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.”
I knew the president had clear and straightforward talking points—I’d written them.
One phone call changed my life.
On Thursday, July 25, 2019, I was seated at the table in one of the two Situation Rooms in the basement of the West Wing. The bigger room is famous from movies and TV shows, but this room is smaller, more typically businesslike: a long wooden table with 10 chairs, maybe a dozen more chairs against wood-paneled walls, and a massive TV screen. This was the room where President Barack Obama and his team watched a feed of the Osama bin Laden raid. This morning, the screen was off. We were all focused intently on the triangular conference-call speaker in the middle of the table. President Donald Trump’s communications team was placing a call to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, and we were there to listen.
The creative class was supposed to foster progressive values and economic growth. Instead we got resentment, alienation, and endless political dysfunction.
This article was published online on August 2, 2021.
The dispossessed set out early in the mornings. They were the outsiders, the scorned, the voiceless. But weekend after weekend—unbowed and undeterred—they rallied together. They didn’t have much going for them in their great battle against the privileged elite, but they did have one thing—their yachts.
During the summer and fall of 2020, a series of boat parades—Trumptillas—cruised American waters in support of Donald Trump. The participants gathered rowdily in great clusters. They festooned their boats with flags—American flags, but also message flags: Don’t Tread on Me, No More Bullshit, images of Trump as Rambo.
The women stood on the foredecks in their red, white, and blue bikinis, raising their Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys to salute the patriots in nearby boats. The men stood on the control decks projecting the sort of manly toughness you associate with steelworkers, even though these men were more likely to be real-estate agents. They represent a new social phenomenon: the populist regatta. They are doing pretty well but see themselves as the common people, the regular Joes, the overlooked. They didn’t go to fancy colleges, and they detest the mainstream media. “It’s so encouraging to see so many people just coming together in a spontaneous parade of patriotism,” Bobi Kreumberg, who attended a Trumptilla in Palm Beach, Florida, told a reporter from WPTV.
In Disney’s Jungle Cruise, the actor plays a typical hero—and ignores the qualities that make him so magnetic on-screen.
Once upon a time, a broad-shouldered actor who started out in the brawny sporting world made a successful leap to Hollywood—first playing villains and quirky supporting roles, then becoming a star who could headline hyper-violent R-rated thrillers as easily as family comedies. Eventually, he parlayed this superstardom into political office. I’m talking, of course, about Arnold Schwarzenegger: weightlifting champ, king of action cinema in the ’80s and ’90s, and eventual governor of California. But this career arc seems to be a model for a newer Hollywood A-lister, the square-jawed and larger-than-life Dwayne Johnson, a onetime professional wrestler, current marquee name, and potential future presidential candidate.
Why targets of deliberate deception often hesitate to admit they’ve been deceived
Something very strange has been happening in Missouri: A hospital in the state, Ozarks Healthcare, had to create a “private setting” for patients afraid of being seen getting vaccinated against COVID-19. In a video produced by the hospital, the physician Priscilla Frase says, “Several people come in to get vaccinated who have tried to sort of disguise their appearance and even went so far as to say, ‘Please, please, please don’t let anybody know that I got this vaccine.’” Although they want to protect themselves from the coronavirus and its variants, these patients are desperate to ensure that their vaccine-skeptical friends and family never find out what they have done.
Missouri is suffering one of the worst COVID-19 surges in the country. Some hospitals are rapidly running out of ICU beds. To Americans who rushed to get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, some Missourians’ desire for secrecy is difficult to understand. It’s also difficult to square with the common narrative that vaccine refusal, at least in conservative areas of the country, is driven by a lack of respect or empathy from liberals along the coasts. “Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics—or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all,” lamented a recent article in the conservative National Review. Writers across the political spectrum have urged deference and sympathy toward holdouts’ concerns about vaccine side effects and the botched CDC messaging about masking and airborne transmission early in the pandemic. But these takes can’t explain why holdouts who receive respect, empathy, and information directly from reliable sources remain unmoved—or why some people are afraid to tell their loved ones about being vaccinated.
For some Americans, history isn’t the story of what actually happened; it’s the story they want to believe.
This article was published online on May 10, 2021.
Most of the people who come to Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg, Virginia, come for the windows—masterpieces of Tiffany glass in the cemetery’s deconsecrated church. One morning before the pandemic, I took a tour of the church along with two other visitors and our tour guide, Ken. When my eyes adjusted to the hazy darkness inside, I could see that in each window stood a saint, surrounded by dazzling bursts of blues and greens and violets. Below these explosions of color were words that I couldn’t quite make out. I stepped closer to one of the windows, and the language became clearer. Beneath the saint was an inscription honoring the men “who died for the Confederacy.”
