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‘Smart…industrious – they just took a wrong path’

Co-founder of The Last Mile talks about discovering potential behind bars – and how Kansas became one of the first expansion locations

When a friend invited Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Redlitz to come to San Quentin to talk to inmates about entrepreneurship in 2010, he almost said ‘no.’

But what he found inside the prison about 30 miles north of San Francisco surprised him.

Chris Redlitz The Last Mile inside San Quentin State prison
Chris Redlitz, Venture Capitalist, Co-Founder The Last Mile, inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison (Photo courtesy of The Last Mile)

“I was really struck by their interest, their preparation, their genuine desire to create a better life,” Redlitz said.

He was used to working with entrepreneurs in the early stages of developing their businesses.

“I saw a lot of the same look in the people in prison,” he said. “Many of them are very smart and industrious. They just took a wrong path.”

Redlitz and his wife, Beverly Parenti, made a commitment to assist some of the inmates with their ventures, and out of that grew The Last Mile, a non-profit organization offering coding and technology training to inmates in prisons around the U.S.

Since its launch in 2010, The Last Mile is now being used in fifteen prisons in five states and has 19 classrooms in those prisons.

“We’d love to be in 50 classrooms,” Redlitz said.

Kansas was among the earliest states to embrace the program, launching it at Topeka Correctional Facility in January 2019. Women’s prisons in Indiana and Oklahoma are utilizing The Last Mile as well.

“So far, it’s been phenomenally successful,” Redlitz said. “This idea of public/private partnerships, we’re a classic example of that.

“We’re proving that, regardless of someone’s background, if they have the desire and commitment to learning, they can be great employees. We’re showing that it’s not unrealistic to raise the bar on expectations.

It really is a true pathway to employment. It’s a second chance.”

The impact stretches far beyond providing work for inmates, Redlitz said. Coding can be a well-paying career, creating “generational change,” he said.

That can lift families out of poverty and reduce the risk of parolees returning to a life of crime.

“The money we’re saving through the reduction of recidivism can be redirected” to other programs,” he said.

“You can’t quantify the downstream effect of what one person can bring to their community,” he said. “We’re seeing it in our own graduates and the directions of their families.”

“We’re proving that, regardless of someone’s background, if they have the desire and commitment to learning, they can be great employees. We’re showing that it’s not unrealistic to raise the bar on expectations.

It really is a true pathway to employment. It’s a second chance.”

Chris Redlitz, Venture Capitalist, Co-founder The Last Mile

The graduates also bring diversity to Silicon Valley companies and tech companies elsewhere at a time when the industry is awakening to that need, Redlitz said.

Making adjustments to the product as it’s tested are part of any start-up, he said, and The Last Mile was no exception. The program has evolved a lot since its early days and students have had to adapt to the changes.

“I give Kansas students a lot of credit,” Redlitz said. “Whenever you’re early on, you have to be flexible.”

The Last Mile participants reviewing a recent project
The Last Mile coders and programmers reviewing their coding projects

The students at Topeka have adapted well as the program has evolved, he said. Recent additions include a live touchpoint with each class once a week and a live help desk to which a student can submit questions.

“Some of the best-performing students in our entire network are in Kansas,” Redlitz said.

‘A good investment’

Redlitz credits Harold Sass, chief information officer for the Kansas Department of Corrections, with being a driving force behind bringing The Last Mile to Topeka.

“He was very, very motivated to get the program going” in Kansas, Redlitz said.


Related Story

Prisoners in Topeka coding a brighter future for themselves 


Sass attended an event hosted by The Last Mile to spread the word about the program and came away impressed.

The Kansas Department of Corrections found The Last Mile appealing because research shows that offenders who achieve livable wage employment after release lower their recidivism by 6 to 22 percent, said Rebecca Witte, public information officer for KDOC.

“We have many partners across the state who help us train our inmates in a number of different fields, but The Last Mile has been able to provide us with our first computer coding program,” Witte said. “One of the industries vital to a strong Kansas economy is computer science” and that field has critical employment needs.

“Training returning offenders in this industry increases their ability to achieve sustained livable wage employment,” she said.

Coding jobs aren’t minimum wage, earn-just-enough-to-get-by jobs, either, officials say, which means former inmates have an opportunity to build a better financial future for themselves and their families.

“One of the industries vital to a strong Kansas economy is computer science.”

Rebecca Witte, Public Information Officer, Kansas Department of Corrections

“The coding program has been a good investment,” Witte said. “None of the students in our first class had any experience with computer coding and the instructors were patient and flexible with our students, as they were eager to learn.”

As other inmates have seen what those in the coding class have been able to accomplish, interest in the class has grown. About twice as many inmates applied to take part in the second coding class as the first, officials said.


Author Credits | Stan Finger | @StanFinger | Stan is an award-winning journalist who twice earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize over the course of a distinguished career at the Wichita Eagle. A native Kansan who grew up on a farm in central Kansas, Finger has also written two books: Into the Deep, a look at the deadly flash flood in the Flint Hills in 2003, and the novel Fallen Trees.

Photo Credits | Jeff Tuttle | Website | Jeff is a native Kansan from Augusta and a Kansas State University graduate. He married his high school sweetheart Laura, and they have two children, Erin and Zach and a handsome Cardigan Welsh corgi, Wembley. He is a former newspaper photographer with a 25-career at The Herald, Jasper, Indiana, and the Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas. He is currently a freelance photojournalist in Wichita.

