Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Out of the Crisis #20: the founders of Bitwise on the role of technology in empowering people, spreading benefits to underserved communities, and the creation of OnwardUS

Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin started Bitwise in 2013 with the idea that the technology industry could be used to fix a city--in their case, Fresno, CA. "Our fundamental thesis is that people of color, women, communities of concentrated poverty, have immense talent to contribute to the technology industry," Jake explained to me. "In addition, those humans, collectively, are the majority of America and they reside disproportionately in non-primary markets. That thesis to us, doesn't feel controversial. It feels really, really obvious."

In order to do that, they decided three things were crucial: teaching people to code, creating a sense of place around the tech industry, and proving it's possible to build and ship world-class software from places like Fresno. Seven years later, they've trained about 5,000 students and created over 1,000 new technology jobs in Fresno. 200 technology companies have chosen to locate in the city's downtown, occupying 250,000 square feet of space. In other words, they've more than proved their plan can work--so much so that Bitwise now operates in two more cities and plans to keep growing.

When the pandemic hit, Irma and Jake turned their attention to another problem. They founded Onward, a platform that matches displaced workers--usually, hourly workers--to industries that are hiring rapidly right now. The goal, Irma said, was: "Let's answer the requirements of this moment in helping people survive. And let's do that in a way that feels genuine to us." Onward provides "life essential services: food, shelter, money, childcare, training, and jobs" really running the gamut of what people need to move through the pandemic's impact on employment. The platform is currently in ten states and serving hundreds of thousands of people.

The three of us spoke about the role of technology in empowering people, spreading its benefits to historically underserved communities, our currently broken employment system and why they believe it can be fixed, and more. As Irma told me, "We don't have to wait for serendipity. We can be deliberate about these things. We can get folks to see their lives differently."

You can listen to my discussion with Jake and Irma on Apple, Google, or wherever you like to get podcasts.


A full transcript is beneath the show resources below.


Highlights from the show:

  • Jake introduces himself  (2:58)
  • Irma introduces herself (3:13)
  • Irma discusses quarantine and finding the equanimity to lead a company right now (3:33)
  • Jake's quarantine and perspective on the pandemic and where we are (5:48)
  • The current situation in Fresno (8:31)
  • Why they chose Fresno as Bitwise's headquarters and Irma's background (10:34)
  • Why she went back to Fresno after college (14:28)
  • The choice of entrepreneurship instead of the corporate ladder (17:31)
  • Jake's background in Fresno (20:46)
  • Irma's first entrepreneurial steps and how Bitwise came to be (22:56)
  • How Irma started a software competition in Fresno and met Jake (26:37)
  • Jake's take on how and why Bitwise came to be (29:26)
  • Why Irma wants to empower others and staying true to that mission (33:51)
  • Bitwise's growth trajectory and where it is right now (35:23)
  • The creation of Onward California (41:03)
  • What OnwardUS does and how it works (45:29)
  • The surprises in building Onward and the disconnection in unemployment services (47:29)
  • Irma gives an example of the kind of person they aim to help (51:54)
  • Their hopes for the future of Onward (53:34)
  • On how present circumstances have revealed a broken system and why Jake is optimistic (55:51)
  • What success looks like (57:54)
  • The importance of universal basic income (UBI) (58:09)
  • Irma's hopes and dreams for what's next (1:00:24)
  • How to ensure we don't waste this opportunity to rebuild something better (1:04:12)
  • How we get out of the crisis (1:06:22)

Show-related resources:

Transcript for Out of the Crisis #20: Bitwise

Eric Ries: This is Out of the Crisis, I'm Eric Ries. We are still reeling from the first order of consequences of the pandemic, but we are also starting to see the second and third order effects, unemployment, hunger, mass bankruptcy, and the inequity and injustice of this crisis. One of these effects that we are just beginning to understand the magnitude of is unemployment. It's becoming clear that there are two types of unemployment rippling through our economy. There's unemployment caused by the lockdown and unemployment caused by the recession caused by the lockdown. The scale of the problem is immense. So what are we going to do?

To me, it is clear that we need widespread retraining to make sure no one gets left behind in the new world that we are building. Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin are the founders of a company called Bitwise. They have been working on this injustice for a long time. Since 2013, Bitwise has supported people learning new skills in what they call underdog cities like Fresno, Bakersfield and Merced. Bitwise was shaping up to have a great 2020. Their programs teach software programming and IT proficiency to people who have historically been excluded from those fields, and connects their graduates with tech companies around the country. When COVID hit, Jake and Irma jumped into action. They created a program called Onward California in partnership with the State of California and with the support of governor Newsom.

