mississippi, as a kid, Nashlie Sephus was fascinated with a particular abandoned factory warehouse she called “the barn.”

The barn is still stark in size and stature, towering over a major thoroughfare that’s more highly trafficked than nearly every other street in the city, but has suffered from decades of divestment despite being flanked by Jackson State University and the city’s business district. Dissected by the state’s main railroad corridor that houses Jackson’s Amtrak station and Town Creek that winds through downtown to feed the Pearl River, Sephus says North Gallatin Street is the perfect spot for the city to re-envision its future and to invest in her home.

But until recently, the property sat abandoned like much of the street and surrounding area. Sephus, 35, bought it in September along with 12 accompanying acres to create what she’s dubbed the “Jackson Tech District” — a block of now-unused industrial property she’s morphing into a technology district, mixing non- and for-profit space to create a resource, playground and potential development anchor for the community.

“I believe in all the benefits of having come from a place like Jackson and being born in Mississippi. There’s not a person who knows me who doesn’t know that I’m from Mississippi and I love to brag on it and help change people’s stereotypes,” she said. Having lived on both coasts and worked with people all over the world in the tech industry, “I like to put that front and center.”

Sephus has dedicated her career to technology equity. A Mississippi State University graduate in computer engineering, she now works for Amazon reconfiguring data patterns that show implicit bias. She also launched a non-profit in Jackson two years ago called The Bean Path, dedicated to helping everyone from children to small business owners access tech tools they need through coding and engineering programing, “tech hours” at local libraries and grant-making to encourage STEM growth in schools.

The Bean Path will own and operate arts and culture programming, tech classes and events in two of the seven buildings across the tech hub’s new district. Mixed-use development comprising housing, offices, restaurants and collaborative work spaces are planned for the other buildings, all revolving around the idea of leveling the playing field with dedicated space for and open access to tech tools.

“This (technology) is such a huge infrastructure and a part of our daily lives, it’s very important for us to keep up and not be left behind,” she said. “I think it’s really important for me to make sure I’m doing everything I can, being that I’m an expert in this industry, to make sure that other people like me have opportunities to be successful in this field and also to bridge the gap to help people with their everyday lives.”

In Jackson, classes are still virtual but resources are scarce and COVID-19 emotional and physical tolls are high, exacerbated by longstanding housing and health inequities. “(We were) thinking about kids that may need somewhere to access the internet, they need to rent laptops for a day and access a tutor, because not all parents are about that tutoring life,” Sephus said.

She added this type of strategic community planning and investment in the community has traditionally been missing from big Jackson development projects. “We can provide them a space for them to come, this belongs to the community just as much as it belongs to me. I want to make everybody a part of that, I think engaging the community is one of the biggest pieces that might be missing from that downtown area.”

As a computer engineer focused on machine learning, she looks for patterns and, often more importantly, diversions from those patterns to help artificial intelligence course-correct for bias. For AI, patterns determine everything, like the types of ads you see on social media, what kind of music and TV shows streaming services suggest for you and which routes self-driving cars pick.

But patterns meant to teach AI can also be deceiving and discriminatory if they only reflect certain groups — and it all revolves around what dataset the tech pulls from. Research shows facial recognition software works best for white men and misidentifies Black faces more often.

For AI to recognize and learn from situations, it uses information from previous datasets — when it encounters something new, the bias defaults to reject or mis-categorize it unless it fits in with pre-existing patterns. AI can be biased because the information it has to learn from is biased, particularly when it comes to race, gender and social inequity.

Sephus works on Amazon Web Services’ AI team to detect inequities in algorithms and retrain them to discern differences. Essentially, her team works to identify and recalibrate fairness within data patterns, such as facial recognition and how bank loans are awarded.

“Anything outside of those patterns shows up as an anomaly and so we’re looking at things to detect faces, even to detect my voice. If you haven’t ‘trained your algorithm’ on voices of people from the South, it probably won’t work as well for people who sound like us,” she said.

Sephus experienced the bias inherent to bank loan algorithms firsthand over the last 18 months when she fought for, and was ultimately denied, financing to buy up the now-abandoned property in downtown Jackson that she plans to develop into the tech hub.

“For me having come from Amazon, I had a startup successful acquisition, I have access to a lot of capital, a lot of it is my own — I just realized sometimes it doesn’t matter how much money you have. The banks don’t care, they’re looking for certain trends and patterns,” she said.

It took the then-landowner agreeing to owner financing and Ridgeland-based Butler Snow law firm committing to pro-bono representation to close the deal, she says. A year and half after deciding to make the tech hub reality, Sephus is breaking ground on the new project. She says it stands to not only revolutionize the community and its capital, but also transform Jackson’s infrastructure and development to be from a community, rather than just for it — issues the nearby Farish Street has been plagued with.

