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Microsoft in your community

Meet Microsoft’s Southern Virginia TechSpark lead, Jeremy Satterfield

The Microsoft TechSpark program currently operates in six regions across the United States and Mexico―the joint region of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas; Fargo, North Dakota; Southern Virginia; North Central Washington; Northeast Wisconsin; and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Each region is unique both in locale and in how the TechSpark managers implement programs. Our mission is to listen to and partner with community organizations to bring jobs and economic opportunity to our region. Although the primary focuses for all of us are computer science education, digital inclusion, business transformation, and support for nonprofits, the way we go about approaching that work varies.

For this round of our Spotlight Series, my colleagues and I set out to interview each other to gain insight and perspective into our work. I met up with my East Coast colleague Jeremy Satterfield who runs the TechSpark program in rural Southern Virginia which is the most similar to my region, as we are both very rural and also have Microsoft datacenters in our communities.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Karstetter: So, Jeremy―”Mr. Southern Virginia”—what do you love about your region?

Jeremy Satterfield: Pretty easy answer there to be honest with you, I’m just like you, Lisa. I was born and raised in this community. Have a lot invested here. Vowed I was going to never come back to Southern Virginia and almost four years to the day of graduating high school I was right back in the same place. (chuckle) A lot of that had to do with my fiancée, now my wife of 19 years, but I can’t imagine my three children being raised somewhere else. You know I’m 6 miles from my in-laws and 5.5 miles from my parents and I get to coach my own kids on the same fields I played on as a child. So, we’ve got a great support system and we’ve been able to find everything that we need to keep us happy right here in old Southside Virginia.

Lisa: Same story. I live a little over an hour from where I grew up. I was raised on a potato farm and am now married to an orchardist. Go figure. I moved away to attend college, met my husband, and ended up moving back to the area. I swore just like you that I would never move back to rural life. I now live in the middle of an orchard, but I will say a farm has been a great place to raise my three boys. Great way to teach them about work ethic. Always something to do on a farm. Two of my sons have moved back after college to join the family farm. I’m proof that rural life gets under the skin and it’s hard to break away. I love the small town values, the tight relationships, and living in a community where everyone needs to lean in to make it work. I know that is hard for people in bigger urban areas to really grasp, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Having a connection to most people around the area is what makes it so much fun to do the work that we’re doing through TechSpark. It has impact on organizations and people that I personally know. That touches my heart and makes the work I do very personal.

Jeremy: Yeah. It’s amazing how your mindset changes from high school to college graduate. You know 18-year-old me would have no part of moving back to Southern Virginia, but 22-year-old me was very happy about moving back home. (chuckle) I’m still very happy I made the decision to come back home. It’s certainly been a little extra special to raise our three children in our hometown.

So, Miss Lisa, TechSpark Manager of North Central Washington, what has Microsoft brought to your community?

Lisa: I managed the local chamber back in the early 2000’s and I can remember businesses struggling because everything relied on agriculture. It was a struggle to find ways to promote our small little town. The pressure on the local ag community was tremendous. If the farmers didn’t do well or commodities prices were low, then the businesses suffered. Our small rural communities lived or died by that, and so all of a sudden, when you have Microsoft and these other datacenters move to the area, things changed.

It created hope for the first time in a while. It’s brought a great tax base and taken the pressure off the shoulders of our agriculture community. Taxes are going into the community, and you are seeing young adults who grew up here move back for jobs. Follow that by Microsoft placing a local (me) in the TechSpark position saying, “now let’s go a little deeper and let’s really look at economic development, STEM education, skilling, et cetera. How can we help lift those things around the area?” Honestly, Jeremy, it’s hard to describe with words, but so much easier to see. You know you drive through town and you just see renewed life, new buildings, and new faces. Has it been the same in Southern Virginia?

Jeremy: Yeah, it has. I was working for Mid-Atlantic Broadband when Microsoft announced their plans to build a datacenter in Boydton and I remember people being excited about it, but not like jumping up and down. Fast forward eight years later, and now everyone is excited about it and what it has brought to our area. They have brought a lot of stability. Oh, and jobs! I never will forget, before I was working for Microsoft, I was chatting with the economic development director of Mecklenburg County, when they sold the land to Microsoft. They said they were going to employ 50 people at the datacenter, and we were overjoyed at that. We are so WAY beyond those numbers now. We’re working on our seventh expansion. It’s grown so much, and it’s really helped bring different programming opportunities to our community and helped the area. There’s just been so much good.

