“Today was the culmination of over 18 months, 12 acres, seven buildings, two downtown districts, three unwilling to do a loan banks, a committed team, a lot of dollars, a solid group of lawyers, and a lot of patience and grit to invest in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, bringing technology access for all. Excited for the journey that’s about to come!“
These words were part of a post on the Amazon Applied Science Manager’s Facebook page, breaking news on a new venture worth 25 Million dollars.
Dr. Nashlie Sephus is part of the Amazon Al team based in Atlanta, Georgia. Her tech career has taken her from Silicon Valley, the South, and afar. Still, her continued travels between Atlanta, where she currently resides, and her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, to make a change is her most valued journey.
Her other venture, a non-profit The Bean Path she founded in Jackson, whose mission is to sow technical expertise to grow networks and fertilize communities, paves the way for the tech and STEM fields.
The non-profit has sown seeds in technical expertise within Mississippi. It provides opportunities for those not formally college educated or experienced in the tech world to get their hands wet.
The organization provides technical advice and guidance to individuals and small businesses in the community. Their initiatives include tech hours at the local libraries, engineering and coding programs for youth, and scholarships/grants for students and community organizations.
Sephus received her B.S. in Computer Engineering from Mississippi State University in 2007 and then graduated with a Ph.D. from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech in 2014.
As if the time isn’t ripe enough for Black progress, achievement, and empowerment during a year of COVID-19 and racial uprisings in the wake of police brutality and continued systemic oppression of Black people, Nashlie Sephus’ monumental achievement toward a tech district is a breath of fresh air and the smell of Blackness shining.
On September 11, 2020, the STEM Professional broke ground, signing papers to close on a purchase of 12 acres and seven buildings in the downtown Jackson, Mississippi area near Gallatin Street and the historically Black institution, Jackson State University.
According to the U.S. Census data, Jackson is one of the most densely populated African-American cities in the nation.
Sephus plans to bring a mixed-use development to the downtown district and thrust the city into becoming a tech-hub in the region.
“I’m happy to say that we are going to take this property and create a very high tech center, a live-work-play mixed-use development for the city of Jackson,” Sephus said.
“It includes a high tech field but also at its core will still maintain the culture of the city,” she added.
With strong art and music culture in the city of Jackson, Sephus said she wants to promote the growth of these industries.
“One of the buildings is going to be called the Arts and Innovation Station, which will serve as a hub for offices and coworking space, and a place for programming to expose the people of all communities to a maker space,” she said.
A makerspace is a collaborative workspace inside a school, library, or separate public/private facility to make, learn, explore, and share that uses high tech to no tech tools. They provide hands-on learning, help with critical thinking skills, and even boost self-confidence.
“A lot of people don’t have access to these facilities or equipment to create, so we want to be that place where they can come and utilize to strengthen their business or even go into tech fields themselves.”
Sephus’ project will also have a for-profit side, including housing, residential lofts, restaurants, and venue space that residents can rent for events, a wifi hotspot area that will be COVID safe, and where children can access the internet.
The story of Dr. Sephus’s journey is also a lesson in disparities detailing the hurdles she faced while attempting to obtain loans from banks for the project.
Redlining, which is the systemic denial of various services such as loans by federal government agencies, local governments, and the private sector directly or through the selective raising of prices, continue to plague the community. It is a way to keep Black people from borrowing and developing lower income and under resourced areas.
“I finally understand why it’s so difficult for Black people to own land,” Dr. Sephus said.
“The corridor where I purchased this property off Gallatin Street is the second most traveled road in the area next to State street. When you look at the building‘s conditions, they are abandoned and owned mostly by older white individuals. I would say this is a problem because Jackson is a majority Black city. It is one of the largest African American populated towns per capita in the nation.
I also discovered that many of Jackson’s properties are owned by outside investors who are not from the city of Jackson. So they don’t always have the city’s best interest at heart”, she added.
As a young black female at 35 years old, only owning residential property, the tech district project was Sehpus’ first commercial venture. It was also an experience she shared was a difficult one.
Wanting to possibly “Bank Black,” Nashlie spent 18 months attempting to obtain loans from three minority-owned and local banks and was disappointed in the lack of support for her venture and the lack of resources these institutions had. It became even more frustrating for her after starting the loan process and ultimately being eight months into the closing process with at least one institution and having the rug pulled out from under her by all three.
“One lender even laughed at me and questioned the purpose of my project,” she said.
For the last bank, I applied with; I did everything I had to do and more. I proved myself and this project. I spent thousands of dollars to have market studies done, environmental reports, architects drafted my plans, appraisals were complete. I did everything needed to close a loan and was still railroaded. I didn’t even own the property yet. After all this, six months in and they called me to say that they couldn’t close the loan and we can’t move forward”.
I was shocked. I discovered that all money has a cost to it, and I questioned what was the right path for me to fund this project after my experience with banks. I had to prove things that other people don’t have to prove or do to obtain a loan to purchase land. I felt there was discrimination going on”.
In the end, Dr. Sephus and her team sat down with the seller and let them know what was going on and the difficulty in obtaining a loan, and to her surprise, he decided to owner finance the property, agreeing to a short term finance deal.
“Butler Snow also agreed to do Pro bono work on this project, and I am so grateful.”
Butler Snow is a law firm located in multiple states with its principal office in Ridgeland, Mississippi. They are one of the largest firms in the southeast, focusing on various areas of law. According to their website, they also strive to be a champion of diversity and inclusion.
Sephus said the next steps to make the tech district a reality will be meetings with architects, contractors, the city and to get the permits going.
“The first phase has been grant-funded, which will be the loft and air BnB rentals.
We are also planning a food truck park, event space, wifi hubs, and the second phase will include restaurants, an arts and innovation station, and a family fun site”.
My goal is to also make the downtown area more walkable, with more green space. This will be a part of the move to target the younger demographic and mid-career professionals to live in or frequent downtown. We want to help close that gap for the younger generation that’s missing in the area”, she concluded.
Dr. Sephus is not only paving the way in her hometown of Jackson, but she is also exemplifying the value of giving back to our hometown communities and building Black wealth. Potentially becoming a model for other cities, aspiring Black tech professionals, and entrepreneurs to go after their dream and buy the block. In order for Black change we must keep our money in Black communities.