“I am a fairly young person, I’m a Black female. I don’t know many other people who look like me who are similar to me, who own property and are doing the same thing in the downtown area,” she said. “I think that’s kind of what it takes — for somebody who thinks differently with a different background to come in and, as we say in the start-up world, disrupt … I’m crazy enough to believe that we can pull this off.”

She lives and works in Atlanta, but is spending a lot of time home in Jackson to get the project going and funded, and is not new to homegrown non-profit work, like The Bean Path that will spearhead community programming for the new tech district. She says she hopes more infrastructure recognizes that tech equity is more than just the biases in technology itself, but access to it, like universal high speed internet access.

Jackson Tech District design/ rendering by Sophia Parker with Dragonfly Design Center

She sees the tech hub as an inflection point for the area that will not only bring economic development and impact for kids who benefit from the tech resources, but with classes, trainings and tutoring she thinks it will bring workforce skills development for people going to work within the tech industry, and increase the area’s property value and infrastructure along the way. One of her more-pressing goals is to turn the barn event space into a safe WiFi hotspot for students’ virtual learning needs.

“Especially given the things that have happened this year in terms of COVID, in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, I think the time is now,” she said. “I just want people to understand that it shouldn’t be this hard and that I am dedicated to making sure that I bring the community along in this process and educating them on how I’m going about it and how they can also do the same thing …  you can do it. Get a good support system. I definitely have more than my fair share of people that are supporting me, and that I attribute my success to. I want to be that person for the next generation.”

Wait‚ Something Was Missing from the Mars Rover Mission

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, celebrate the Aug. 6 landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on the planet Mars. (Photo: NASA)

On August 6, when the Mars rover Curiosity managed a text-book landing on the red planet, I was as thrilled and enthralled as anyone else who watched the tension in that NASA control room transform into unrestrained joy once the engineers realized that their project was a success. For me, though, watching the jubilation in that room was also bittersweet. As an American I felt the pride and amazement of this great accomplishment in space, but as an African American I was stung by the lack of black faces celebrating in the NASA control room.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees has been declining nationwide, but it’s particularly alarming for blacks. African Americans represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 2009 received only “7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs.” Education, of course, goes hand in hand with our economic wellbeing. With black unemployment twice as high as that of whites, pursuing STEM careers is an opportunity that could dramatically improve black life for generations to come.

The black church should use its influence to awaken parents and encourage young people to pursue STEM education. In addition to the economic benefit, STEM fields are about the study of God’s creations — the universe, the Earth, and all life forms. Emphasizing STEM in this context at church and the community could channel the natural curiosities of young people in a positive direction. It could help them to see and experience God not as some elusive being beyond the clouds but as a deeper, loving ever-present Spirit who is concerned about their everyday lives.

WELL DONE: On Aug. 13, President Obama made a special phone call to congratulate NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover team. (Photo: Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)

If a kid in the ’hood or the ’burbs can master the physics required to consistently shoot a rubber sphere into a 10-foot-high cylinder or mix and sync the sonic wavelengths of hip-hop beats to precision, they also can achieve in math and science classes. STEM is at the root.

As a youth growing up in the late 1970s, my curiosity in God was actually stirred more by watching reruns of the original Star Trek than sitting in wooden pews enduring long, dry, abstract sermons. Star Trek offered many lessons about how science could be used to help solve human problems and lead us to a better understanding and relationship with Jesus Christ. Star Trek also depicted blacks as intelligent leaders rather than the buffoons I often saw on other TV shows. (As an aside, some years ago I met Nichelle Nichols, who played the original Lieutenant Uhura, at an event in Phoenix, Arizona. I told her that as a youth I was in love with her because she tucked me in bed most nights as I fell asleep after watching Star Trek. She laughed and gave me a big hug.)

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes was “The Ultimate Computer.” Dr. Richard Daystrom, a black man (actor William Marshall), developed the M5 Multitronic Unit, a computer designed to run a 430-crew starship with just 20 crewmembers. The M5 was to replace a commander, such as Captain James T. Kirk. Humans would no longer die at war but could channel their intellect and spirit toward higher pursuits.

M5 thought like a human because Daystrom had implanted M5 with his own human neural engrams. It was tested under a war games scenario, while Kirk sat at the helm observing. After performing flawlessly, M5 hit a glitch and ended up blasting other starships, killing crew members. Daystrom experienced a mental breakdown while trying to talk M5 out of committing more murders. Eventually Kirk reasoned with M5 by appealing to its (Daystrom’s) sense of guilt. M5 tells Kirk, “Murder is contrary to the laws of man and God,” and concludes that it must die for its sins. Even the computer understood God’s authority and submitted.

