The tech-training and incubator company Bitwise, based in Fresno in California’s agricultural Central Valley, has been an important test case for the proposition that new, valuable, job-creating, and wealth-expanding businesses can arise anywhere, not just in the few familiar “superstar” cities.
Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about Bitwise since first visiting its (then-tiny) headquarters five years ago. For instance, two reports from 2015 (here and here) explain why it’s worth taking “left behind” places like Fresno seriously as future economic hubs. This one, from 2019, covers how dramatically Bitwise’s operations have expanded in its brief history.
Last week I spoke with the two co-founders of Bitwise, Irma Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal (whom you see in the photo above), about what their company was doing to deal with the pandemic’s effects in their home site of Fresno, in other parts of the Central Valley, and in similar cities across the country.
The Central Valley is within the same state borders as Los Angeles and Malibu, San Francisco and Palo Alto. But its situation, at this moment, has more in common with the crop-growing and meat-packing centers of Iowa, Kansas, and the Dakotas that have recently been in the news. It is “rich,” in the sense that its agricultural output feeds much of the country and the world. But it is “poor,” in the economic status and public-health vulnerability of many of its residents—notably including those who harvest the crops and process the meats.
“We started with the awareness that we are a cash-rich company”—because of its rapid growth and businesses successes—“sitting in a poor town,” Jake Soberal told me. “So we felt a sense of obligation to use those resources for the betterment of our community.” I have seen enough of what Olguin and Soberal and their colleagues have done, over a long enough period, to view these as more than just empty words. (For instance: their role in the memorable “Unapologetically Fresno” campaign from a few years ago.)
Their first step was to have Bitwise itself put out an offer to buy and deliver groceries to local people who needed help getting food. “The response was too overwhelming,” Soberal said. “We realized there was a deep need.”
Their next step was to use their own tech tools, and work with the San Francisco-based tech giant Salesforce, to automate a system through which people could place requests for food, and the food could be purchased and delivered.
The Bitwise team identified a local nonprofit thrift store whose normal business had evaporated, and hired its logistics staff to begin delivering food. “We soon saw one of the gaps in local and national food delivery systems,” Soberal told me. “That was the ability to deliver to individuals.” Food banks have dramatically expanded. But, he said, “the people most in need of food support are commonly without transportation, are sick or elderly, and don’t really have a way to get where the food might be.”
Within days, they talked with the tech eminences Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, who had been investors in Bitwise and who co-founded the Kapor Center, which has a stated mission of “leveling the playing field in tech.” With backing from the Kapor Center, Bitwise produced a software system and web site called OnwardCA.org, whose purpose is to help match people who have suddenly lost their jobs and livelihood with the few opportunities the pandemic disruption is opening up.
Restaurant workers, retail staffers, employees in the hotel and tourism industry—all at once, they were out of work. “The way to reduce the truly catastrophic effects of these changes, is to minimize the time people are completely displaced,” Irma Olguin told me. “If there is a chance to match Person A with Job B, that can make a difference.”
But what, conceivably, are these new “Job Bs”—at a time when the national unemployment rate is nearing rates not seen since the 1930s?
“Our first thought was to start identifying industries with surge-hiring needs,” Jake Soberal said. Everyone has heard about Amazon’s hiring 100,000 additional logistics-and-delivery staffers. Olguin and Soberal said the pattern applied at some small enterprises as well. “The general categories are health care, agriculture, grocery, and logistics,” Soberal said. “Where we can make a difference is the openings that wouldn’t get much attention otherwise—the logistics company in San Bernardino that has 12 job openings, the trucking company in Fort Bragg that has 5.” With its backing from the Kapor Center, Bitwise set up a large data-collection effort—looking through phone listings, making calls to the companies in places like San Bernardino or Fort Bragg—and assembling a job-opening data system for the state.
“Restaurants may not be opening soon,” Soberal said. “But someone from a restaurant might be well matched for a grocery or food-supply job, or someone from a closed gym to a logistics center.”
Last week, when I spoke with Olguin and Soberal, they were working with Gavin Newsom and his administration in California on the job-matching OnwardCA program available broadly through the state. Soon they expanded to Colorado. Then this week, on Tuesday, they announced the expansion of the program to states that together make up nearly one-third of the U.S. population. (In addition to California and Colorado, they are New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.)
You can read details on the expanded OnwardUS program in the Bitwise announcement here. Is this “the” answer to today’s economic and public-health catastrophes? As I say about each new initiative, of course it is not—on its own. But it is another partial answer, emerging at the local and state level, in the absence of federal response. (And, as upcoming reports will note, the Bitwise job-matching approach parallels efforts that vastly larger tech companies, notably Google and Microsoft, have intensified during the pandemic.)
“The world has been ignoring talent from communities where people are not used to looking,” Soberal told me, of Bitwise’s enterprises in general and the Onward programs in specific.
“We’ve been tapping into that for six and a half years now. The software is being built by people in the Central Valley, black and brown people, from field-worker families. They were not ‘supposed’ to be part of the tech economy. What you’re seeing right now is the ability to tap into an emergency response in a matter of days—because that talent was invested in, and ready.”
This report is part of a continuing series on organizations responding to the pandemic. For previous installments, please see these on: innovations from libraries; plans to protect the small businesses that have been crucial to local economic revival; changes in a statewide program in California; responses from a nationwide nonprofit network; recent military veterans converting a service ethic to civilian pursuits; and how an innovative tech organization in Idaho has tried to empower “creators” and improve the business ecosystem in smaller, non-coastal cities across the country.