Inside This Amazon Scientist’s $25 Million Plan to Flip 12 Deserted Acres in Jackson, Mississippi Right into a Tech Hub

Nashlie Sephus’ latest project isn’t just a moon shot. It’s a homecoming. Her goal: to create a technology center of 12 acres of abandoned land and buildings in the heart of downtown Jackson, Mississippi.

The 35-year-old has split her time between Jackson, her hometown, and Atlanta for the past four years, where she works as the applied science manager for Amazon’s Artificial Intelligence initiative. Amazon acquired Partpic, the visual recognition technology startup where she served as chief technology officer, in 2016 for an undisclosed sum. In 2018, she founded Bean Path, a Jackson nonprofit incubator and technology consultant who she believes has helped more than 400 local businesses and individuals with their tech needs.

Your plan for the $ 25 million Jackson Tech District is bold for a place not known for its tech prowess. For Sephus, a big part of the appeal is to bring investment into a community that has been left out. “It’s clear the people don’t expect anything good from Jackson,” she says. “So it’s up to us to build something for our hometown, something for the people who come behind us.”

Regardless of the ambition of your company, Sephus says the plan should come from her, still seems like a wild idea. “It had never crossed my mind even though I’d sold a company to Amazon and worked with some of the top people at Amazon and ran an entire startup to start our own nonprofit. I’m just never into that It made sense that I, a young black woman, might buy a building in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, “she says.

Sephus plans to develop seven buildings – with a work area of ​​around 500,000 square meters. With a construction period of three to five years, the area is to be rebuilt and include a manufacturer’s room, an electronics laboratory, a photo studio, apartments, restaurants and a grocery store. The space will also contain an innovation center designed to help entrepreneurs learn technological skills.

“My goal is to transform this space into a self-sustaining village where people can live, work, play and eat,” she says.

A vision for the future

Your path to real estate development was atypical. Sephus received her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Mississippi State University. During a 2008 internship at Delphi Technologies, Indiana, she watched eight members of her team get laid off. It motivated her to create something of her own where she could be in charge. She later found the Bean Trail after earning a master’s degree and doctorate. in computer engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Sephus didn’t come up with the idea of ​​building a tech hub until 2018 as she was looking for office space for the Bean Path. She focused her search on downtown Jackson, in part to revive it. While the area had long ago served as a busy hub for black-owned businesses, it had fallen into disrepair in recent years. “There was still not a lot of black ownership in large parcels, especially in the city center,” she says.

A tech hub, she says, caught on from investors and officials in the city who received a $ 500,000 grant established by the Kellogg Foundation. Jackson also offered cheap zone changes and spruced up the surrounding streets.

One investor who has joined the project is Toni Cooley, a business owner to whom Sephus has provided technical assistance. “I’m inspired by the fact that she was from Jackson, and it’s very easy to go and not come back. She’s not that individual,” said Cooley, CEO of Systems Electro Coating, a Jackson-based auto parts maker. “She’s someone who believes in added value from a young age, and that’s what impressed me about her.”

Laying of the foundation stone

At first, Sephus worried about what her employer would say. “I was so ready to get a little email that said, ‘Hey, you can’t,’ but ironically, Amazon was actually very supportive,” she says. “I think a lot happened in the last year, which probably contributed to it [the killing of] George Floyd and Covid. Many people think differently. “Amazon also offered help through its Amazon Future Engineer program, which provides scholarships and instruction for teachers interested in improving their technical skills. We Power Tech, an Amazon program that aims to provide access to underrepresented communities enable to tech is also ready to run workshops once the hub is open.

The biggest challenge for Sephus was raising capital. In total, Sephus was rejected by three area banks before vendor funding was finally obtained. She raised $ 500,000 of her own savings to help close the deal and raised $ 150,000 in a round with friends and family. She plans to further fund her project with private investments, crowdfunding rounds, nonprofit grants, tax credits, and opportunity zone funding. Sephus says the project will Earn money with rent payments and membership fees.

After a year of fundraising, Sephus closed the property in September and expects to lay the foundation stone this spring. She is already in talks with a popular chain restaurant and grocery store. Their ultimate vision is for the Jackson Tech Hub to become a place where you can hang out with like-minded people, grow your business, and learn how to develop technologies that help make the world better.“”

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