Prisoners in Topeka coding a brighter future for themselves

They spend all day studying coding, learning new languages and the intricacies of developing successful websites, hoping one day to land lucrative jobs in the tech industry.

But when they walk out the door of the classroom, these 12 women don’t head home to a cozy apartment or shaded house on a residential street.

Their yard is ringed not by a picket fence, but by a tall mesh enclosure bearing razor wire both at the summit and ground level.

Some of these students will be calling Topeka Correctional Facility home for only a few more months. Others will be here for many more years.

All of them, however, see coding as a fresh start, a ray of hope in a life that landed them behind bars.

“This experience has been very uplifting, just knowing we have a future outside of here,” said Brittney Betzold, 28, who was convicted of child abuse and second-degree murder and is eligible for parole in 2023.

Betzold and her classmates will formally graduate from the prison’s first coding class on Feb. 28. A second class of 15 inmates will begin in March.

“This experience has been very uplifting, just knowing we have a future outside of here.”

Brittany Betzold, The Last Mile, coder, programmer

The women’s prison in Topeka is the first in Kansas to work with The Last Mile, a non-profit organization that works with inmates at men’s, women’s, and young adult correctional facilities around the country to help them build relevant skills in technology so that they can more easily transition to productive employment once they are out of prison.

Launched in 2010 at San Quentin in California, The Last Mile has thus far expanded to Kansas and three other states.

“Being able to bring a high-tech computer coding program to our offenders at Topeka Correctional Facility has been extremely valuable,” said Rebecca Witte, public information officer for the Kansas Department of Corrections. “The coding program has given KDOC the opening to collaborate with numerous tech companies to build pathways into employment for graduates of the program.”


Related Story

“Smart…Industrious. They just took a wrong path.”


A ‘transformation’ for inmates

Where the inmates are as they prepare to graduate compared to where they were as the class began is nothing short of amazing, said Kelly Potter, Contract Manager of Education for the Kansas Department of Corrections, who oversees inmate education programs.

Potter called it “a transformation.”

“These ladies support each other,” she said. “They’re a team. They help each other to be successful. These are women you typically wouldn’t see talking to each other on the grounds.”

The Last Mile program participants improve relationships

Inmates chosen for the program had to have a clean disciplinary record for the past year and pass an essay test, a logic test and a face-to-face interview, Potter said. They also have to have a G.E.D. or high school diploma.

Those are difficult hurdles for many inmates, said Brett Young, who is a programming, web design and technology instructor for Greenbush, the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center. Greenbush works with Topeka Correctional Facility in providing education opportunities for inmates.

More than half of the inmates coming through the prison’s reception and diagnostic unit don’t have a high school diploma, Young said, and inmates with a history of drug use struggle to focus.

Along with the extensive array of tests they must pass, Potter and Young say, inmates vying for a seat in the coding class have to take responsibility for why they are in prison.

“As an employer, I don’t want to be sitting across the table from somebody and they’re blaming the system, they’re blaming everybody (else) why they were incarcerated,” Potter told the group during a recent class. “You all took ownership and that’s important.”

Five of the inmates in the class will be released from prison in 2020. Three plan to move to the Kansas City area, where they can expect to be in high demand. There are an estimated 3,500 tech jobs available in the Kansas City area.

One of the mission pillars for Flagship Kansas is supporting workforce training and education programs. Flagship is working to help connect inmates who have graduated from The Last Mile with tech jobs near where they’ll be living and working in Kansas once they’re released.

“As an employer, I don’t want to be sitting across the table from somebody and they’re blaming the system, they’re blaming everybody (else) why they were incarcerated.”

Kelly Potter, Contract Manager of Education, Kansas Department of Corrections

A number of potential employers, including Koch Industries, will have representatives at the graduation ceremonies later this month.

‘Never touched a computer’

Rebecca Beach had “never touched a computer” before being accepted into the class and admitted she “went home crying a lot” early in the class.

“I did not know how hard it was going to be to learn it,” said Beach, 42, who may be released in July providing her parole is approved after serving 20 years for convictions of first-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder in the shooting of two people during a drug deal in Wyandotte County in 2000.

But now she likens coding to “decorating a house.”

”I deserve this and I want this,” said Beach, who plans to settle in the Kansas City area upon her release.

Beach wasn’t alone with her early struggles in the class.

“I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I absolutely love it,” said Megan Asebedo, 28, who will return home to Garden City upon her release from prison later this year.

She was convicted in 2015 on two drug charges and aggravated child endangerment.

‘A magical thing’

Michelle Voorhees knew little about the Internet when she heard about The Last Mile program, let alone coding.

“The internet was this kind of magical thing that I’d never given any thought process to how it gets to people,” she said. “I thought it was on a satellite or something.”

Voorhees was 21 when she was convicted of second-degree murder, aggravated arson and aggravated burglary in connection with the smoke inhalation death of a 36-year-old woman in a house in Chanute. During her trial, prosecutors said Voorhees and her boyfriend went to the house to retrieve property stolen from Voorhees. They then ran out of the house after her boyfriend placed a pipe bomb on a mattress and lit the fuse. The bomb didn’t explode, but it set fire to the house.

Voorhees is 28 now and won’t be eligible for release until 2033.