Then they announced TechSpark, and I was hired. You and I have witnessed so much that Microsoft has done, particularly through the TechSpark program. Most of the organizations I currently work with were around before we (Microsoft) came to town and I was active in supporting them, but it’s just amazing the convening power that Microsoft has at bringing them all together in a way that never happened before.

Lisa: Yes, exactly. Same here. We have talented and innovative organizations here in North Central Washington but often they were isolated, under-resourced, and duplicative but still doing amazing work. Through the TechSpark program, I have been able to help them knit together in a way that amplifies their work. So, of the seven of us hired to do this TechSpark work for Microsoft, I would say that you and I have the most similarities. Our counties and areas are the most rural and both have datacenters. How would you compare your area to mine?

Jeremy: Without question we have the most in common, but I think you probably have a higher Latino population than what I have based on the massive amount of agriculture in your area. The demographic mix is probably much different as well as the languages spoken.

Lisa: Exactly. Between 25 to 30 percent of the population in my area speak Spanish as their primary language. It has been important to me to make sure that we work hard to be inclusive. I need everyone to have a seat at the table to have success. I’ve been thankful that most of the upskilling classes we’ve been pushing out through LinkedIn Learning and Microsoft Learning have been offered in Spanish as well as other languages. Now I need to make sure everyone has access to broadband.

Jeremy: If COVID has done nothing else, it’s really exasperated the need for connectivity. My rural communities need broadband connectivity in a dire way. Education, healthcare, and remote workers need access to affordable broadband. If you don’t have broadband, you are in a very tough spot. That fact rears its ugly head a lot, especially in rural areas.

Lisa: Ditto. Let’s hope that there is some major push at a federal level this year. I know both of our areas got hit hard by COVID. What kind of challenges did you see around your region and what were some of the ways you were able to help in Southern Virginia?

Jeremy: 2020 was definitely a blur, to say the least. Like you, we were fortunate to be able to give out hand sanitizer and N95 masks to some of the entities that needed it. That wasn’t what I anticipated doing in 2020, but it was a dire need. Our focus here was on long-term care facilities and healthcare operations that were outside of healthcare systems.

Outside of COVID, we were able to launch a Datacenter Community Advisory Board here which was a win. We brought together folks from the area, including a few high school students. My own high school daughter served on it. It gave her a glimpse into what Microsoft sees is helping grow the community. I think she was intimidated a little bit, a little nervous to speak up sometimes, but she understood what was going on and I could see her starting to connect some other dots that, quite honestly, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to connect had she not been in that group. We were also able to do a successful ChangeX launch for the second year which was well-received. What about you, Miss Lisa?

Lisa: I know the big one for me was the Upskilling Program we funded. We partnered with NCW Tech Alliance to help do that work and reached around 2,200 people in our region. It was great to see a lot of people leaning in to take online classes. But it also brought to light those who do not have internet or devices at home to even take those classes. Most of the classes were able to be taken on a mobile device, but if you don’t have unlimited data and don’t have internet at home, where do you go? With COVID causing lockdown in our area, you couldn’t go to coffee shops, libraries, or other areas where you used to be able to go for free Wi-Fi access. We did partner with Washington State University to provide boosters to libraries and other public spots so that people could sit in their cars or outside those businesses.

I was talking to a girl whose college campus was closed due to the pandemic and they were sent home in the spring to do the last quarter virtually. She didn’t have broadband access at home as her family couldn’t afford it. Her family had one car and used it to get to work from their home in the country. Think about that, Jeremy. You come from a disadvantaged family, study hard, and get a scholarship for college, but a pandemic forces you home and you now have no access to get online and do your courses until your parents come home from work. This student would sit at night in a car by a truck stop where she could use their Wi-Fi and do her homework. (sigh) Heartbreaking but eye-opening to the urgent need.

Jeremy: It’s horrible. COVID really did shine a bright light on so much need.

Lisa: Same issue with schools. We helped fund hot-spots for the local school district here so that every student could have a hotspot to go virtual. Also, many of our local nonprofits were not equipped to move to a completely virtual world so we set up a tech fund at the Columbia Basin Foundation where nonprofits could apply for grants to upgrade their equipment and software.

Jeremy: I can certainly imagine we were both in the midst of running different programs with different organizations for the last three months or the last three years. Seeing some of those organizations really struggle with taking those programs that were meant to be face to face, hands on, into that virtual capacity was tough to watch. Some of them stumbled quite a bit, and some of them handled the transition effortlessly. So, you know, that’s the one takeaway that I had―seeing who was able to pivot faster and who needed more help. I think the word for the year is challenging.

