Irma Olguin: Why we should bring tech economies to underdog cities Irma Olguin wants to bring the tech industry to cities like her hometown, Fresno. She believes building a support system for tech workers will strengthen communities and revitalize undervalued cities.

Irma Olguin: Why we should bring tech economies to underdog cities

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, Part 1 of our series Work, Play, Rest. So let's get back to work. Like so many booming industries, tech has completely changed some of our cities, creating hubs and uplifting certain places while leaving others behind.

IRMA OLGUIN: You know, you think about California. You think about palm trees and beaches and Hollywood and the Bay Bridge. And that's not where I grew up (laughter). That's not at all where I grew up.

ZOMORODI: This is Irma Olguin. And her hometown isn't exactly known for innovation.

OLGUIN: Yeah, Fresno is a place that you drive through to get to somewhere else.

ZOMORODI: If you do drive through Fresno, you'll see a very different kind of industry.

OLGUIN: You see miles and miles of ag land, which could look really different depending on the season. If something is in season, it's going to be green, and you might see the irrigation dripping. If it's not in season, you might see, you know, entire orchards being ripped out, piles of trees and wood waiting to be burned. If you are in raisin land, which is where my family spent its time, part of the process is that these giant sheets of paper are laid out in the dirt. You pick the grapes, and they are left to bake in the sun. It's like this really thick, almost sweet dusty smell that smells like home. It's really hard to put words to it.

ZOMORODI: How long have you and your family lived in Fresno?

OLGUIN: So my grandparents migrated from South Texas and from Mexico to California, following the crops, following the work. And they became field laborers right there in the Central Valley. My life is different from, say, my parents, who - all of their formative years were spent in the fields. And I did not realize necessarily that we were poor. Everybody that I knew at that time had a similar story to mine - immigrant parents or grandparents, farm labor being the story, never enough money, always trading, you know, rent for your electricity bill or your electricity bill for groceries, or - you know, it was always that.

And so you've got folks who have started with very little trying to make their way - claw their way to something else. And the stress of that and the sort of community around never having enough didn't feel abnormal to me. That was the truth and reality. It wasn't until much later that I realized that not everybody struggled in that way.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. And you actually got the opportunity to leave Fresno and go to college. I mean, that must have been quite a culture shock.

OLGUIN: Yeah. So I ended up with a scholarship offer across the country, in Ohio. And arriving there, it was just like, I shouldn't be here. I don't know any of the things that you guys know. I'm so far behind. You know, when I got my email address for the college, it was my very first email address ever. And they had to show me what that meant, like, what email was. And so, yeah, you just feel in so many ways like this is for other people.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) I mean, that's kind of crazy because you ended up getting a degree in computer science.

OLGUIN: That's right. I was very young in a place that I didn't know, understand or recognize. And I really wanted to take classes in the most beautiful building on campus. And for me, that was a glass building. It turned out to be the College of Engineering. And somebody said that that's where computer science took place, and there were computers, you know, scattered all over that building. So it was...


OLGUIN: ...It was serendipitous that I ended up being able to choose a major that I would never have seen for myself.

ZOMORODI: And how did it go?

OLGUIN: Well, getting a computer science degree was a slog. It was...


ZOMORODI: No, not easy.

OLGUIN: I won't say that it came easily to me. But it did feel pretty obvious over time that a person could muscle their way through this industry. I think there's, like, this mystery that surrounds the technology industry, which makes people believe that it's super hard and super for other people. But spending time in it, I got to see kind of how the sausage was made. And it was like, oh, there's a lot of different types of jobs inside of this industry and a lot of different places for folks even like myself.

ZOMORODI: When you say even like yourself - meaning that you didn't have a Ph.D. or that you were Latinx or - how do you mean?

OLGUIN: So there were a number of things where it felt like that phrase, even for me, comes in. First of all, I'm a woman. I am Latina. I was a queer young person in a time when being a queer young person was still really, really loud and, in many rooms, unwelcome. And so, yeah, there was a lot of even-for-me feeling. But more importantly, I felt like I didn't have to be a genius to be in the industry. I could be just me. I could put my shoulder into it and be tenacious and do the same thing I'd done all of my life, which was, you know, fight to survive. And I could find my place in this industry.

ZOMORODI: Irma Olguin picks up her story from the TED stage.