The program puts displaced workers in contact with resources for essential life services, retraining opportunities and new employment. Their model in California was so successful they eventually created a new organization, Onward US, dedicated to putting American workers displaced by COVID-19 back to work. They are now operating in nine States. Their efforts in this crisis have been admirable, but as Jake and Irma made clear in our conversation, this is not enough, we need a widespread, fully funded WPA scale effort to put Americans back to work. Job retraining, up-skilling, in-sourcing manufacturing, these are necessary components, but they are not enough. What is needed is a commitment that nobody be left behind in the new normal we are collectively trying to build.

I'm grateful to programs like these that will help get people back to work, but by themselves, they will not solve the inequities of the old system. For that set of challenges we will need to be even more ambitious and determined. We will need to take inspiration from people like Jake and Irma. Here's my conversation with the founders of Bitwise.

Jake Soberal: Hi, my name is Jake Soberal. I am the co-founder and CEO of Bitwise Industries. We're a technology company headquartered in Fresno, California, and together with the Kapor Center in Oakland have partnered to deliver Onward US, which is an initiative to put thousands of Americans back to work.

Irma Olguin: My name is Irma Olguin, I'm the co-founder and CEO of Bitwise Industries. A company headquartered in Fresno, California. Grew up here in the Central Valley of California, left for early work and career in college, bounced around North America for a while, returned home to start this company.

Eric Ries: How are you doing, say a little bit about how you're handling the quarantine and what life has been like since we all started sheltering in place?

Irma Olguin: For my personality, sheltering in place and staying home and sort of nesting and those types of things, it's actually really natural for me and I don't miss as many things as one might think. And I certainly don't feel the same as folks that are on my team, but I definitely am disturbed by the world around me at the moment. So from a very, very personal micro level, I'm doing great. I'm healthy, I've got everything I need. And I don't mind staying home, on a macro level and just looking at what is happening in the world around us, that is hard to take.

Eric Ries: I think a lot of us are feeling that way. This is the contrast for many of us, between kind of being safe and cozy and warm at home and consuming this bad news. You read a newspaper or go on social media, the headlines are just apocalyptically dark. How have you managed your own psychology and how have you managed to kind of maintain the equanimity that's needed to lead a company during these times?

Irma Olguin: I think the good news in this time of rare uncertainty is that the decisions are relatively black and white in terms of what's good for the health of human beings, that of course sort of clashes with what's good for the health of a company. It just so happens that my disposition will always lean toward the health of human beings, it is part of who I am. And so decision making still feels very black and white. I think where things become disturbing or unsettling is when you watch what's happening in different areas of the country with leaders who are making decisions that you wouldn't make, and I think that that becomes hard to watch over and over and over again. Or maybe they're not leaders, right? Maybe we are talking about community servants or folks we previously thought were community servants. And that disappointment, I think that is the biggest lift for me right now is to manage my own disappointment.

Jake Soberal: So I feel like I'm in a pretty privileged spot. We've got a wonderful home just North of downtown Fresno here and are safe and have room, and the like. That being said, like it's just such a weird time. And so, I think I entered shelter in place believing that, well, I was just going to do my work from home and Sarah, my wife was sort of just going to do what she normally does. I don't think I realized how dramatically her world would be impacted. And then in turn, like things would just shift for our family. Like the absence of school, the absence of activities has, I think just turned up the volume on everything. And as a family, we've had to find new rhythms and figure out how to be sort of the best version of ourselves in this moment. And that's, I think been like, the six weeks or so have been a big adjustment on all fronts, but starting to find something of a rhythm in this really weird time.

Eric Ries: Can you share just from your perspective where we are in this crisis?

Jake Soberal: Oh gosh, I think we've barely left the batter's box, particularly as it relates to things like economic recovery, if we can even begin to talk about that as something that has begun. I don't think we have from my vantage point, not a medical perspective at all, but I don't think we have our arms around the health crisis, and I don't think we are talking even honestly about the depth of the economic crisis.

Eric Ries: It seemed to be my experience talking to folks and seeing our leaders, it just seems like we are in complete denial about the severity of what has happened and the scope of the response that is going to be required to begin the recovery process.

Jake Soberal: Yeah, I think that's right, realizing that we have a third of Americans that are out of work and the impact that that has in virtually every direction means that we've just got work to do with almost every area of society, whether that is how we think about going back to school, how we think about putting people back to work, the reality that most of us are thinking that we're going to put people back to work in the same or similar jobs when that's not going to be the case. I think that there is just quite a lot to figure out and we are getting ready to launch a podcast next week called Onward On-Air and Jim Fallows, a reporter for the Atlantic was on and one of the things he kept emphasizing is at a leadership level we need to provide empathy, hope and a plan. And I don't think we have anything resembling a plan.

Eric Ries: So let me get this right. Empathy, hope and a plan.

Jake Soberal: Yeah.