Lisa: Yeah, some of our funded projects just couldn’t land as they couldn’t figure out fast enough how to pivot to virtual, while others flourished in ways we didn’t expect. We had a STEM showcase that Microsoft sponsors where we have kids come every year to showcase in person. Although open to the whole region, it’s normally the kids who live in Wenatchee who participate, but moving it online opened it up to participation from kids from all over the region who submitted their projects. So, it did make it more equitable for those who live farther remote.

We also have an event in the area called the Flywheel Investment Conference, that is normally an in-person event. They moved it online and had triple the viewers. So, in looking for a positive in this year of challenges, I guess lots of lessons were learned and many events may go to more of a hybrid model going forward.

So now that you have been with Microsoft for 3.5 years, what have you learned while doing this TechSpark work?

Jeremy: I had worked with nonprofits for a long time, so I thought I knew all of the nonprofit organizations throughout the region and I thought I really understood what they did. In doing this TechSpark work, I’ve come to realize I don’t. I may have understood what they do, but not who they do it for, not their scope, not their reach. So, it has really brought me a heightened sense of how these nonprofits operate. How they do what they do honestly, where they fall short, and where we can potentially make connections to other organizations to help them scale their impact. That’s been the biggest highlight for me.

Lisa: Yes, 100 percent the same for me. I previously worked for another local tech company doing community outreach, which was wonderful, but our TechSpark work takes it to a whole new level of leaning into a community.

It’s big thinking. It’s spending tons of time strategizing over how to remove barriers for the underserved or most rural. How do I reach those people? How do I create an effective ecosystem moving forward? Who do I bring to the table to do this work? How can I make it sustainable? Really trying to break down silos of all these nonprofits that are doing really good work, and getting them to partner together to harmonize and amplify their work.

I think it’s been a bit of a rude awakening for me as I thought I knew all the nonprofits in the area and how they were getting it done. I soon learned I didn’t know everything and I am still a student learning something every day. You and I have the great job of being on the ground seeing this work done, but there are so many others on our philanthropy team that are majorly supporting this work behind the scenes. I hear their passion for helping others on a daily basis and it just keeps that fire going inside me to do this work here. When I look back at my three years, I think my favorite part of this job is pushing myself outside of my own comfort levels, pushing my nonprofits to think big and drive impact at a much larger scope than they’ve done before.

Jeremy: You got it. Helping to drive impact day in and day out. That’s what we get to do and I love the work. So, tell me Miss Lisa, now that we have 2020 under our belt, what excites you about moving forward in 2021?

Lisa: My signature project. Microsoft told us TechSpark regional managers to take time and listen and learn more about our areas. What became apparent, Jeremy, is that you should not have to give up where you love to live in order to work, learn, upskill, and grow. We live in a time of great opportunity.

Jeremy: No truer words. I feel the same.

Lisa: So the last three years have been a gift and a true opportunity to lean in, listen, and learn from rural community stakeholders all over my region. I have heard the despair in their voices when they talk about the roadblocks and barriers they have encountered while trying to lift their communities. I also hear hope when they talk about the aspirations for their youth, businesses, and their communities. It became my goal to find organizations who could help me find a way to make systematic ecosystem changes―identified on the ground or from the ground up―in relationships and conversations. Meeting people where they are in both level and location was a non-negotiable for me. I’m glad to have found a great partner in the NCW Tech Alliance who will help lift that work and we are in the process of getting ready to launch our project. So, stay tuned… perhaps you’ll hear about it in my next LinkedIn article? (chuckle)

Jeremy: I can’t wait, Miss Lisa. I know how passionate you are about it. So, like you, I’ve got my signature project I’ve been working on that is very close to being finished. We’re developing an innovation hub in partnership with Mid-Atlantic Broadband. They are a regional fiber-optic middle mile transport provider, but we’re actually partnering with them to bring in training opportunities. We currently have 8–10 nonprofits from the region that we have agreements in place with already to provide skilling to K–12, college students, career changers, and life-long learners. Essentially, we will be able to bring those upskilling opportunities to every resident throughout Southern Virginia. Can’t wait for that day.

TechSpark Washington has come a long way in three short years just as TechSpark Virginia has, but we have much more to do. I am so proud of the accomplishments to date and excited to see what the future has in store for NCW. Everyone deserves to live and work where they love, just like my colleague Jeremy and me. That is why I’m so excited for the upcoming launch of my signature project. It is a rural resilience and digital inclusion campaign being developed to meet people where they are in locality and level, so stay tuned for more TechSpark news soon.

TechSpark Spotlight: Through the TechSpark program, Microsoft partners with communities to understand their unique regional challenges and to explore solutions, programs, and partnerships that will be most effective locally. This article is part of the Microsoft TechSpark Spotlight series that shines a light on each community we serve.