The outcome was unfortunate for Daystrom, but this 1968 episode revealed something extremely inspiring about the overall Star Trek series: Daystrom, a genius, was responsible for the design of ALL of the starship computers throughout the entire fleet. Imagine that — a black man!

The black imprint in space travel is not science fiction. From Benjamin Baneker, the first African American astronomer, to Guion “Guy” Bluford, the first black man in space, to Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, African Americans have a long and strong legacy. And though it may not have been visually present in that jubilant NASA control room, it was there: NASA’s current leader, Charles Frank “Charlie” Bolden, Jr., is African American.

Editor’s Note: For more information on ways of encouraging student participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs, check out this report, “Increasing the Number of STEM Graduates,” from the Business-Higher Education Forum.

Steve Jobs’ Passion for Diversity

CORE VISION: Steve Jobs understood that a true, passionate commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment does not diminish innovation -- it enhances it. (Photo by Dai Sugano/Newscom.)

Steve Jobs has long been celebrated as a hero for middle-class, geeky white guys. But he was also deeply concerned about bringing more minorities into engineering, and into his own company. I know, because he told me. Even better, he hired me to help him do it.

Little did I know, God would allow my life path to intersect with that of Steve Jobs, the late cofounder and CEO of Apple. I met Steve four years ago and continued to interact with him until this past spring.

Since 2004, I’ve taught computer science at Spelman College, the historically black school for women in Atlanta. In December 2007, I took the SpelBots, Spelman College’s all-women robotics team, to Stanford University to give a presentation at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, which included an open showcase to the community. The SpelBots represent undergraduate female student trailblazers and role models who are paving the way for younger female and African American students by competing internationally against graduate-level engineering universities in RoboCup humanoid robot soccer competitions. RoboCup represents the closest we have to an international “Olympics” of robotics and artificial intelligence research.

After the SpelBots’ visit to Stanford, we did a tour of Silicon Valley, stopping off at Google for breakfast and Apple for lunch so that our students could see these world-class technology companies firsthand. During our lunch at Apple, my friend Scott, who was an employee there, told me not to look over my shoulder. “Steve Jobs just walked in with Jonathan Ive,” he whispered. I immediately recognized Steve, but I had no idea who Jonathan Ive was until Scott explained that he was the chief industrial designer for Apple, the man who had designed such gadgets as the iPhone and the iMac.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that Steve was both revered and feared at Apple, and that it was not a good idea to go up to Steve and try to talk to him. So, I went over to Jonathan Ive instead. I introduced myself and told him how much I liked his designs. We were having a nice chat when, suddenly, Steve Jobs came over to us.

I introduced myself, innocently including a little backstory as well: “Hi, I’m Andrew Williams, from Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, and Apple supports our robotics team.”

Steve quickly asked, “Do you have an engineering program?”

“We have a dual engineering program with universities such as Georgia Tech and Michigan,” I told him.

“Can you help us hire black engineers?” he said. “Do you know how many black engineers we have?”

Before I could say anything he shared a shockingly low number and confessed how poorly Apple was doing in finding black candidates. I’ll skip the full exchange, but suffice it to say, I got an intimate peek into Steve’s passion and energy. He was seriously upset at Apple’s efforts in that area. His last words to me that day were, “If you have any ideas on how we can hire more black engineers, send me an email.”

King of Silicon Valley

Having grown up in a small Kansas Army town, living in a two-bedroom trailer with my African American dad, Korean mom, and five siblings, my path to overcoming poverty and earning my Ph.D. in electrical engineering was not always clear. But there I stood that day, amazed at how God had given me the opportunity to meet the greatest innovator of my lifetime.

I recalled reading in the Book of Proverbs, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He shall stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men.” I had taken those words of wisdom to heart while pursuing my education, and now I was realizing them.

While working at GE Medical Systems in the early ’90s, during the first dot-com boom, I grieved the fact that there weren’t more African Americans going to Silicon Valley and making a difference in the new technological era. I understood that many underrepresented minorities lacked the connections and education to become computing entrepreneurs. But now, there I was being asked by, in my view, the ultimate computing entrepreneur for help in getting more African Americans to work for his world-renowned Silicon Valley company.


Challenging Steve Jobs

In 1995, I earned my master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Marquette University while I was at GE. I then left GE to work on my Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Kansas. I received my doctorate in 1999. Ever since, my passion has been to help underrepresented students reach their full educational potential in computing, so that they can play a productive role in our world’s changing economy and perhaps aspire to become “the next Steve Jobs.”

After my encounter with Steve, I went home and thought and prayed about what ideas I would give him about recruiting more black engineers at Apple. Then I composed an email that would change my life.

