For Spark Mindset CEO Lawrence Wagner, 2019 is a big year.

He just spent three months running Spark Mindset’s first pilot program with high school students in New Orleans, La. — and this week he’s back in the Springs to get started with Exponential Impact’s 14-week accelerator program.

Spark Mindset is one of seven startups in the second cohort chosen by tech accelerator XI, which provides mentoring, seed funding and holistic leadership development to startups ready for significant growth.

Spark Mindset aims to create technology and training to tackle the national shortage of qualified professionals for technology careers, at the same time looking to close gaps in gender, race and sexual orientation in tech companies. The goal is to have high school students ready for tech careers after graduation.

Wagner spoke with the Business Journal from New Orleans as the Spark Mindset team prepared for XI.

Where are you from?

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I’m from Cleveland, Ohio. I joined the Army as soon as I graduated high school, and I did a tour in Desert Storm, Desert Shield. Fort Carson was my last duty station — I got out of the Army in 1996 and I moved to Georgia. After the military, for three years I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. There was really no transition plan for me. In 1999, I started at a community college in IT. From there I got an internship at a hospital, and I worked five years in IT at two hospitals. In 2006 I moved back to Colorado Springs.

What did you do when you moved to the Springs?

In 2007, I started working for the Missile Defense Agency at Schriever Air Force Base as a part-time computer tech. I then got hired on as the project server administrator, and I moved into a project management role. Then, because I was still doing the server job and the project management role, I had to familiarize myself with cybersecurity. … In 2008 I graduated from university [with a bachelor’s] in IT, and in 2009 I graduated from Colorado Technical University with my master’s in business management, with an emphasis in project management information technology. … But I wasn’t really plugged into the community at all until 2013. In 2013, I was pretty ready to leave Colorado Springs — but I had three critical friends who changed that: Shawn Gullixson [vice president at Vectra Bank], Jariah Walker [executive director of Colorado Springs Urban Renewal Authority] and Ian Lee [president of Lee Spirits Company]. Ian worked at Schriever with me, so he plugged me into the entrepreneur community; Shawn plugged me into the Rising Professionals; and Jariah plugged me into Leadership Pikes Peak. I met Jariah and Shawn on the same day and I was telling them, ‘Hey, I’ve got all these ideas and I want to do all these things’ — and I was moving to Kansas City. And they were like, ‘Why can’t you do it here?’ They were really critical for me to get plugged into the community. … Since then, I’ve just been really plugged in. I’m one of the founding members of 1 Million Cups here in Colorado Springs and I had another nonprofit that I started called Connect! Colorado Springs.

What led you to see the need for Spark Mindset?

I had wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I actually got laid off. In 2015 I had left Schriever and transitioned to a new job, and in December 2015 — Dec. 5 to be exact — I came home and there was a box on my doorstep. That’s how I found I got laid off. I opened the box, and it had my last check, had a letter that said I was being laid off — and the box was for me to return my equipment, because I was working remotely. I made a vow that I would never work for corporate America again. But in that time, I kept thinking that all the leadership programs and skills that I was getting, the people who needed it most didn’t have access to it — couldn’t afford it. So that’s when I started really thinking about Spark. Initially Spark was going to be this soft skills organization and we were going to teach people all the professional skills. Because when I was working at Shriever I learned that people couldn’t get jobs, not because they weren’t smart, but because they didn’t know how to talk to people. That’s initially how Spark started in 2016.

What changed your direction to the one you’re pursuing now?

We actually went for a [National Science Foundation] grant. I had been working with C-TRAC and University of Maryland … . I was the one leading the grant, which [required us] to create an innovative space using technology — and they wanted it around STEM. That’s when I was like, ‘STEM is the fastest-growing career field … and this is something that we can introduce to underserved high school students.’ And we didn’t get the grant. Then in 2017, I was one of the winners of the [Denver Public Schools] Imaginarium Design Challenge … and that was a grant for $10,000. So they gave me money … but they also began to make me really think about how we were going to do this. Working with DPS Imaginarium really slowed down the movement, because they took me back to the beginning. I was like, ‘We’re going to do this great idea’ — and we hadn’t talked to a single person. We hadn’t talked to a single student, we hadn’t talked to a single teacher, but we were like, ‘We got this amazing product,’ and they were like, ‘No, you’re not about to build this yet.’ That was a very good thing. It wasn’t a good feeling when it happened, but it turned out to be a really good thing.

How do you explain Spark Mindset to someone who hasn’t heard of it?

I tell them we’re creating a workforce development program that will prepare high school students for technology programs — and that we are launching our first program, which is our Cyber Space Academy. And that Cyber Space Academy is getting high school students prepared for cybersecurity careers, by leveraging both virtual reality and project-based learning.

Who are the underserved students you want to reach?

I am looking for people who are in poverty, low income; and minorities, people of color and women.

Explain the benefits of bringing more underserved students into the cyber workforce.

Because I think you get another perspective. When you look at cybercriminals, they’re from all over the world — all kinds of backgrounds. And when you look at the majority [of cybersecurity professionals] in the United States, they’re mostly white males. … By getting a diverse realm of people, you get a diverse mindset — people who think differently because they’ve had different experiences and backgrounds, and that’s very beneficial. … New ideas are born when you bring differences together and you don’t have groupthink.

Tell us about your work in New Orleans.

We have just finished a pilot in New Orleans. We ran our program for 10 high school students. Nine of them were people of color; we had two females and one transgender student in our class. We took them through our program, which is project-based, so we did some lessons around cybersecurity and then they got to see those lessons within our virtual reality games that we have created. The kids were really engaged. We did some soft skills training with that as well. Now we’re putting together a report to pull out that data.

What do you hope to achieve through Exponential Impact?

We really want to expand on scale. How do we scale the program? How do we put the business aspects around our program so we can come up with a plan that is available not just to underserved students, but all students? We will always focus on the underserved first, but how do we get this out to the masses without affecting impact? … I’m hoping to have those answers at the end of the accelerator.

Where would you like to be in three years?

Wow — in three years, I hope my program is a national program. We are looking to really expand in New Orleans; we have gotten a lot of community support, not just from schools, but their economic development centers. We will be a training provider for YouthForce NOLA [which prepares New Orleans public school students to successfully pursue high-wage, high-demand careers] which will be getting our program certified at the state level in Louisiana. Then, how do we duplicate what we’re doing to other underserved places like Mississippi and Alabama? How do we also expand beyond that? I think we will always have a focus on low income [students] but we will also make it available to everyone.

What’s important in driving this forward?

One thing, I think, is community. To help these students and the underserved, I’m only one piece. So as we are building out and going into different communities, how do you get the community part? … Our overall mission, which is a huge mission, is to end poverty. And we see that there are three things that keep a person in poverty: lack of opportunities, access, and knowledge. We can provide the knowledge and the access — then how do we partner with communities to provide opportunities?

For me, everything that I do is about the kids. Every decision I make, every thought, every aspect of the business is to help another kid get out of poverty. Because I’m from the projects of Cleveland, Ohio, so I understand that place of not having hope. We just want to spark something in these kids to show them that they can have a better future than their present. That’s our mission. That’s what drives me every day. …

You know what it’s like to be in a place without hope. What changed that for you?

I joined the military. The military gave me opportunities. It gave me a belief that if I worked really hard and I was focused on a mission, I could accomplish anything. So even in the toughest times of Spark, when financially things weren’t going the way I wanted them to go, I’ve always known my mission. n CSBJ