The Last Mile student explaining programming

“A real fear for me is I’m going to be 42 years old (when released), out of workforce 20-plus years, I will have no Social Security credits earned, no nest egg, my children will probably have (my) grandchildren, I will have financial responsibilities,” she said. “That’s terrifying. That’s so scary to think that you’re going to be released from prison in your 40s and have nothing.

“So any opportunity I had, I grabbed onto.”

Inmates have other opportunities to earn wages while in prison, such as making cabinets or building mattresses, for what amounts to the minimum wage.

“But that’s not a career,” Voorhees said. “I don’t want to be working at Walmart at 65. That sounds awful. The skill set that we’re being exposed to in here is invaluable.”

A native of southeast Kansas, Voorhees comes “from a long line of poverty, addiction and lack of education.”

That history is so pervasive in her family, Voorhees said, that her younger sister is the first in her family to graduate from high school.

“Ambition isn’t really taught at a small community” like the one she grew up in, “especially when drugs are part of it. Their idea of a dream job is working in a refinery.”

Voorhees had been in and out of foster care since she was a small child, dropped out of school at a young age and had two children by the time she was 17. Complications related to those pregnancies led to difficult surgeries and a resulting opioid addiction “that blossomed into an addiction of everything,” she said.

“It’s a really insidious thing,” Voorhees said of opioid addiction.

“I was kind of thrown off the road I needed to be on to succeed and this program has given me an amazing opportunity to be on that road,” Voorhees said. “I had what it took to be able to succeed. I just didn’t have the resources I needed to do that.”

The coding class “really helped me understand what I was capable of,” she said.

But it didn’t come easy at first.

“There’s so much to learn,” she said. “It’s like drinking the ocean in there.”

Prison to open a dev shop

Potter called Voorhees a prime example of how The Last Mile can transform lives.

“If she were to get out tomorrow, she could be making six figures” because of her skill level, communication style and capabilities, Potter said.

“She will have so much to offer moving forward with this,” Potter said. “She minimizes the stereotype of what an offender looks like.”

Once the first class graduates, Witte said, a development shop will be opened inside the prison. The state will employ several of the new graduates to build and develop content for other state agencies.

“This will give the incarcerated ladies more opportunities to continue building on the skills they learned through The Last Mile, making them more marketable to employers upon their return to their communities,” Witte said.

Some of the income that inmates earn as coders will go toward the cost of room and board as well as any restitution, fines, fees and child support. The rest will be set aside in a savings account that they can take with them upon their release.

Prison ‘the best thing that ever happened to me’

The Last Mile program has Shecora Clanton dreaming, too.

She wants to be an entrepreneur and already has four different businesses she wants to start when she is released next year.

“It might sound far-fetched, but going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Clanton, who is now 40.

Clanton was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the 2001 death of a woman who was attacked, stabbed and then run over by a rental truck. A Kansas Supreme Court ruling stated Clanton’s boyfriend was convinced the victim was involved in the death of his sister and wanted to kill her in retaliation.

“If I hadn’t come to prison, I could have been dead,” Clanton said. “My life would really have been messed up.

“I have changed dramatically” in prison. “My mindset, my thought process, the people I hang around with, the things that I’m doing here now…I’m determined to do great things when I get out. When I was out on the street, I wasn’t like that.”

No student in the class may have made greater strides with her confidence between her first day and her graduation, Potter said, calling her growth “amazing.”

“I had to learn how to figure it out on my own, instead of being shown or told how to do it,” said Clanton, who was reduced to tears as she described her journey. “I really struggled with that.”

She also learned it’s okay to ask for help – something she wouldn’t do out on the street.

The Last Mile programmers reviewing their projects

Brittany Leija, 26, will be released early in 2021 after serving more than two years for convictions of burglary and aggravated battery. When she first arrived in Topeka, “I had a sense of failure and ‘Dang, this is it – my life is over,’” she said. “It was really discouraging.”

But as she read self-help books, her outlook improved. Her emotional intelligence grew, she said, and she developed empathy for others.

“It not only changed my mindset, it changed my vocabulary as well,” Leija said. “I can still be great regardless of the circumstance I’m in.”

The coding class has been a revelation for her as well, she said.

“I discovered how much I love to learn – the little victories of, ‘if that doesn’t work, keep trying and getting it right eventually,’” Leija said. “The sky’s the limit. If I can learn this, then I can learn anything if I set my mind on it and stay focused on it.”

Believing in themselves

Perhaps the most valuable lessons and skills gleaned from the coding course, Nicole Zuspann said, are ones that don’t necessarily show up on a test form.

“The soft skills, as well as the learning to take that creative, constructive criticism with a smile on your face and say, ‘OK, let me try it your way and see how that works,’” said Zuspann, 47, whose extensive criminal history includes forgery and theft.

She’s scheduled to be released later this year.

“I’m going to leave here an unstoppable force. I’m absolutely going to be successful.”

Michelle Vorhees, The Last Mile, coder, programmer

“Every single person in this room has a different way to get to the exact same spot where we’re supposed to be,” Zuspann said of the coding class. “Communication skills have become absolutely necessary in this classroom.”

Like many in the class, Zuspann says she’s “reinventing” herself to give her a better chance of succeeding once she’s released from prison.

The first graduating class of The Last Mile in Topeka Kansas
The first graduating class of The Last Mile program in Topeka, Kansas

Tiplance Walker plans to set up a website to help inmates with that transition back into society once she’s released in 2026.

