People-Centered Technology in the Heartland

Report from Tennessee

By Marci Harris

Workshops in the maker space at theCO

Over the past six months, as one of many in the rapidly expanding PCI network, I have been impressed with the breadth of its reach and the sense of shared purpose for leveraging technology for the benefit of all – and that this interest is not limited to the “usual suspect” tech hubs on the coasts. I am grateful for the invitation to share the work being done in my home state of Tennessee to expand digital opportunities and entrepreneurship.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Tennessee state leadership (of both parties) emphasized business recruitment and entrepreneurship – including the creation of a state investment fund. While that was a forward thinking idea, there was a problem: the pipeline of scalable businesses – especially from Tennessee entrepreneurs – was very small. Investment dollars alone were not enough.

Raspberry Pi campers at theCO

In response to this problem, “LaunchTN” was announced in 2012 – a public-private partnership tasked with recruiting and developing the startup ecosystem, growing the investment community and exposing them to newer startup-friendly models, and providing an “on-ramp” for potential entrepreneurs around the state. Tennessee’s unique politics required that each of the “three grand divisions” be treated roughly equally, with special consideration is given to rural and underserved areas. That turned out to be a very good thing. 

LaunchTN’s activities included administering the investment fund and hosting an annual conference that brings investors and entrepreneurs to Nashville for three days of pitches, presentations – and, of course, fantastic entertainment – all with the goal of showcasing Tennessee as a great place to live, work, invest, and build a company. The organization’s flagship program was the creation of “entrepreneur centers” across the state – in both metro and rural areas. For the cities, LaunchTN accelerated and supported  efforts already underway. The Nashville Entrepreneur Center had already run several “accelerator” cohorts and seen several companies established. Chattanooga was establishing its reputation as the “Gig City.” Things got off to a much slower start in the rural areas, where at the time, just a few knew how a “startup” differed from a small business; and more people associated an “incubator” with raising chickens than with launching a company. LaunchTN learned early that the curriculum for local centers could not be set from above, it would have to be led locally based on the needs of individual communities.

DevCatalyst students in San Francisco

In West Tennessee (where I’m from), five entrepreneurs approached LaunchTN with a proposal for what would become “theCO” – a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship with a makerspace to provide access to new technologies for people around west Tennessee; a co-work and event space; and educational programs to provide an on-ramp to coding and digital skills. With a donated building, initial support from the local Chamber of Commerce, donations from local businesses and support from LaunchTN, theCO opened its doors on July 24th, 2014.

Later, theCO expanded its educational program to include coding curriculum for local students following the model of TN Code Academy, a program originally developed at The Biz Foundry, the LaunchTN-supported accelerator in the Upper Cumberland area. Designed as a skills competition among participating schools, DevCatalyst trains teachers to administer the program (without requiring them to become coders themselves) and rewards the top students and teachers with a trip to San Francisco at the end of the year – featuring sightseeing and tours of top tech companies, allowing these students to imagine themselves there. Dev:Catalyst is now part of the curriculum in 15 local schools – and five more in New Mexico that asked to participate remotely. 2,446 students have participated in the program and 87 have made the trip to San Francisco. In 2018, the first Dev:Catalyst participants will graduate from college, and we will begin to see how their career trajectory has been impacted by their exposure to technology through the program.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQpKuWxes5k&w=560&h=315]

The newest chapter in theCO’s story began with a donated bus, which they converted into a mobile technology lab to bring new experiences to people in outlying counties. With initial success, Governor Haslam’s Rural Task Force invited theCO to build out several other mobile labs to reach counties across the state Together, they launched “TN Driving Innovation” to deliver digital skills training, the latest technology, and entrepreneurship courses to people across Tennessee. Working with schools, 4-H camps, and local festivals, the “Driving Innovation” mobile labs will reach residents of all 95 Tennessee counties this summer. The newest TN mobile lab will be unveiled at LaunchTN’s 36|86 annual entrepreneurship festival August 29-30, 2018 in Nashville.

Inside the TNDrivingInnovation mobile lab

LaunchTN is moving into its sixth year, marking significant progress in its mission to make Tennessee “the most startup-friendly state in the country.” As a long-time board member and someone from rural west Tennessee, I am most proud of the state’s willingness to spread opportunity not just to the urban areas, but to encourage and help rural areas blaze their own trails. There are many communities around the world with a lot in common with Jackson, Tennessee and its surrounding rural areas. There community at theCO, with the support of the state and the local business community, has found a way to bring technology to meet people where they are; an example that can be replicated in many small and rural communities worldwide.

Marci Harris is CEO and co-founder of POPVOX. Originally from Tennessee, she has served on the LaunchTN board since 2012 and as an advisor to theCO since its founding.

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