Four years ago, my wife, Deb, and I wrote about an ambitious and unusual tech startup called Bitwise Industries, in the gritty and long-struggling city of Fresno in California’s Central Valley.
For an introduction to Bitwise and its co-founders, Irma L. Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal, please see “California’s Centers of Technology: Bay Area, L.A., San Diego, and … Fresno?” For what is at stake in their efforts to foster an inclusive, advanced-tech culture in an agriculture-dominated city, please see “Three Ways of Thinking About Fresno (and Why You Should Care).”
Short version: For anyone who cares about unequal opportunities in the new economy, what’s happening in Fresno deserves serious attention.
The strong continuity through Bitwise’s short, intense history has been its founders’ awareness that they were teaching technical skills, and promoting new businesses, for more than purely business-related purposes. Almost everyone in the tech business talks-the-talk about the info-age bringing benefits to all. In my view Bitwise has come much closer than most to walking-the-walk.
Since 2013 it has trained more than a thousand developers in Fresno. Deb and I have seen these classes and talked with students, many of them from agricultural or non-college backgrounds, and have written about their stories of new opportunities. It has fostered or attracted some 200 tech companies to its startup spaces. It runs three business operations: the coding school called Geekwise Academy; its real estate operations, which now include some 200,000 square feet of workspace; and a custom software business called Shift3 Technologies, which hires Geekwise graduates and others for commercial projects.
Today Bitwise is announcing a serious next step. It has received $27 million in “Series A” (startup) funding to expand its operations to other “cities like Fresno” across the country. The funding is led by Kapor Capital, founded by Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein and based in Oakland, and the New Voices Fund, based in New York. The company says that the funding represents “one of the largest Series A ever raised by a Latinx female-led company.” Irma Olguin comes from a family of Central Valley field laborers and has often stressed that she would like her own against-the-odds rise to tech-company leadership to become a less exceptional tale.
“There is a lot of my life story tied up in what Bitwise is, and does,” she told me this week, when I spoke with her and Soberal about the new funding. “It’s tied up with the idea that the son or daughter of a migrant farm worker could have this opportunity in the industry that is so transformative in our times.”
“Some people have had opportunities by accident, and others do not,” she said. “We need to make those opportunities less a matter of chance and serendipity, and more a matter of deliberately creating opportunities and exposing young people to different possibilities for their lives.”
What will Bitwise do with the money? Soberal said that the company, which will still be headquartered in Fresno, had identified a loose category of other “underdog cities”—places like Fresno where people had talent and potential but lacked opportunity. “We have a number of criteria, but the most important one is where we think we can make an impact,” he told me. Bitwise has already expanded programs to Bakersfield, 100 miles south in the Central Valley. Similar places, he said, might include Stockton (also in the Central Valley), El Paso on the U.S.-Mexican border, Knoxville in Appalachia.
Olguin said that the relevant traits were places “that have the population density to support a technology industry, where there might have been a dying industry that has left people needing to up-skill or re-skill themselves, and where there are obviously marginalized groups of people who may not have been invited into the tech industry.”
I asked Olguin and Soberal what they had learned, through Bitwise’s successes and setbacks, in the four years since Deb and I first met them.
“One of the things we’ve learned is about the need to focus on non-technical barriers to entry in the tech world, beyond simple technical skills,” Olguin said. “We probably underestimated that at the beginning. There is a whole system of opportunity you need to build in places like Fresno or Bakersfield, and if you’re not conscious about every one of the steps, you can’t assume that someone else will take care of it.”
Why does this expansion matter, I asked Soberal and Olguin? She said, “I don’t think there is any better way to spend our time than to contribute to the success of people who haven’t been invited to the most exciting part of the economy.”
When I asked the same question of Mitch Kapor, he responded this way, by email:
Bitwise is the most successful model we’ve seen for creating tech-related jobs in what Jake and Irma call underdog cities. They’ve proven this in Fresno and are we are going to help them spread it to other cities. These are jobs for local residents in local businesses and institutions. The follow-on effects of further job creation are also significant.
It’s the best way we’ve seen to create an inclusive economy in which gains from tech don’t simply go to enrich the 1% or those who are already far ahead.
Good luck to them all. And here is a video, from four years ago, that conveys what I think of as the spirit of Bitwise, Fresno, and “underdog cities” as a whole.