“I want to make a networking community for ex-felons where we can encourage one another,” said Walker, 35, who was convicted of second-degree murder and two counts of child endangerment in the 2015 death of a woman following an argument at a party in south Wichita.

The Last Mile “is the first program that I did (while incarcerated) that gave me the opportunity to think about where I would be in the future as far as a career and as a mother that provides for her children.”

Tiplance Walker, The Last Mile, coder, programmer

Like Leija, Walker has shifted her mindset in prison.

“How can I maximize this time to my full potential, utilizing the resources that are available here?” she asked.

The Last Mile “is the first program that I did (while incarcerated) that gave me the opportunity to think about where I would be in the future as far as a career and as a mother that provides for her children,” she said.

For all they have learned, inmates said, the takeaway they value most from The Last Mile program is something that’s difficult to quantify: a belief in themselves.

“I’m going to leave here an unstoppable force,” Voorhees said. “I’m absolutely going to be successful.”


Author Credits | Stan Finger | @StanFinger | Stan is an award-winning journalist who twice earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize over the course of a distinguished career at the Wichita Eagle. A native Kansan who grew up on a farm in central Kansas, Finger has also written two books: Into the Deep, a look at the deadly flash flood in the Flint Hills in 2003, and the novel Fallen Trees.

Photo Credits | Jeff Tuttle | Website | Jeff is a native Kansan from Augusta and a Kansas State University graduate. He married his high school sweetheart Laura, and they have two children, Erin and Zach and a handsome Cardigan Welsh corgi, Wembley. He is a former newspaper photographer with a 25-career at The Herald, Jasper, Indiana, and the Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas. He is currently a freelance photojournalist in Wichita.

Computer Science Education Policy in Kansas

FlagshipKansas.Tech is sending this letter of support to the Kansas Board of Education in support of improved Computer Science education across our state.

Now the Board of Ed needs to hear from you. Read the letter, share it with your network, and add your name to the list of supporters at the bottom of the page. As always, thank you for all that you do for our great state.

Dear State of Kansas Board of Education Members:

In 2019, the Board of Education made progress to advance computer science education with the development of statewide computer science standards. We applaud the state’s efforts and want to assure you that you are not alone in your work.

We developed FlagshipKansas.Tech after identifying a persistent and pressing need to raise awareness of the growing technology industry in Kansas, reinforce an innovative approach to workforce development, and support the new realities that are facing education. Why did we feel qualified to do this? Our members are leaders in the technology industry, uniquely positioned at the forefront of change taking place in our state. They are the businesses creating the future of our state economy.

At FlagshipKansas.Tech, we represent tech sector employees, educational institutions, students, and employers across all 105 counties in Kansas. Our membership includes more than 22,259 member employees and 58,873 students enrolled at our public and private universities. Our industry drives $7B to the Kansas economy – with 40% of those jobs outside of the KC and Wichita regions.

We are an organization that does our homework. (Thank you to every teacher who drove this good habit into our life-long behaviors.) We’ve read the data and know from our own first-hand experience as employers, educators, and parents the positive impact of bringing decision-making, problem-solving, and taking time to learn the ‘whys’ and ‘why nots’ of life back into the classrooms. And we know that helping educators make these changes will benefit us all. We applaud your desire to ensure that Kansas lead the way in success for EVERY student and we stand with you.

We believe that our students do not have enough access to learn the computational thinking and problem-solving skills embedded in Computer Science that they need today. As you consider the recommendations before you, we’d like to ask you to consider the following:

Allowing Computer Science to Count Toward an Existing Graduation Credit Promotes Diversity. Currently, students who take computer science courses in the state can only count computer science courses (where offered) toward an elective. Currently, Kansas is one of only two states across the country that do not allow students to apply their computer science courses toward a core graduation credit. According to Code.org, of the 48 states that allow CS to count, 30 allow it to count toward a science credit. Most of those states (22) require three science credits for graduation, like Kansas. When other states have allowed Computer Science to count, they see more students and those students are more diverse socioeconomically and ethnically. They see more young women join these courses as well. We know that removing this barrier increases diversity.

Creating a State Plan for Expanding Computer Science Improves Equity. You have taken positive steps forward in defining K-12 computer science standards and bringing together a task force to make recommendations. We know that the next step to ensure equitable access across the state to computer science education is a comprehensive statewide plan led by a Computer Science Consultant. A common statewide plan with specific steps for expanding computer science over the next few years, built with broad stakeholder engagement and a strong vision for the state’s goals around computer science, would help ensure that schools have an equitable opportunity for students in rural or urban districts of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Funding Professional Development for Computer Science Teachers Improves Outcomes. In 2017, Kansas colleges and universities did not graduate a single new teacher prepared to teach computer science. Additionally, with the funding issues in education the past several years, we have struggled to ensure our current teacher workforce is equipped for the new challenges in teaching computational thinking across the board. To address this critical shortage area, Kansas should provide resources for professional learning to prepare in-service teachers from diverse backgrounds to teach K-12 computer science. This will expand the capacity for in-service teachers and as a result, access for students across Kansas.

Our organization and our members are prepared to continue to support the continued development of computer science degree programs at our Regent’s universities. We are impressed with the rigor with which curriculum will be developed and instructors will be endorsed and credentialed. We will work with all parties to support viable, sustainable funding for this important work.

