Nashlie Sephus, a 35-year-old Black A.I. researcher, has a vision for transforming her hometown into a thriving center for tech entrepreneurs.
Nashlie Sephus's latest venture isn't just a moonshot. It's a homecoming. Her goal: Create a tech hub out of 12 abandoned acres of vacant lots and derelict buildings in the heart of downtown Jackson, Mississippi.
The 35-year-old has spent the past four years splitting her time between Jackson, her hometown, and Atlanta, where she works as an applied science manager for Amazon's artificial intelligence initiative. Amazon had acquired Partpic, the visual recognition technology startup where she was chief technology officer, in 2016 for an undisclosed sum. In 2018, she founded the Bean Path, an incubator and technology consulting nonprofit in Jackson that she says has helped more than 400 local businesses and individuals with their tech needs.
Her plan for the $25-million Jackson Tech District is a bold one for a place not known for its tech prowess. For Sephus, bringing investment to a community that's been left out is a big part of the appeal. "It's clear that people don't expect anything good to come from Jackson," she says. "So it's up to us to build something for our hometown, something for the people coming behind us."
The ambition of her undertaking notwithstanding, Sephus says the fact that the plan came from her is still wild. "It had never occurred to me," she says, "even though I had sold a company to Amazon and was working with some of the top people at Amazon and having led a whole startup, started our own nonprofit. It just never occurred to me that I, a young Black female, could buy a building in downtown Jackson, Mississippi."
Sephus plans to develop seven buildings, or roughly 500,000 square feet of workspace. With a construction timeline of three to five years, the area is to be transformed to include a maker's space, an electronics lab, a photography studio, apartments, restaurants, and a grocery store. The space will also contain an innovation center meant to help entrepreneurs learn technology skills.
"My goal is to turn this space into a self-sustaining village where people can live, work, play, and eat," she says.