A century after a white mob attacked a thriving Black community in Tulsa, digitized census records are bringing the economic damage into clearer focus.
The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 was over in less than 24 hours, but the damage that the city’s Black citizens suffered went on for decades. Indeed, the full magnitude of the community’s economic loss is still coming into focus even on the centennial of the event—in part because new digital tools allow scholars to mine census records for data about its aftermath.
On May 31, 1921, a mob of more than 1,000 white men descended on the jail where a Black teenager was being held on suspicion of assaulting a young white woman. In response, more than 50 Black men came to the aid of the police defending the jail. When these outnumbered Black men retreated to Greenwood, a predominantly Black neighborhood, the white mob attacked its residents and burned their homes, businesses, churches, school, and hospital. Despite efforts by local authorities to cover up these events—whose death toll is now estimated at nearly 300—journalists, historians, and locals have managed to document what happened to prominent Black Tulsans and the institutions that they owned. The entrepreneurs John and Loula Williams lost the Dreamland Theatre. The Gurley Hotel, owned by Ottowa and Emma Gurley, was destroyed as well.
Electricity was late and expensive
Coming to Appalachia
Knoxville especially so
Twice a month the coal
Man would come to fill the cellar
For warmth and sometimes food
And what I loved most was the fireplace
Where Grandmother and Grandpapa would sit
Near to tell stories but
Oak Ridge came for the war
Or maybe the war came for Oak Ridge
And atomic energy replaced coal
And the cellar became a home for mice
And maybe some insects that we never
Needed to bother since they didn’t bother us
One summer day Grandmother said
To me, “Since John Brown will be gone
For the conference why don’t we see what
Is in the cellar”
I didn’t think anything but if your grandmother
Asks you to go cellaring with her
Louisiana’s petroleum industry profits from exploiting historic inequalities, showing how slavery laid the groundwork for environmental racism.
Sharon Lavigne was teaching a special-education class when her daughter called to tell her about the Sunshine Project. Named for its proximity to Louisiana’s Sunshine Bridge, the operation, helmed by the Taiwanese behemoth Formosa Plastics, was on track to build one of the world’s largest plastic plants. Already the air Lavigne breathed in her native St. James Parish was some of the most toxic in the United States. Now Formosa planned to spend $9.4 billion on facilities that would make polymer and ethylene glycol, polyethylene, and polypropylene—ingredients found in antifreeze, drainage pipes, and a variety of single-use plastics—just two miles down the road from her family home. The concentration of carcinogens in the atmosphere could triple.
Black players pioneered what we now call esports. The industry hasn’t paid them back.
Jason Cole didn’t own a computer, but he was fairly certain that he was the best Street Fighter player in California. It was the early 1990s, and Cole often found himself with a pocketful of quarters at the Golfland arcade in San Jose. Standing in front of a crusty Street Fighter II cabinet, he would take on an endless stream of competitors, from clueless middle schoolers to yuppies on their lunch break, and beat them all. Most who encountered Cole quickly found themselves 25 cents poorer. He was just too good.
This was long before esports morphed into the industry it is today. Cole wasn’t competing for million-dollar prize pools or hefty sponsorships, or international fame. All he wanted—all he could reasonably hope for—was dominion over his local arcade.
For centuries, stories of Black communities from the past have been limited by racism in the historical record. Now we can finally follow the trails they left behind.
I first saw the photo at astreet fair in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in October 2011. I was at the Historic Mobile Street Renaissance Festival, an annual celebration of Hattiesburg’s Black downtown. That afternoon, Mobile Street filled with thousands of people spending their Saturday in the sun, drinking sweet tea and eating soul food with their friends and neighbors. I was new in town, and I was excited to join them.
Sitting in the window of an abandoned shop was a black-and-white picture of 12 Black men. They appear in two rows, five seated and seven standing. Each man is wearing a suit and politely holding his hat off to the side. There are at least two generations present, as evidenced by their hairlines and facial features. Their faces carry mixed expressions. Most of them look serious, but some are smiling. One man even appears to be smirking, like he knows a secret. In their regal suits and poses, their faces are frozen in time. As the crowd meandered by, these men from the past sat perched in their window, hardly noticed by a soul. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were watching us. The men in the photograph haunted me.