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Signs go up at the SOVA Innovation Hub in South Boston. / November 24, 2020
Microsoft’s economic growth initiative, TechSpark, is celebrating its third year in business in rural communities where the technology giant maintains operations — including in southern Virginia, where the anniversary arrives with a special flair.

Within a few short months, Microsoft TechSpark Southern Virginia will move into its new home in South Boston, the SOVA Innovation Hub, a gleaming two-story, 15,000 square foot facility that is being built by Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities, regional provider of ultra high-speed fiber internet connectivity.

The Innovation Hub will serve as MBC’s new headquarters (non-profit MBC is relocating from the Southern Virginia Technology Park west of South Boston), and MBC is providing the ground level floor to Microsoft and community development groups that TechSpark has fostered in the region.

Southern Virginia TechSpark manager Jeremy Satterfield, a Halifax County native who joined the initiative in 2018 after working for MBC, said in three short years the TechSpark program has

» instituted and expanded the Technology, Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program, a Microsoft venture that pairs high schools with software engineers who serve as part-time computer science teachers,

» established Girls Who Code clubs in Mecklenburg and Halifax to interest more young woman in computer programing and technology,

» been instrumental in deploying free public WiFi networks in Boydton and Clarksville,

» launched ChangeX, a STEM program for students involved in Extension 4-H programs.

Satterfield called the SOVA Innovation Hub the “signature project for Southern Virginia” for Microsoft’s TechSpark office in the region.

When it opens in the next couple of months, Satterfield says the site will offer programming opportunities for all residents in Southern Virginia. He is particularly excited that the facility will also house a Microsoft Experience Center on the first floor. The center will highlight technology applications across various industries, with cutting-edge capabilities such as augmented reality and TV white space internet — tech tools that can enhance Southside Virginia’s agricultural industry, to name only one such example.

Moving forward, Satterfield said much of the focus of TechSpark “will run parallel to Microsoft’s Skilling Initiative announced in June.” The goal of the program, which was introduced as a response to the global economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is to bring more digital skills to 25 million people worldwide by the end of the year.

In 2016, Microsoft President Brad Smith announced the formation of TechSpark, which made its debut in Fargo, N.D., where the tech giant operates a cloud computing campus similar to its sprawling facility in Boydton. Smith articulated the idea of reaching out to local partners to help accelerate economic growth in rural and underdeveloped areas where the technology giant could offer assistance with broadband connectivity, digital skills development, career pathways, nonprofit support, and digital transformation.

Microsoft TechSpark ventures can be found today in six regions across the U.S. — eastern Washington,  southern Virginia,  Cheyenne, Wy., Fargo, N.D., Green Bay, Wis., and the cross-border region of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico.

In a statement announcing the anniversary, Microsoft said its investments in the six TechSpark regions have boosted support by other public and private sector partners four-fold, bringing in an additional $25 million in investment to communities the venture serves. Additionally, Microsoft said TechSpark has provided technology education to 50,000 students, trained or retrained a like number of workers for tech jobs, supported 100,000 people through COVID-19 assistance and recovery, and positively impacted 300,000 people in the six regions.

The Microsoft Skilling Initiative, the company’s newest approach for spreading high-demand digital skills to underserved regions, includes “immediate steps to help those looking to reskill and pursue an in-demand job,” according to the media statement on the third anniversary.

To help workers transition to high-tech jobs, TechSpark and the Skilling Initiative will tap a variety of employment resources, such as LinkedIn Economic Graph and LinkedIn Learning, GitHub Learning Lab and Microsoft Learn, as well as Microsoft Certifications and LinkedIn job seeking tools.

Components of the program include:

» use of data to identify in-demand jobs and the skills needed to fill them.

» Free access to learning paths and content to help people develop the skills these positions require.

» Low-cost certifications and free job-seeking tools to help people who develop these skills pursue new jobs.

In addition, Microsoft is backing the effort with $20 million in cash grants to help nonprofit organizations worldwide assist the people who need it most. One-quarter of the money, or $5 million, is set aside for cash grants to community-based nonprofit organizations that are led by and serve communities of color in the United States.

The local TechSpark skilling initiative program, Gener8tor Upskilling, is a self-paced, virtual program that helps program participants build key listening skills, develop problem-solving and negotiating skills, and learn tools to de-escalate challenging situations while honing interpersonal or “soft” skills.

In addition, the program provides coaching on resume and cover letter writing, LinkedIn profile creation and job interviewing skills. It also provides a network of peers for support and sets up interviews with companies ready to hire candidates in customer service and sales. It is free and open to anyone in southern Virginia.

Satterfield said, “Our first Gener8tor Upskilling cohort graduated today [Nov. 20] after completing a five-week program on customer service/sales.” He said he anticipates several upcoming announcements regarding new and additional programming opportunities at the SOVA Innovation Hub.

“TechSpark is working diligently to bring technology opportunities to the region for employers and employees alike,” Satterfield said, adding that “digital skilling across our region allows employers to find qualified employees to fill positions and those employees have the opportunity to find gainful employment locally.

“Business innovation will grow with the opening of the SOVA Innovation Hub as more of those technology resources will be centrally located,” he predicted.

This week in South Boston, signage was mounted on the new Innovation Hub with logos for Microsoft and Mid-Atlantic Broadband. Construction at the site, with J.E. Burton Construction Company of South Boston serving as the general contractor, is drawing to a conclusion. The opening of the Innovation Hub is expected in early 2021.

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