We sincerely appreciate the time that you provided during your December meeting to connect with Kansas students to learn about coding and the opportunities for learning in our schools. And, we thank you for your hard work. Please know that you are not alone in your efforts to position Kansas by leading the world in the success of every Kansas student.

Sincerely, 

Lisa Roberts Proffitt

Executive Director | FlagshipKansas.Tech | Kansas | Districts 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10

Representing 22,259 member employees and 58,873 students

A Taste of Silicon Valley in the Flint Hills

view from the windows of CivicPlus in Manhattan Kansas

They’re one of the fastest-growing private tech companies in the United States.

Their headquarters look like something you’d find in Silicon Valley rather than the gateway to the Flint Hills of Kansas.

They’re considered an industry leader in providing integrated technology platforms for local government.

Yet when you ask a CivicPlus executive what propelled the Manhattan-based business from humble origins to dizzying heights, the answer may be surprising.

“It comes down to maybe more luck than foresight,” said Sascha Ohler, vice president of research and development.

Recognizing future needs

CivicPlus started more than 20 years ago as Networks Plus, which focused on network and computer equipment management – servers, desktop systems, tech support – for customers around Kansas.

The company began building websites for customers as the new century arrived, “and we very quickly realized that’s where the future growth would come from for us,” Ohler said.

photo of Sascha Ohler VP for R & D at CivicPlus
Sascha Ohler, VP of Research & Development speaks to crowd at Scaling Up Tech

Websites for city and county governments became the company’s focus, and little more than a decade later the company sold off Networks Plus.

Ohler cites luck as a factor because when company officials debated what their target audience for building websites should be, they selected local governments.

“We were fortunate in that we selected a market to go after that is very stable and is very cohesive and so there’s not a lot of variability there,” Ohler said. “Whether you’re a city in California or Kansas or Florida, there’s not that much different” in what they need.

“We didn’t have to be the ones with the latest and the greatest, we just had to be better than the rest of the competition.

Sascha Ohler, VP Research & Devlopment, CivicPlus

Most smaller governments, if they had a city or county website at all, offered basic information on static pages. Residents still had to go to city hall or county offices to pay bills, obtain information or request services.

As CivicPlus built its clientele, Ohler said, “We didn’t have to be the ones with the latest and the greatest, we just had to be better than the rest of the competition.

“It allowed us to open up a market for ourselves that didn’t force us to be a Silicon Valley-type start-up in order to succeed.”

Dramatic changes in local government

But that has changed in recent years.

The general population is getting younger and the expectations of local government are changing as more and more professionals are returning to their hometowns or migrating away from crowded, expensive urban centers in search of a higher quality of life.

Generations of residents now are used to being able to pay bills, go shopping and gather information online whenever it’s convenient. They have higher expectations from local government as well.

“It’s no longer okay to just be open 9 to 4,” Ohler said. “They expect ‘round-the-clock access from their mobile devices.”

In response, CivicPlus began creating more sophisticated websites that allow residents to pay bills, ask questions and look up a wide range of information about city and county services online.

photo of CivicPlus employee working on customer website

“Local government is changing pretty dramatically,” he said. “We’re increasingly less and less patient so we want to have stuff at the tip of our fingers. We’re seeing local government wake up to that.”

Katrina Rubenich, communication and information specialist for the Wichita suburb of Valley Center, has witnessed those changes. The city hired CivicPlus to update its website about four years ago and has seen usage soar.

“They want to be able to go online and take care of everything they need to without having to interact with a real person if they can,” Rubenich said.

It saves time for city staff as well, sparing them from repeatedly fielding calls for information that can easily be found on the website.

Having a strong website is important for cities and counties in the modern era, Rubenich said.

“I know that personally if there’s a company or a city that I want to go to if they don’t have a website, it kind of makes me think, ‘Why not?’ and ‘Are you legit?’” she said.

The city of Louisburg is another CivicPlus client, and communications coordinator Jean Carder said an intense hail storm that struck the region last year showed how valuable it is to have a sophisticated website.

“When the hail storm went through and roofers started showing up, they didn’t necessarily have to come into the office to get their permits,” Carder said. “They could fill it out online and email it to the guy that handles the permit. It makes it easier to do business with the city.”

Business is booming

As local governments recognize the need to offer more on their websites, business is booming for CivicPlus. The company has grown 30 percent a year for the past several years and Ohler said similar growth is anticipated “for the foreseeable future.”

“As our clients are looking at new ways to utilize technology and really figure out how to lead change inside their organizations, it has forced us to become more than just tech experts, but become experts in local government as well.

Sascha Ohler, VP Research & Development, CivicPlus

CivicPlus now has 3,800 clients around the world, including more than 175 in Kansas. The company has grown to 350 “team members,” with 280 of them working in Manhattan.

According to data released earlier this year, more than 60,000 local government employees use CivicPlus software solutions. More than 75 million constituents view the company’s local government websites, registering more than two billion page views.

CivicPlus has been an INC. 5000 fastest-growing company for the past eight years and has made the GovTech 100 list every year since its inception.

But this is no time for CivicPlus to relax, Ohler said.

“Change is kind of a constant in this business,” Ohler said. “As our clients are looking at new ways to utilize technology and really figure out how to lead change inside their organizations, it has forced us to become more than just tech experts, but become experts in local government as well.