OLGUIN: Something miraculous happened. I got a job in tech. And I remember the first time I didn't have to count the change when trying to figure out how much to tip for pizza delivery, when I realized that this industry, the technology industry, was going to change my life forever. And I remember thinking to myself, if it can happen to me, a poor, queer, brown woman from nowhere, why can't it happen to entire cities of people like me?

ZOMORODI: So to find out the answer to your question, instead of going to Silicon Valley or New York, you decided to go back to Fresno.

OLGUIN: I did. It seemed like the only thing where I would sort of be able to live up to what the world gave me. So, yeah, it was a pretty simple decision. Go home, and figure out how to bring this back. All of these lessons - how do you give them away?


OLGUIN: And so for the last eight years, that's what I've been working on in Fresno - building a business that could expose what it takes to cause an entire city, and not just a select few people in it, to thrive.

ZOMORODI: Fast-forward a bit. You founded a company called Bitwise Industries. Can you just describe in a nutshell what you do?

OLGUIN: Yeah, certainly. So Bitwise - we build tech economies in underestimated cities, which is sort of fancy for, we ignite the technology industry in places where you don't expect to find it and invite people to that new economy that don't expect to be there.


OLGUIN: So the cornerstone of everything that we do is job training. The communities that we work with are often from very poor populations, maybe folks who are learning English as a second language. Maybe they were unhoused, the formerly incarcerated, veterans, folks who are very often from retail or factory work. These folks - their issue is not their ability to learn technical things. Their problems center on things that are a lot less obvious, things like child care, transportation, hunger, money. So those are the things that we focus on.

A person's ability to break into the technology industry has nothing to do with their ability to learn JavaScript or whether they were good at math in the fifth grade. What is a factor is creating room in that person's life to see if they're good at JavaScript or if they can be good at math. And to create room in a person's life, you really have to attack the things that stand in the way of that time.


OLGUIN: How do you justify learning to do something like write code when there are bills to pay? Wouldn't it be better for the family if you just got a job at McDonald's and put in as many hours as you can because that's a check? And who's going to watch your little brother? That's what we do as a family. We pitch in. But how do you justify to the people around you when it looks to them like you're just playing around on the computer?

We didn't invent a new way to teach JavaScript. We just focus a lot more on the things that actually prevent people from learning it. In addition to connecting our students to things like bus tokens and free regional transit options, we also just deploy a fleet of vehicles whose only job is to pick these folks up before their study groups and drop them back off after class. If they need food, we get them food. We work with food cupboards and pantries and making sure that boxes of food are delivered to these students' homes with enough for a family of three to five people. We connect them to child care options that make sense for their schedules and their budgets.

But most importantly, because cash is such a center of energy and decision-making for these families, through our apprenticeship program, we literally pay them to learn. So not only do they get to earn a wage and are exposed to real-world work, but now they also have that first line on the resume, the one that's so hard to get and the one that builds confidence in the rest of the world that you might know what you're talking about.

ZOMORODI: You know, it's interesting. You describe Bitwise as providing a technology education. But what you're really kind of doing is igniting an industry, a tech economy from the bottom up.

OLGUIN: Yeah. Once you remove those as the problems, now you've got access to a wide population of folks who have never been invited to this segment of the economy, who could take advantage of the jobs that exist in that economy and change the reality for the generations that come after them.


OLGUIN: And so you might be thinking to yourself, OK, Irma, this sounds great, but it sounds really expensive. So how do you pay for it? We've turned a long-held idea on its head. We have to stop putting the burden, the financial burden on the student and the families who are already struggling and start putting it on the people and the entities that benefit most from their untapped potential - entities like governments, corporations, philanthropy. These are the entities that benefit from the development of that talent, and so that's who we get to pay for it.

The U.S. spends a trillion dollars scaling up a workforce for this country. We apply for allocations of that same kind of money and use it to pay people to learn. We also work with corporations. We can train up entire cohorts or a generation of junior-level and apprentice-level technologists trained directly to their systems, ready to be hired on Day 1. We've worked with all kinds of companies, getting them to pay for things like tuition and money for students to accomplish exactly this goal. We've worked with over 5,000 students. And of those entering our career programs, over 80% earn technical employment.

And in Fresno, this means that that new technology workforce is greater than 50% female or gender nonconforming, greater than 50% minority or Latinx and 20% first generation. And those demographics mirror the demographics of our county. These are folks leaving restaurant, retail, factory and field labor earning on average less than $20,000 a year, exiting the programs earning 60 to $80,000 a year. And we can do this, you know? It's not at all a mystery. It's worked in Fresno. It's working in Bakersfield and Toledo, Ohio. And it can work in underestimated cities all over the world.


