Nashlie Sephus is on a mission to build a tech hub in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, to train the next generation in technology. Downtown Jackson is not known for its technology prowess but Sephus wants to put the community on the map of technology hubs in America.
She is building a $25-million Jackson Tech District out of 12 abandoned acres of vacant lots and ramshackle buildings in downtown Jackson. “My goal is to turn this space into a self-sustaining village where people can live, work, play, and eat,” Sephus tells Inc.
The plan includes developing seven of the abandoned buildings within five years and the redevelopment will include a maker’s space, an electronics lab, a photography studio, apartments, restaurants, a grocery store as well as an innovation center.
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The techpreneur works at Amazon as an applied science manager for its artificial intelligence initiative. Before joining Amazon, she was the chief technology officer of the startup firm Partpic, a visual recognition technology.
Partpic was sold to Amazon in 2016 and in 2018, Sephus launched her own company called Bean Path. The firm is an incubator and technology consulting nonprofit, Sephus says, and claims to have helped over 400 locals businesses and individuals with their technology needs.
She founded Bean Path after she watched members of her team get laid off during an internship at Delphi Technologies in Indiana. That was when she decided to be her own boss.
The idea to build a tech hub occurred to Sephus in 2018 when she was looking for an office space for Bean Path. According to Inc., her search for an office space focused on the downtown Jackson area, a once booming business community for Black businesses.
“It’s clear that people don’t expect anything good to come from Jackson,” she says. “So it’s up to us to build something for our hometown, something for the people coming behind us.”
She adds: “It had never occurred to me, even though I had sold a company to Amazon and was working with some of the top people at Amazon and having led a whole startup, started our own nonprofit. It just never occurred to me that I, a young Black female, could buy a building in downtown Jackson, Mississippi.”
Her vision to build a tech hub in downtown Jackson has resonated with some investors and city officials, including her superiors at Amazon. One of such investors is Toni Cooley, whom Sephus once provided tech help.
Contrary to her fears, Amazon has also offered a helping hand through its Amazon Future Engineer program, which provides scholarships and instruction for teachers interested in improving their tech skills.
Raising money to finance her project has been one of Sephus’ challenges. In fact, less than 10% of Black businesses get access to venture funding. She has sunk $500,000 of her savings into the project, in addition to funds she raised from friends and families amounting to some $150,000.
She intends to raise additional cash through crowdfunding, grants and private sources. The tech hub project will generate funds through rentals and membership fees, she says.
Sephus obtained her first degree in computer engineering at Mississippi State University. She subsequently earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in computer engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.