“It has definitely forced us as a company to grow both from a number of employees and from a skill set perspective.”

Most of the company’s early growth was organic, but in the last three years, CivicPlus has also undertaken acquisitions.

In 2016, CivicPlus acquired Rec1 in Atlanta, which specializes in parks and recreation management. A year later, the company bought another Atlanta firm, BoardSync, and rebranded it as CivicClerk. Last year, CivicPlus purchased Virtual Towns and Schools, a website business in Foxborough, Mass., that caters to towns with less than 10,000 people.

More acquisitions are likely, Ohler said. To help facilitate the growth, BV Investment Partners of Boston announced a minority investment in CivicPlus. BV is a middle-market private equity firm focused on the business services, software and IT services sectors.

“We went through a careful vetting process to find the right partner who can help us achieve our ambitious goals in the years ahead,” CivicPlus Chief Executive Officer Brian Rempe said in a prepared statement released when the investment was announced.

Rempe called BV “a like-minded partner” and added, “I’m confident that the partnership…will put us in an even stronger position to offer more and more value to our clients and their residents.”


Author Credits | Stan Finger | @StanFinger | Stan is an award-winning journalist who twice earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize over the course of a distinguished career at the Wichita Eagle. A native Kansan who grew up on a farm in central Kansas, Finger has also written two books: Into the Deep, a look at the deadly flash flood in the Flint Hills in 2003, and the novel Fallen Trees.

Photo Credits | Jeff Tuttle | Website | Jeff is a native Kansan from Augusta and a Kansas State University graduate. He married his high school sweetheart Laura, and they have two children, Erin and Zach and a handsome Cardigan Welsh corgi, Wembley. He is a former newspaper photographer with a 25-career at The Herald, Jasper, Indiana, and the Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas. He is currently a freelance photojournalist in Wichita.

Viaanix sets its sights on being ‘the Amazon of IOT’

Viaanix owner Jatin Talreja from Wichita Kansas

Nestled in a small, nondescript brick building in the heart of downtown Wichita, a fledgling business few people have heard of is on its way to subtly changing the world as we know it.

Viaanix, which started several years ago in founder Jatin Talreja’s basement, is emerging as a national leader in the Internet of Things.

“We can make anything smart or wireless,” Talreja said. “Our goal is to make it a billion-dollar company in five years. We have decided to go big or go home.

“We want to be the Amazon of IoT.”

Worldwide technology spending on the Internet of Things is projected to reach $1.2 trillion by 2022, and Viaanix is well-positioned to capture a share of that.

“We want to be the Amazon of IOT.”

Jatin Talreja, Viaanix, Wichita, Kansas

Viaanix is working on sensors for sectors as varied as agriculture, construction, logistics, transportation and Smart Cities.

What helps set Viaanix apart

While smart technology – a network of devices, vehicles and products embedded with sensors that allow them to collect and exchange data – has become commonplace, Viaanix’s engineers have centralized services into one app you can use on your phone.

Currently, Taljreja said, a consumer might have one provider with a service telling them whether their garage door is open and another letting them know if someone is at the door and another monitoring if the lights are off.

“That’s three different apps, three different services you’re working with,” he said.

Viaanix can provide sensors for something as basic as letting you know how much milk is left in the refrigerator, how full your trash cans are and if there’s a leak near the sump pump.

The company has developed universal “plug and play” hardware with software that can be configured to meet a client’s specific needs.

“We’re working with the city of Wichita on a whole ‘smart city’ platform,” Talreja said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you’ve got LED lights in your streetlights – you’re a smart city now,’ but it’s so much more than that.”

‘Helping tech to grow here’

The city is exploring a variety of initiatives using sensors to collect and synthesize data that will ultimately make operations more efficient and thus lower costs, said Mike Mayta, chief information officer for the city of Wichita. At this stage, most are still in the exploratory phase.

“One of the things we’re really interested in is staying local – helping tech to grow here,” Mayta said.

Working with Viaanix is an example of that, he said.

“Some of this could really explode into a large, large venture,” Mayta said. “From an economic development standpoint, we can have an impact there.”

Talreja learned about FlagshipKansas.Tech from city officials and signed up because he saw it as a way to network with other tech companies in the state and also to help increase exposure for Viaanix.

“One of the things we’re really interested in is staying local – helping tech to grow here.”

Mike Mayta, City of Wichita, Kansas

The company’s profile is increasing in other ways as well. Talreja was a panelist for a session on modern cities at a conference in San Diego in mid-September.

Helping cities become more efficient by investing in smart technology is a billion-dollar industry, Talreja said.

Viaanix is currently focusing on corporate clients, but their goal is to eventually expand into consumer products as well.

“The growth is exponential,” Talreja said.

The demand is so great Talreja is looking for investors to help finance the company’s expansion. Up until now, he said, he has paid for everything out of his own pocket.

The company has 14 employees in the U.S. and more than 20 in India, Vietnam and China.

Those numbers will surge as the demand for Viaanix’s products grow. Talreja is working with WSU Tech to provide “some of our tools and gadgets” so students obtain hands-on experience. The hope, he said, is to hire those students once they graduate so Viaanix can continue to grow.

Discussions are underway with the University of Texas at Austin for a similar arrangement, Talreja said.

“What Jay’s doing over there with that company is significant,” said Joe Varrientos, lead faculty in electronics technology at WSU Tech. “We’re just trying to help.”

