Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft and an Appleton native, views the tech giant’s work in Northeast Wisconsin as a means to developing solutions to the problems facing America and its digital divide.
“Technology is the cornerstone of our lives — the future of health care is digital, the future of education is digital, the future of jobs is digital — yet there are two big tech gaps in the United States that are creating a divide where some areas are not prospering as fast as others,” Smith said Wednesday night at the Greater Green Bay Chamber Annual Dinner at the Lambeau Field Atrium.
Microsoft identified the digital skills gap and the broadband gap as the two primary issues facing the country, creating uneven prosperity levels where some parts of the country are flush with jobs, while other parts face higher unemployment. The company created its TechSpark program to launch in six communities across the United States to address those gaps. Smith said what the company learned in those communities would then be rolled out elsewhere.
Green Bay made Microsoft’s radar when Packers President Mark Murphy attended a TechSpark information program and said it was something the team cared about and wanted to get involved in. That led to not only TechSpark arriving in Northeast Wisconsin, but also TitletownTech, a joint project between the Packers and Microsoft to help area entrepreneurs and startups. Craig Dickman, founder of Breakthrough Fuel, will serve as the center’s managing director. (Read more about TitletownTech and that announcement here.)
The digital skills gap and the lack of students studying computer science is a huge concern, Smith said. Of the 42,000 high schools in the United States, only 7,655 offer the advanced placement computer science course.
“And who takes that class? Mostly white boys,” he said. “It exacerbates the gender, racial and income divides. Computer science classes are also rare in rural areas. And why does this all matter? Because technology is where the jobs are.”
To create more interest in computer science, Microsoft launched its TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program, which pairs a volunteer computer science professional with a math or science teacher, so they can work together on teaching computer science classes.
“The goal is that after a year, that math or science teacher can now teach computer science. In Brown and Outagamie counties, we started out offering TEALS in nine high schools and this fall added five more,” Smith said. “We are halfway to our goal of getting TEALS in every high school in Brown and Outagamie counties. We are building a computer science movement right here in Northeast Wisconsin.”
Microsoft also brought its Code.org program to the area, and teachers had the opportunity this past summer to learn how to code and then take that knowledge back to their schools.
“We want to build new career pathways for these 21st century jobs,” Smith said. “For students completing a two-year education program, this is where the jobs are. We need people who want to continue learning and grow their skills.”
Microsoft’s second initiative in Northeast Wisconsin focuses on the broadband gap. Smith noted more than 25 million Americans do not have high-speed internet, and the vast majority of those live in rural areas.
“The only way we can spread prosperity in this country is to spread broadband — it has become a utility like electricity that everyone needs to have access to,” he said.
In Wisconsin, Microsoft partnered with Packerland Broadband in Iron Mountain, Mich., to bring broadband coverage to 82,000 people in northern Wisconsin and the UP.
“These are gaps we can close,” Smith said. “This is a digital transformational opportunity.”
As for TitletownTech, Smith predicted it will become a model for what can be done in other communities.
“We will use digital technology to help local businesses so they can revolutionize their businesses. This space will bring people together and help businesses get off the ground,” he said. “Microsoft has places like this in Seattle, San Francisco, Berlin … and we are now bringing it to Green Bay and that’s something special.”
Microsoft also believes in supporting local nonprofits in communities where it has operations and annually pledges $100,000 to local groups. Smith said in honor of the Packers’ 100th anniversary this coming year, Microsoft will donate $200,000 to help area nonprofits.
“We so clearly appreciate our role here in this community. If we can learn something here and spread it to other communities, that would be fantastic,” Smith said.