ZOMORODI: So you've been doing this for eight, nine years now. And have you started to see the city change as a result? And you mentioned other cities. What is happening in terms of not just the people in the program, but the places where they live? They're not leaving, I guess.

OLGUIN: No. No. It's one of the best parts of what we do. And by doing this specific work in underestimated cities, 90% of the folks that we train stay at home. That's where they want to be. They're not looking to leave. We talk about the lift from, you know, earning $21,000 a year to, in three years, 80-plus thousand dollars a year. But that is really just one ingredient in a person being able to participate in their community. And when people participate in their community, you see home ownership changing. You see reliable cars being driven. You see new businesses springing up. You see better support of local businesses that already exist. And you see people voting differently and leadership changing over time in that place.

ZOMORODI: But we know what happens, Irma, when tech comes into a city and makes the cost of living that much higher. It keeps out the people from whom you came. The families - are you worried that other families won't be able to afford to stay if you are - could you be a victim of your own success?

OLGUIN: I think if we forget who we are, we absolutely could be. But what we definitely don't want to do is create an unworkable situation for the next generation. I think the topic itself is, of course, complicated. There's a housing shortage across the nation. There's a lot more units that need to get built. So yeah, of course, we're asking ourselves that question - is, you know, can or should Bitwise participate in that? Or is there another way to attack the problem so that we're not perpetuating the issue of sort of gentrification? It's the last thing we want to do. But we're built for and by the community of a place. And we deeply, deeply believe that people who know and understand real problems can solve real problems.


ZOMORODI: It's all awesome, Irma. But, I mean, I have to ask - a lot of these jobs are entry level. And it makes me worried because when you look at job trends, you know, the next 10, 15, 20 years, these are the jobs that will likely get automated. Is it just a continual process that these people will need to be reskilled over and over again? Or, you know, I guess, what is the potential for some of these jobs?

OLGUIN: Well, the potential is pretty extraordinary. So I think that with the technology industry, we think about it. And I think a lot of times, you think about, oh, it's, you know, Google and Facebook. And it's Big Tech. But the truth is that just about all companies are becoming technology companies or technology-enabled companies. And that includes the school district. That includes the local hospital. That includes the, you know, county office of education and the nonprofit down the street, and Joe's Logistics on the corner.

And all of those being powered by technology, there's an incredible sort of gap in the industry right now where we actually need way more entry-level folks into the industry than ever before. And I think, importantly, that entry-level job is still transformative income. This is life-changing money and, by extension, community-changing money.

ZOMORODI: It sounds like your life is just completely different, much more than you ever could have imagined as a child. And now, like, in some ways, you want to help people realize that, you know, they can do this, too. And maybe they don't need to be so surprised or shocked at what they're capable of or what they can achieve. Like, everyone should have that opportunity. They shouldn't doubt it. And maybe they should even expect it.

OLGUIN: Yeah. You know, there are these moments - that experience where, during that very first job, pulling down a check I'd never seen four digits on before (laughter), you know? And you realize that, like, even without a whole lot of skill, you're going to out-earn anything you could have ever done, you know, in a different industry or in agriculture. It was a really big deal for me. But then you have to ask yourself what kind of person you're going to be when you are not constantly in survival mode. That is awesome.

And there's a lot of agency there. There's a lot of accomplishment. But it's so dark. Your entire existence, you understood the world to be one thing, which was a fight. And you put on your armor every single day. And you go get it. And now you realize that there's a different way to exist. And you have to ask yourself, well, what am I going to do with my armor? Is that still mine? Do I carry that around? So, yeah, there is a lot of questioning yourself.

I'm talking to you today from a pretty nice hotel room in a pretty nice city. And I got here on a plane that I never would have dreamed of 15 years ago, taking this trip to think about the expansion of our company. But it's not comfortable. I don't know if I'm ever going to feel comfortable taking advantage of all of the privileges that are afforded to me by this work. And so what do you do with that angst? The only thing I know how to do is to put that energy back into the work and make sure that you're not the only one who gets to experience these moments.


ZOMORODI: That's Irma Olguin, the co-founder and CEO of Bitwise Industries. You can see her full talk at On the show today, work - the first part in our series Work, Play, Rest. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

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