Talreja is on an advisory team at WSU Tech and “he directly influences the kinds of training we provide for students,” Varrientos said.

“There’s no doubt that this technology…is of tremendous interest to a significant number of employers and industry leaders across the globe,” he said.

Why Wichita?

Viaanix is based in Wichita because this has become his family’s home, Talreja said. He was recruited to work at Hawker Beechcraft 12 years ago.

“Once the family was here, the home was here, we knew a lot of people here,” it was natural to stay, he said.

But “there are a lot of obstacles” in his efforts to build the business in Wichita, he said. Skilled workers have to be recruited from elsewhere because there isn’t a local talent pool in IoT. That challenge is also why he is working with WSU Tech and the University of Texas.

He’s confident any other obstacles that emerge can be overcome as well.

“Our goal is to make it a billion-dollar company in five years. We have decided to go big or go home. “

JATIN TALREJA, VIAANIX, WICHITA, KANSAS

He started his own company, Viaan, in 2012, providing engineering design for other companies as a contract engineer.

As he was creating smart software solutions for businesses, he said, he recognized limitations – and saw universal hardware as the best way to overcome them. Viaanix launched about a year ago.

The company has signed partnerships with Sprint, Comcast and Tektelic, with more partnerships with “very big company names” to be announced soon, he said.

How ‘smart’ impacts your life

Smart technology can bring efficiencies to just about any industry and even in your homes, Talreja said.

Hospitals can use them for something as basic as keeping track of meals being served to patients. Sensors can sound alarms if a meal is accidentally taken to the wrong room, so the hospital can avoid serving something that the patient is allergic to, he said.

Auto dealerships can use sensors to keep track of not just every vehicle on their lot but every key, he said. While GPS has been in use for many years now, it typically only works when the vehicles are outdoors.

Farmers can use sensors to check moisture content and pH levels of their soils so they can maintain the best growing conditions possible and maximize yields.

Viaanix has developed a wireless temperature and humidity sensor for freezers. Hospitals, restaurants and grocery stores are just some of the places temperatures have to be monitored and logged regularly to make sure they’re at proper levels.

“Currently, everything is done manually” to chart those figures, Talreja said.

The new sensor logs the temperature, creates a report and sends it where it needs to go automatically.

Smart technology will be transforming our bathrooms, too.

Viaanix has developed sensors that keep track of how much toilet paper, hand soap and paper towels are left in a particular bathroom and send alerts to maintenance crews when more is needed.

“You don’t know what kind of usage is going to happen at the airport,” Talreja said. “These analytics will allow them to be…more efficient.”

Instead of waiting to check every bathroom first thing in the morning, he said, maintenance crews can go directly to the bathrooms needing replenishment as needed at any time during their shift.

Developing a global presence

Liquidynamics, a Wichita-based company that sells lubricant and diesel exhausts fuel equipment, has worked with Viaanix and its predecessor for years.

Talreja’s business has developed tracking sensors for fuel management systems.

An estimated 15 percent of fuel oil and other lubricants is unaccounted for at any given time, said Frank Russold, president of Liquidynamics.

“That is a lot of fluid lost,” Russold said.

The sensors developed by Talreja’s company “allow the owners to keep track of every drop of oil that is being dispensed,” he said.

Liquidynamics has expanded fluid management to incorporate tank monitoring, Russold said. By being able to track how full tanks are, oil distributors can plan their routes “so they don’t have to make special calls to fill one tank.”

“Everyone wins,” Russold said. “The consumer wins in the long term” because the greater efficiencies help keep the price at the pump down.

While other companies offer tank monitoring systems, he said, they’re tied to desktop computer systems that can be rendered useless by platform upgrades. Liquidynamics relies on its own system within its mini-computer and it can be accessed on a client’s smart device.

“Viaanix has done a great job for us,” Russold said.

“We will be a corporation that has a global presence. Our software, our devices will be everywhere. People may just not notice it.”

jatin Talreja, viaanix, wichita, kansas

When Varrientos hears his friend talk about Viaanix becoming a billion-dollar company in five years, he doesn’t blink – even though that level represents a substantial increase from where Viaanix is now. He’s known him long enough to recognize that when Talreja sets a goal, it’s realistic.

Talreja insists his goal is no pipe dream.

“We have leads, we have letters of intent from very large corporations to work with us and customize solutions for them,” he said.

“We will be a corporation that has a global presence. Our software, our devices will be everywhere. People may just not notice it.”

Just like most don’t notice the unassuming brick building in the heart of downtown.


2:02 pm CST | December 18, 2019

Author Credits | Stan Finger | @StanFinger | Stan is an award-winning journalist who twice earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize over the course of a distinguished career at the Wichita Eagle. A native Kansan who grew up on a farm in central Kansas, Finger has also written two books: Into the Deep, a look at the deadly flash flood in the Flint Hills in 2003, and the novel Fallen Trees.

Image Credits | Fernando Salazar | @fsalazar58 Amazing photojournalist. Okay, we said that because he’s so humble, but seriously, look at his incredible work!

Computer Science Education Week | Activities in Kansas

What’s happening at your school?

This story was updated on December 12, 2019.

Computer Science across Kansas

In 2019, we celebrated Computer Science Education Week from December 9 through December 15. It was a fantastic opportunity to highlight all things computer science across the world.

