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28 October 2020

An Interview with Nashlie Sephus on Creating Change

Dr. Nashlie H. Sephus is the Applied Science manager for Amazon Artificial Intelligence (AI) focusing on fairness and identifying biases in these technologies. Dr. Sephus is also the founder and CEO of The Bean Path non-profit organization based in Jackson, MS assisting individuals with technical expertise and guidance to fill the tech gap in communities.  We spoke on her current work creating change in technology and her efforts to create a more positive culture.

Please tell me a little bit about your background. 

I grew up in Jackson Mississippi.  My mother worked at the US Postal Service in a variety of different areas; she was a window clerk and did accounting, time keeping and payroll. At one point she was the assistant to the post master.  Now she’s an admin assistant for the vehicle maintenance department.  My sister and I were considered postal babies. 

What brought you to computer science? 

My mother bought us our first computer.  I also did a lot of math and science camps at Jackson State University.   Then the summer after 8th grade my teacher Miss Portia Powell recommended that I take a summer engineering camp.  I learned computer engineering, how we use software to program the actions of hardware. I thought it was the most fascinating thing ever, that numbers and letters could do all these amazing things with hardware and software. Everything we touch has a computer driving it. 

Did you ever get to thank Miss Powell?

My non-profit, the Bean Path, has created an award in her honor, the Portia Powell STEM Teacher Award.  Miss Powell is still alive and impacting children’s lives.  We wanted to make sure other teachers get recognized and we awarded our first two teachers at our two year anniversary party.  We had an amazing drive thru celebration.  We gave away food sponsored by local restaurants, Legos, Chromebooks, masks, hand sanitizer and actual beans to plant.

Tell us more about the Bean Path.

Our mission is to sow technical expertise in order to grow networks and fertilize communities.  We essentially provide technical advice and guidance to individuals and small businesses in the community. Our initiatives include tech hours at the local libraries, engineering and coding programs for youth, and scholarships/grants for students and community organizations.  We have planted our seeds in Jackson Mississippi and we’re working to help the community grow.

How are you able to do a full-time job and run a nonprofit?

I’ve always had multiple jobs.   I’ve learned how to live and adapt and I also learned an incredible work ethic from my Mom.  My mother always believed that you need to be well rounded and have something to fall back on.  As a child I played piano for the church choir, referred flag football, built websites for people and worked at a zoo part time. 

When I became the CTO of Partpic it was the only time in my life I had one job since it was 10 to 16 hours a day.  A typical startup life.

Today I am back to doing multiple jobs.  My full-time day job is working as Applied Science Manager on the Artificial Intelligence team at Amazon. I work on fairness and mitigating biases in AI technology.  Things like face and voice recognition have a high potential for bias.  I wanted to do more and give back to my community and I wanted to show people that black women from Mississippi are here and we exist and it is amazing what diversity can do for you.  I began to the Bean Path to sow technical expertise and fertilize communities.

I knew I couldn’t do it by myself so I assembled a great team including my sister and my mother to help me create the organization.  We’ve helped over 350 people in our two years through hosting tech office hours for individuals and small businesses at the local library and virtually.  We are expanding by creating workshops for kids and other groups.

After a year I realized that I wanted to scale up what we are doing and I purchased land in downtown Jackson MS.  It took some time but I found a lender and broker and bought 12 acres and 7 buildings and we are going to create the Jackson Tech District.  It’s a for profit and I’ve hired a development team including architects to begin creating the district. It will include not only tech businesses but restaurants and housing.  I recently found out that I am the first black women to own this much property in downtown Jackson.

Anything else in the works?

I have one more venture in Atlanta.  I just signed the lease on a building with my seven co-founders for a co-development space.  It’s called KITT Labs.  KITT stands for Knowledge Information Technology Tools.  We have created a human lab kit with black engineers and develops with a wide array of expertise in areas such as AI, cybersecurity, web development, tech events, etc.  We want to help build the tech ecosystem in Atlanta for Black entrepreneurs. 

That’s a lot of major projects.  Any other areas interesting you?

I’ve begun gardening during the pandemic.  I limit my travel to going between Atlanta and Mississippi now so I have the time to raise flowers and a wide variety of vegetables like okra, sweet potatoes, kale and greens. 

I’ve also become very interested in politics.  I’ve testified before Congress for Amazon on AI and I’ve found a large part of that is educating politicians about AI, before we ever get to discussions on policy.  I’ve seen that politics impacts so many aspects of our lives.  For our Jackson Tech District to thrive we will need to improve high speed internet and wifi availability, and that will involve politics.  It’s something I am paying a lot of attention to these days.