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.
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.”
Looking at the long views from the Hubble space telescope might be good for you.
In December of 1995, astronomers around the world were vying for a chance to use the hottest new tool in astronomy: the Hubble space telescope. Bob Williams didn’t have to worry about all that. As the director of the institution that managed Hubble, Williams could use the telescope to observe whatever he wanted. And he decided to point it at nothing in particular.
Williams’s colleagues told him, as politely as they could, that this was an awful idea. But Williams had a hunch that Hubble would see something worthwhile. The telescope had already captured the glow of faraway galaxies, and the longer Hubble gazed out in one direction, the more light it would detect.
So the Hubble telescope stared at the same bit of space, nonstop, for 10 days—precious time on a very expensive machine—snapping exposure after exposure as it circled Earth. The resulting image was astounding: Some 3,000 galaxies sparkled like gemstones in the darkness. The view stretched billions of years back in time, revealing other cosmic locales as they were when their light left them and began coasting across the universe.
“When can we stop thinking about Trump every minute?” the New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens asked yesterday. As usual with such queries, the correct answer is “What do you mean ‘we’?” To a remarkable degree, people have already stopped paying attention to the 45th president.
The past few weeks have offered a preview of what Donald Trump’s post-presidency might look like: The president fulminates at length, playing pundit, but is a practical nonfactor in policy discussions. He can still command the affection of millions—and raise millions of dollars from them—but the balance of the country has already moved on and tuned out. Trump’s ability to command the news cycle has been eclipsed by the virus he couldn’t be bothered to stop and the rival candidate he couldn’t beat.
The former mayor’s fevered efforts to overturn the election results may be about self-preservation more than anything else.
Updated on December 1, 2020 at 5:32 p.m. ET.
In his frenzied crusade to help President Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election result, Rudy Giuliani has displayed many of the characteristics that Trump has long demanded in his personal lawyers—albeit with more surreal and comedic elements.
Giuliani has shown unswerving loyalty, gleefully obfuscated facts, launched wild attacks on the media, hosted circus-style press conferences, and gone to court, all in a fruitless, evidence-free quest to persuade several states to block Joe Biden’s electoral victories.
But that might not be Giuliani’s only—or ultimate—goal.
The former New York mayor might just be trying to save himself, according to the Department of Justice veterans and legal experts I spoke with. Giuliani seems to be facing growing legal threats, and he may be angling for a presidential pardon, they told me in interviews over the past few weeks.
The movie and book don’t show the positive side of the area, because that wouldn’t serve the story’s purposes.
My Aunt Ruth won’t watch Hillbilly Elegy, the movie adaptation of J. D. Vance’s memoir about growing up in and eventually escaping Appalachia and a mother coping with addiction. Practically speaking, my aunt doesn’t have a Netflix account or any of the smart technology she’d need to stream it. But she also has no interest in watching a story of her community that doesn’t reflect what she sees and that she knows will be exploitative, harmful, and not helpful to moving her or her neighbors forward.
Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t show the positive side of Appalachia that my aunt and I know, because that wouldn’t serve the story’s purposes. The film and book need Appalachia to be poor, broken, and dirty, because they depend on us believing that the mountains are somewhere we want Vance to escape. They need to frame poverty as a moral failing of individuals—as opposed to systems—because they have to imply that something about Vance’s character allowed him to get away from his hillbilly roots. Hillbilly Elegy has to simplify the people and problems of Appalachia, because it has decided to tell the same old pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative that so many of us reject.
Just because we know bad things about the 45th president, don’t assume that there’s nothing bad left to find out.
How well do we know Donald Trump? Pretty well, it would seem. Nobody has ever accused the outgoing president of possessing a complex personality. His behavior in office confirmed the common view, barely disputed even by his allies, that he is a shallow narcissist, blind or indifferent to common decencies, with poor impulse control and a vindictive streak. His futile attempt to litigate away electoral defeat may appall you, but it probably doesn’t surprise you.
Still, just because we know bad things about the 45th president, don’t assume that there’s nothing bad left to find out. Journalists like to pretend that we know everything about a president in real time, but our information is never close to complete. There’s always more to learn, and it’s seldom reassuring.
A decades-old legal argument used by Hitler has found support in Beijing.
