‘This is our moment’: Tech firm’s Delta move lifts hopes of economic revival in region

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Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Mayor Chuck Espy and city officials present Murali Vullaganti with the key to the city after the announcement of 200 new jobs over two years. 

CLARKSDALE – Communities across the Mississippi Delta continue to battle with issues that have plagued their towns for decades — economic disparities, systemic racism, and political division. In order to progress and revitalize, local leaders here say, it’s important to acknowledge the past, but work collaboratively to move forward.

For Coahoma County — with an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent, the lowest it has seen in almost 30 years, according to data from the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, and 34.8 percent of residents living in poverty— the key to moving forward is providing employment opportunities for the 23,000 people who call the county home.

Leaders in the region say there is hope that efforts to improve employment options are starting to bear fruit. 

On March 19, Jon Levingston, the executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, announced that an existing plant, MAP of Easton Inc. — a sound insulation company — had created 40 new jobs. In July, the Clarksdale Press Register reported that the number of employees increased to 101, amid hopes of adding 40 more employees over the next year and a half.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

John Levingston, executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce

And last week, Levingston announced that with the help of a Silicon Valley-based company, citizens here and in neighboring counties can anticipate up to 200 more jobs over the next two years.

“For so many years there are those who say the best days of the Delta are behind us, the future is bleak, crime is up and we’re depopulating — our opportunities educationally and financially are diminishing,” said Levingston on Dec. 18 at the Coahoma Community College pinnacle. “I say to those people, today we turn the tide. …  Today we announce a company that will invest in Clarksdale because they believe in our community, our people … our workers. These people are not naysayers.”

Technology company PeopleShores will start training an initial 25 people starting January 2019. Pay ranges from $10 to $15 per hour. A job fair is planned at the facility — the current Chamber of Commerce building on Desoto Avenue — Jan. 3. Applications for the positions, all full-time, can be made through the WIN Job Center in Clarksdale, or at the job fair.

Established in 2017, PeopleShores, the U.S. version of RuralShores (based in India), both for-profit social enterprises, provides outsourcing services to large global corporations. PeopleShores has one center in a rural community in San Jose, Calif., and their second center will be based in Clarksdale.

Connecting disconnected, disadvantaged youth or people to good paying technology jobs and providing work centers in their communities is the basis of what PeopleShores does, said Shiva Patibanda, an investor in the tech company. They target communities with a high number of disconnected young adults, military bases with unemployed veterans, Native American reservations with unemployed youth, and dilapidated industry towns, the website states. 

The company specializes in services such as: image processing, data collection and service management, machine learning data services, web services and technology services. Once workers are trained, they are hired to do coding and other projects for a number of tech companies. The needs of corporations will determine the tasks the employees do on projects, said Ashley Bowen, assistant manager for the Clarksdale center.

The goal for the company, officials say, is to positively impact underserved communities all over the world.

“To assist underserved communities, you have to make a measurable impact. It can’t just be a newspaper article, it has to be a sustainable impact. In order to have a sustainable impact, you have to create the jobs … employment has to be a big part of it,” said David Moxam, founding board member of PeopleShores.

Instructors from the Coahoma Community College Workforce Development Center will help train employees in soft skills, technical skills, customer service skills, Excel, and other trades.

Murali Vullaganti, Chief Executive Officer of PeopleShores and co-founder of RuralShores, said he has employed over 4,000 people and trained and created careers for over 10,000 people. Bringing jobs into the area is one thing, but the real impact, is the inner transformation of the workers, and creating jobs to keep them from leaving the state, said Vullaganti.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi

Ashley Bowen, Mississippi Delta native, shares why she came back to Mississippi despite never wanting to come back.

Originally from Marks, Miss., assistant manager Bowen left the state and moved to Chicago and said she thought she would never come back. Two years ago, that changed when she was introduced to the McLean Institute at the University of Mississippi — she wanted to be back in her home state working to make a difference because she, too, believes positive change is possible, she said.

“I feel like the Mississippi Delta, Clarksdale and the rest of the Delta, is really lucky that we have so many people who see the potential in this region,” said Bowen.

“The vision that we have, the passion that we have for where we live, the connection that we feel for this area, the history of here, all of that is kind of wrapped up in who we are, and I think that if we take that and we take the interest of other people, we can just do so much.”

For the tech company’s executives — with the state’s history of injustice and inequity in mind — it was a no-brainer to work in Mississippi, but for Patibanda, it was a bit more challenging at first. Thinking back to the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth who was brutally murdered in 1955 after allegedly making inappropriate comments towards Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, Patibanda initially found it hard to accept the state’s history.

In a book published this year about Till, Bryant told an author that parts of what she said in 1955 were false. In a report to Congress in March, the Justice Department said that it would reopen the case of Till’s murder in Money, Miss, about 50 miles south of Clarksdale.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi

Shiva Patibanda (center) receives hand claps after sharing the importance of working in Mississippi knowing its disheartening history of racism. 

“In 1985, I saw a documentary on Emmett Till, that particular documentary shook the insides of me and completely destroyed something very fundamental in me,” said Patibanda. “I promised myself I would never come to Mississippi ever in my life. That was the coward in me.”

It wasn’t until Patibanda met Levingston, along with Dinesh Chawla, owner of several hotels in the Delta, and his mother, Chander, in May that the “coward” in him vanished, replaced by a desire to do work in Mississippi .

“(Jon) opened the speech by saying, ‘We in the Mississippi Delta are paying for the crimes of our ancestors.’ When he said that, something in me began to heal,” said Patibanda. “All we need to do is a little extra in the community and you’ll see extraordinary things happen here … I can come here and spread love and affection to both sides — to all sides. The best way of healing is to love.”

In accepting the state’s history, the tech company’s executives decided to dedicate the center in memory of Till.

“We are no longer a people divided, rather we are one people striving for reconciliation and peace for our future. By dedicating the center to the memory of Emmett, we speak to our present and to our future for our children through the prism of our past, not to relive it, but to remember it, learn from it .., for a better future for us all,” Levingston said reading a statement on behalf of the company.

Mayor Chuck Espy added: “The city and county is working together to make this happen. We’ve found our rhythm and as we get ready to move forward in 2019, we’ve sowed some significant seeds out there. … I just believe this is our season, this is our time, this is our moment.”