At FlagshipKansas.Tech we had an opportunity to learn what educators and students were doing to celebrate #CSEdWeek across Kansas.

We’d like to share some of the highlights of the week in Kansas including our fun #HourofCode event with the Kansas State Board of Education in Topeka on December 11.

Eureka USD389 | Marshall Elementary School

Ms. Collinge’s class had fun partnering sixth-grade students with third-grade students for an Hour of Code during Computer Science Education Week. The sixth graders had completed “Grinch Game” – a code.org course that involved programming a drone to prevent the Grinch (yep, the green guy) from stealing all of the Christmas presents. Sixth graders guided the third graders as together they worked through the game and saved Christmas.

Topeka TPS501 | McCarter Elementary School

What did Ms. Harkness do this week? She incorporated coding across multiple classes at McCarter Elementary in Topeka, Kansas. We believe that learning to code = developing creativity. What better opportunity to become more creative than when you’re still young? Thank you, Ms. Harkness.

USD497 | West Middle School

Whew! Ms. Crenshaw and Mr. Aberle were busy this week. They worked hard all week to hold an event where they invited the Lawrence, Kansas, community to code with their classes. Dec 18 and 19 family and community members were in school throughout the day learning and engaging in the #HourofCode program at the school.

Students not only learned to code, but how to facilitate, encourage, and even coach community members through what was for many their first coding experiences. What a great way to connect the classroom with the community through coding!

Holy Trinity School

We heard from Ms. Henneberg made time for her classes at Holy Trinity in Lenexa, Kansas, to participate in this year’s #HourofCode. Thank you for letting us and know and making this week extra special!

USD 400 | Smoky Valley

Monday – We learned about computational thinking, heard from a Vision_Tek graduate about his job in coding working for Garmin in the aeronautics field, viewed their recent design of a self-landing plane, and executed a “hands-on” sort activity to understand computational thinking further.
Tuesday – We examined the role of women in coding, heard from a female Vision_Tek graduate who is working in coding, examined how block coding works with computational thinking, and practiced block coding in teams.
Wednesday – We completed the “Hour of Code,” chose a partner and analyzed two maze patterns in our building. Using Drone blocks, each student on the team constructed a program to execute the maze with a Tello Drone.
Friday – Student teams flew drones through their programmed mazes to determine their effectiveness.

We’d encourage you to check out the work going on throughout the year in Laurie Denk’s classes.

Here’s a note from Laurie: Hello from Lindsborg, Kansas! My name is Laurie Denk. I am a teacher at Smoky Valley High School for the Vision_Tek program.

This program is a technology initiative meant to bridge the gap between school and work. The program is driven by two levels: the first is a technology boot camp of sorts that enables students to develop technology skills; the second is a program built on project-based learning where students develop large learning-based projects in building (using microprocessors and Arduinos), coding/programming, software exploration, application development, film, and much more.

We are always exploring connections to make our curriculum development more relevant to our workforce.

Please check us out on our Vision_Tek YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/svhsinfotech/ or our Facebook page.

Kansas Board of Education | Hour of Code

On December 11 sixteen students and four amazing instructors blew away the Kansas State Board of Education with a hands-on #HourofCode during #CSEdWeek this year. Thank you Ms. Adams Oskaloosa Public Schools USD341, Ms. Jardine Wamego Public Schools USD320, Ms. Snyder and Ms. Clemons Wichita Public Schools USD259.

And students, thank you. You were the rockstars in the room.

Thank you to FlagshipKansas.Tech board members Amanda Duncan, VP and Chief Business Development Officer of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas and Joy Eakins, President of Cornerstone Data, Inc., Katie Hendrickson with code.org, and Katlyn Otto and Emily Meyer with Union Station Science City.

Check out our photo album: https://photos.app.goo.gl/w6PCftq9ctCLQRMw7

Beyond #CSEdWeek

Each Kansas school approaches computer science in their own unique way. Perhaps your school offers a course dedicated to teaching computer science. Or maybe a handful of teachers from PK-12 incorporate computational thinking, problem-solving, and pattern recognition into the various courses taught in your district. Whatever your approach, we’d appreciate the opportunity to learn more.

Now that we are officially finished celebrating CS Ed Week in 2019, what activities do you have planned for 2020 in your classrooms? And, how can we help?

Why are we asking? We’d love to recognize your work in our Kansas schools.

Scaling up Tech – Manhattan – Oct 23, 2019

Manhattan, KS – What actually happens on your way to growth. Scaling up Tech is a unique behind-the-scenes look at what really happens when you try to grow your tech business. They are real, first-hand, authentic accounts of what happened when a business ran out of funds on their way to rapid growth, what happened when another business was acquired by an industry leader, and what is happening as an entrepreneur is currently scaling with successful funding.

Scaling up Tech – Wichita – October 16, 2019

Wichita, KS – What actually happens on your way to growth. Scaling up Tech is a unique behind-the-scenes look at what really happens when you try to grow your tech business. They are real, first-hand, authentic accounts of what happened when a business ran out of funds on their way to rapid growth, what happened when another business was acquired by an industry leader, and what is happening as an entrepreneur is currently scaling with successful funding.

$5 Million dollar technology hub to open in former Printing, Inc.

Everywhere you look someone is doing something amazing in Tech, in Kansas. Check out Charter Member and Sponsor GrooverLabs

Read more at Kansas.com

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