When Hong Kong erupted into protest this summer against a national-security law imposed by Beijing, the fact that Chinese scholars leaped to the Communist Party’s defense was perhaps predictable. How they argued in favor of it, however, was not.
“Since Hong Kong’s handover,” Wang Zhenmin, a law professor at Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious institutions, wrote in People’s Daily, “numerous incidents have posed serious threats to Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.” The city, Wang was effectively arguing, was in no position to discuss civil liberties when its basic survival was on the line. Qi Pengfei, a specialist on Hong Kong at Renmin University, echoed those sentiments, insisting that the security law was meant to protect the island from the “infiltration of foreign forces.” In articles, interviews, and news conferences throughout the summer, scores of academics made a similar case.
The U.S. entered the coronavirus recession with a few structural advantages. Its success may not last for long.
Here is a remarkable, underappreciated fact: The U.S. economy has performed far better than that of many of the country’s peers during this horrible year. The International Monetary Fund expects the U.S. economy to contract by 4.4 percent in 2020, versus 5.3 percent in Japan, 6 percent in Germany, 7.1 percent in Canada, and nearly 10 percent in both the United Kingdom and France.
This fact is not a result of the United States managing its public-health response better than those countries, allowing it to reopen from lockdown sooner and for consumption to roar back. Indeed, many of those peer nations have had significantly better outcomes, as measured by COVID-19 caseloads, hospitalizations, and death rates. Nor is it a result of the U.S. preserving more jobs. The unemployment rate is far higher here than it is in Japan, Germany, or the U.K.
The Grammy-nominated pop septet’s newest single became the first Korean song to top the Billboard Hot 100—with virtually no radio play.
Maybe it’s because the pandemic has warped my sense of time, but it feels like just yesterday that BTS got their first No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100. The South Korean pop septet’s first all-English single, “Dynamite,” was everywhere—in commercials, at the MTV Video Music Awards, on the radio. In September, the song made them the first all–South Korean group to top the chart. Just last week, it landed BTS a Grammy nomination—the first such nod for a Korean group. (These guys break records so often that reciting their achievements can sometimes feel exhausting.)
When I wrote in September that BTS would one day get a No. 1 hit with a song in their native Korean, I didn’t think it’d happen less than three months later. Today, the band topped the Hot 100 again, this time with “Life Goes On,” a hip-hop–inflected, guitar-laced single about the struggles of pandemic life. Unlike “Dynamite,” “Life Goes On” received minimal promotion and radio play, which makes its debut at No. 1 that much more unbelievable. Enormous physical and digital sales—led by the group’s dedicated fans, known as ARMY—pushed the single to the top. In other words, “Life Goes On” is currently the biggest song on the charts, released by the biggest musical group in the world—and there’s a good chance you haven’t heard it.
The initial results of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine trials were unexpected and confusing, but there’s more data to come.
The first two coronavirus-vaccine trials ran as smoothly as anyone could hope. And when the results from both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna came back with more than 90 percent efficacy, easily surpassing the FDA’s bar of 50 percent, even people like me—who kept telling you to temper your vaccine expectations—reacted with uncharacteristic and unrestrained optimism. These results really were about as good as it gets.
Then came the results for a third vaccine, from AstraZeneca, developed in collaboration with Oxford University. At a glance, these looked good, if not spectacular: an average of 70 percent efficacy. But that top-line result obscured a strange divide between a full, two-shot regimen, which showed 62 percent efficacy, and a half-dose shot followed by a full-dose second shot, which showed 90 percent efficacy. Those split results were immediately confusing—was less vaccine more effective?—but became even more so as more information came to light.
Pod means something different to everyone, and that’s a problem.
Americans’ social lifelines are beginning to fray. As the temperature drops and the gray twilight arrives earlier each day, comfortably mingling outside during the pandemic is getting more difficult across much of the country. For many people, it’s already impossible.
To combat the loneliness of winter, some of us might be tempted to turn to pods, otherwise known as bubbles. The basic idea is that people who don’t live together can still spend time together indoors, as long as their pod stays small and exclusive. And pods aren’t just for the winter: Since March, parents have formed child-care bubbles. Third graders have been assigned to learning pods. Some NBA teams were in a bubble for months. A July survey of 1,000 Americans found that 47 percent said they were in a bubble.