By Brad Smith – President & Vice Chair
The El Paso-Ciudad Juárez Borderplex
On the 32nd parallel in a gap within the Franklin Mountain range sits an international intersection where two nations, cultures, languages and people meld together. Every day thousands of people legally cross back and forth between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on their way to jobs, schools, doctor’s appointments, shopping centers and the homes of family and friends. This harmonious exchange has taken place for more than 400 years, uniting neighbors through shared social ties, geography, history and, most importantly, an interlinked economy.
This active border crossing alone accounts for 12 percent of total U.S. trade with Mexico, close to $45 billion per year. Businesses in El Paso and Juárez exchange goods and services back and forth, creating products commonly made in the Mexican city with American components using advanced manufacturing technologies, which are typically then transported by enterprises in El Paso using advanced supply chain and logistics technologies.
Beyond the people and goods, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez also converge in a cross-border flow of ideas, ambition and aspirations that have shaped the region for centuries. This forward-looking spirit is what attracted us to the region in 2017, when we launched Microsoft TechSpark to create new economic opportunities and help digitally transform established industries with modern software and cloud services. It’s also why today we are announcing that we are expanding the TechSpark El Paso program to include Ciudad Juárez and are making a $1.5 million investment in the binational Bridge Accelerator.
TechSpark is a six-community initiative aimed at bringing a bit of the Silicon Valley to the middle of the country by promoting the infusion of transformational technologies into the local economy through investments in computer science education in high schools, digital skills training, high-speed broadband and technology for nonprofits. To manage this broad portfolio, we hired a TechSpark manager, JJ Childress, who lives and works in El Paso.
Like so many manufacturing centers across the world, the industries driving El Paso-Juárez Borderplex’s prosperity also brings change that is both positive and challenging. New technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will impact the burgeoning call-center industry on the American side of the border, the robust manufacturing base on the Mexican side of the border, and the advanced logistics and transportation used to trade goods. But while AI will certainly change and eliminate some jobs in the future, the World Economic Forum predicts that this new technology will have created more jobs by 2022 than it destroys. We think there is perhaps no place in North America that has a greater opportunity to realize the potential of AI and benefit from those new jobs than the El Paso-Juárez region. It will require quick public-private action to shift this risk into an opportunity for the region. But we believe that working together and putting smart public policies, business strategies and skills training in place will ensure the region is primed to thrive in an AI-driven economy.
Microsoft TechSpark is partnering with local businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to make the El Paso-Juárez region the leader of advanced manufacturing, advanced logics and business services, and ensure the people here have access to the digital skills that will be needed in the future. We’ve already started our work in Juárez, beginning with the hiring of TechSpark manager Omar Saucedo, who lives and works in the city. In partnership with Childress, Saucedo is establishing the public-private partnerships needed for this endeavor to succeed in the region.
The Bridge Accelerator
One person who is contributing to the cross-border stream of innovation is Ricardo Mora, a self-described third-generation serial entrepreneur who has built successful businesses on both sides of the border. Mora runs the Technology-Hub (T-Hub) and has a vision for the region. It’s one that includes the digital transformation of businesses and digital skills for the people living here.
Microsoft is partnering with T-Hub on The Bridge Accelerator, which is an intensive initiative with custom programs for the manufacturing industry, entrepreneurs and established companies. It’s designed to accelerate the growth of businesses on both sides of the border by combining technology with business acumen while creating advantageous connections between entrepreneurs and corporations. The program includes an early-investment venture capital fund and a digital fabrication lab called the Fab Lab that helps fledgling start-ups create prototypes of their inventions.
The first cohort of The Bridge Accelerator included 10 local businesses – five from El Paso and five from Juárez – completed in July 30, 2019, and the results are impressive. Businesses that went through The Bridge Accelerator received 52 new purchase orders totaling $1.48 million, and another 36 purchase orders are now pending. Thirty-three new jobs have already been created in the region. And two investments totaling $250,000 have been committed, with four more investments pending. Companies such as Global Containers & Custom Packaging Inc., a binational company based in both El Paso and Juárez that creates packaging for the automotive, electronics, food and medical industries, and PIMA, an industrial automation solutions company, participated in The Bridge Accelerator pilot. These firms gained new technical capabilities and new business models, global outlooks and plans to expand their core businesses.
Our hope is that the $1.5 million investment we are making in T-Hub will accelerate the development of this dynamic region’s technology ecosystem through tailor-made manufacturing programs and educational and skills programs while connecting entrepreneurs with opportunities. Local businesses interested in participating in The Bridge Accelerator should go to the T-Hub website to learn more and apply.
TEALS: Computer Science in High Schools
The key to fueling this cross-border innovation is talent – people who know how to create and use new technology. This starts with students in the region, who need the opportunity to study computer science in high school if they are to succeed in the digital era. But only 45 percent of U.S. high schools teach computer science, according to the nonprofit Code.org. Microsoft’s Technology and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program is helping schools across the nation and Canada build their own computer science programs through partnerships between teachers and volunteers from the technology sector.
This school year, TEALS volunteers will teach in 19 high schools in the El Paso region, serving 326 students. TEALS in El Paso schools are supported by 63 dedicated volunteers and scores of dedicated teachers, who give hundreds of hours of their time to ensure kids have the opportunity to receive computer science education. This past summer, in its first year in El Paso, four TEALS students were accepted and sponsored by Microsoft to attend Carnegie Mellon’s summer coding camp – an elite program that accepts less than five percent of applicants each year. We believe this is an early indicator, with even more progress to come.
The future of TechSpark El Paso-Juárez is grounded in the binational and bicultural foundation built over centuries. Together, we can make sure people in this unique and vibrant region have the skills they need to succeed and the region’s businesses have the support they require to harness the technologies of the future, prosper in the digital age and grow with the world as it digitally transforms.