You may not think of California’s Central Valley as the place for up-and-coming talent in the technology industry, but one company is looking to change that. Bitwise Industries, based in Fresno, is breaking down the idea of what the tech workforce looks like and making sure training and jobs are accessible to everyone, no matter their background.
Irma Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal co-founded the workforce development company. Olguin says her family came to Central Valley to work in agriculture, “My immigrant family moved here to follow the crops-a family of field laborers. And, in my own way, I found my way to the technology industry. I ended up in a job that just profoundly changed my life and existence and the opportunity that I saw in front of me.” Soberal also comes from an immigrant family that had their lives changed by the technology industry and one television commercial, “There was an ad for something called the ‘Computer Learning Center.’ That was what ultimately led to my dad becoming a computer programmer, which was an inflection point in his life and then, by consequence, in my life.
Together, the pair is trying to change the face of tech in California. “The technology industry has historically excluded folks who come from non-white ethnic groups, excluded non-straight individuals, excluded non-male individuals, and on and on,” says Soberal. “What that does is, it creates barriers to that opportunity for most people.”
Bitwise uses a radically different system of training to target underrepresented groups — they pay students to attend classes. “When you are coming from a story of, whether it’s systemic poverty or generational disenfranchisement, the thing that you can’t afford to do is to work for free or trade your time for an education that may or may not result in a job,” says Olguin. “So, we mash those things together in a way that has really afforded these folks the opportunity for the very first time to spend their time on something that may pay back dividends to them, their families, their communities and generations following.”
One of those students is Miguel Hernandez, who spent time in prison for burglary, “I had some trouble with the law when I was younger. It kind of started off in high school, you know, with hanging out with the wrong crowd. That’s when I started getting introduced to robbing houses.” While behind bars, Hernandez decided to turn his life around, “I got a short-term internship at Habitat for Humanity. When that had ended, that’s when Stephanie from Bitwise had handed out a flyer, and they called me, and they’re like, ‘Hey, we know you’re interested in tech, did you want to try this class out? It’s free for people who have been previously incarcerated people who have misdemeanors or felonies.’ Going into that class, at first, I felt alienated until I realized that everyone else there is like me, you know, we’re all the same people, all the same stories, you know?”
Olguin says that chance to reinvent yourself is the California dream. “For me, when I think about the dream, I think about folks who look like me, folks who come from similar backgrounds, folks who are typically from underserved and underrepresented populations, having the chance of whatever it is they want to do right here in California.” Soberal says that the California dream isn’t dead but concedes, “It is not having its best decade. We can do so much better, and there are now hundreds and even thousands of folks that have come through our doors at Bitwise, that are a testament to exactly that.”
Hernandez is grateful for places like Bitwise that help make the Golden State a better place to live. “After had got my felony, I thought it was over,” said Hernandez. “It’s a beautiful feeling knowing that there are people who care for us out there, giving us a second chance that we all deserve.”