I began by explaining why I did what I did, including how my wife, Anitra, and I decided after reading The Purpose-Driven Life that I would leave my tenure-track faculty position at the University of Iowa so that I could fulfill my purpose of helping underrepresented students. I even attached a picture of my wife Anitra and my children, John, Adrianna, and Rosa to the email.

I also told him about the positive things I observed Apple doing to encourage and expand diversity. Apple, at the time, was building relationships with Atlanta University Center schools. I told him about my wife’s experience with her retail position at the Apple Store in Atlanta and how I could see growing diversity there. I bragged about how my Apple friends Scott and Denise were doing great with improving Apple’s diversity in both its university relations and retail. Denise, by the way, is an African American woman who at the time was Apple’s director of human resources for global retail.

I told Steve how important it was for students to see other underrepresented and female role models at top positions at Apple including its board of directors. I suggested he needed to make efforts to recruit at non-traditional “Apple” elite schools, such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and women’s colleges. I told him that our current SpelBots captain would make a great intern at Apple. I mentioned that it’s important to consider the importance of family when dealing with African American students in making career and education decisions. I also let him know that I admired Apple and that it was one of the few companies for which I would consider leaving academia.

After I sent the email, I waited and didn’t hear anything for several days. I think my Apple friends were concerned because few people dared to confront Steve and tell him what he should do. Yet I saw him as a fellow human being who was concerned with helping underrepresented students make his company continue to be great. A week later, I received a phone call from Scott, and later a copy of an email Steve had sent internally about how he was “sooooooooooooo happy” about what I told him about Apple’s recent diversity efforts and that he wanted to hire me to help “hire black engineers.” He had read my email so thoroughly that he pointed out that I had hinted I would consider working at Apple.

I soon found myself taking a yearlong sabbatical from Spelman College to become a full-time Apple employee. I was named Apple’s first Senior Engineering Diversity Manager.

I won’t divulge all that I did and saw at Apple, but I did witness positive changes being made at levels that were way above me that could only have come from Steve. I was able to directly influence the hiring of more African Americans, women, and other minorities as interns and eventually full-time Apple engineers.

SPELBOTS COMETH: The 2011 SpelBots team (from left) Coach Andrew Williams, Christina Sparks, Amelia Henderson, Tyler Davis, Jonecia Keels, Jazmine Miller, Naquasia Jones, and program manager Angela Church. (Not pictured: Breoshshala Martin, Daria Jordan, Chanel Johnson.)

I was especially proud that I played a role in helping one of my students become the first Spelman grad to work as a full-time engineer at Apple, after she had obtained her initial internship through my contact with Steve. I’ve met African American engineers at Apple who helped design the iPad; one of my former female students from the University of Iowa works with Jon Ive’s group; there are African Americans intimately involved with the App store; and the list goes on. There are now literally dozens of engineers from underrepresented groups who are making a contribution to the development of Apple’s products.

Final Respects

I continued interacting with Steve in various ways after I ended my sabbatical at Apple. I gave him a copy of my autobiography, he received my family’s Christmas newsletter, and we periodically connected via email or indirect messages. One poignant note that I sent to him shared how with Apple’s new FaceTime feature I was able to “tuck in” my youngest daughter, Rosa, while I was away from home on business trips. Using FaceTime, I’d tell her a story and pray with her before she went to bed. Because of Apple’s technology, we didn’t have to sacrifice our bedtime routine — even when I was a thousand miles away.

My final interaction with Steve occurred this past spring. In a March 30th email, I told him I was praying for him and his family. I also let him know that one of our SpelBots students had won a national iPhone app competition and that she thought Apple should hire her as an intern. She had applied for summer internships at Apple over the last few years but could never break through. I didn’t hear back from Steve directly, but not long after that my student received a call from an Apple recruiter who said Steve had forwarded her résumé. Sure enough, this past summer our SpelBots student was hired as an Apple intern and soon will be offered a full-time position as an engineer.

A company such as Apple, which at the time of this writing has over $80 billion of cash on hand, can pick and choose whomever they want to hire. So, I’m always glad when they recognize the talent and potential of individuals from groups that are underrepresented in the engineering ranks.

My hope is that Steve’s vision for diversity at Apple will not die now that he’s gone. I also hope that other CEOs learn from him that a true, passionate commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment does not diminish but only enhances innovation.

Take it from Steve Jobs to understand diversity’s value and significance. He recognized that a diverse team of smart and creative people was essential to the success of his company, and to the future of our nation’s global competitiveness. Because of his sincere commitment to diversity, who knows? The next great American innovator could very well be an African American, a Latino, a woman. The iPad and the iPhone are wonderful, but for me that would be Steve’s most enduring legacy.