Eric Ries: Yeah. Oh my God, that shouldn't be such a high standard to hit and yet here we are.

Jake Soberal: No, no. And for me, I mean, it's putting words to something that you feel and Jim is just a super wise dude, but it felt right, and it also felt like it exposed a glaring void or vulnerability.

Eric Ries: Talk a little bit about the situation in Fresno. How are things there?

Irma Olguin: Fresno has always been this challenging place. We don't live on a coast, we live literally in the middle of the state, the driving industry here and since always has been agriculture. And so in the best of times, if you're responsible for feeding between 20 and 30% of the world's population, that's going to consume your thoughts and consume the economy, and you've got to put people to work to do that specific job. In a pandemic when the food supply chain, and really just like the way that people get food, even if you don't think about their consumption is not just critically important, it's life or death. And so I think that you see lots of protections and lots of effort being put into protecting that food supply chain. But I think it's also exposed places where it is weak and where there's opportunity to make life better for a great number of people.

That's really sort of off to the side of what we do at Bitwise, which is we're focused on the technology industry or have been focused on the technology industry and providing opportunity to folks who came out of other places, usually from a story of poverty and sort of provide them that upward mobility. And so I think the question for us in this moment is like, how do you marry those two things together? How do we keep providing opportunity, but also really pay attention to where and how people are able to eat and where and how people are getting their jobs. So I think Fresno being that challenging place, oddly enough, has sort of prepared us for this moment, because it's never been easy. There has never been a day in our company's history or even I think in our personal lifetimes, when you think to yourself, man, Fresno is the place to be because this is the lap of luxury.

Eric Ries: Why'd you choose Fresno, given the challenges of so many things, including running a company compared to some of the other more famous cities in the world?

Irma Olguin: I think choosing Fresno as home base is--it really like gets to like a very personal question for me, at least. I was through no fault of my own, through no grand plan of my own afforded a number of opportunities to go to school and to do some really neat and interesting work as a computer engineer and then start a bunch of companies and have some success there. And that is very, very solidly not the story of folks who grow up the way that I did and like many of our citizens have. And so for me, this is home. I want to make my home better, but I think even a layer deeper is I want people who have that story to have this outcome as well, or at least for this outcome to be possible. If we can get more young people who grew up in rural California to imagine their lives just a little bit differently, I think we actually do create a better world. And so that's why Fresno, I think we can do that here and it would be hard to make the case somewhere else.

Leaving Fresno was unexpected for me. It's not what I saw for myself that wasn't part of my life's goals, but going and seeing a completely different culture and sure it's still in the middle of the United States, which there's an argument to be made that it's not that different, but going from Fresno, California, or really more specifically Caruthers, California to Toledo, Ohio, for me for a West coast girl was culturally shocking. And it was really, really noticeable and there was this like layer of discomfort all the time, knowing that you are the only one like you in the area and being sort of faced with that again and again and again. And I think a lot of people experience some version of that, right? Where you're the only woman in a boardroom or you're the only woman in your technology program, your degree program or your training program, or, and on and on.

I think for me, like I was so used to hearing different languages spoken and for instructions from my mom and grandmother to be half in English and half in Spanish and for dinner to regularly consist of tortillas and beans. Like to go from that, to experiencing none of that, really, almost ever, you notice it, you never really lose your awareness of that. And so you're always trying to consciously or subconsciously figure out like how to work this new system. What does it look like to look like you belong in this different culture and not signal to everybody that you don't have the same background, the same story. But it was also wonderful, while that was challenging and new and in some cases frightening, it was a wonderful experience and I got to do all kinds of things, including study alongside of some of the smartest people I've ever met and learn under some folks who've done wonderful, wonderful work in the technology industry and to experience weather that I would never otherwise experience.

Like all of these new things, it was a rush. It was the most difficult period of my life bar none. But I think coming out the other side of that, I'm so, so grateful for that experience. I think it has shaped the way that I approach life and work today. And yeah, I'll never let that go.

Eric Ries: You graduated with a tech degree?

Irma Olguin: I did. I have a bachelor's in computer science and computer engineering.

Eric Ries: So talk about what you saw as your choices at that point. You must've felt like there was a world of opportunity in front of you. How did you sort through what you wanted your next step to be?

Irma Olguin: Planning my next steps has never actually been a strength of mine, it's a little bit more animalistic, I think, than that, whereas I know and respect people who have this grand plan for their lives. And in fact, my co-founder is one of those, right? Jake is absolutely the young man, the six year old boy who knew exactly what he was going to be doing when he was 36. That was never me. I think I'm very much like there's a bone over there that I want and I'm going to go and get it with my teeth. Right? And it's hard to see the next bone and the next bone when you don't really sort of think about it in a long term trajectory sense. And so when I went to school, it was because school had become an option suddenly, it wasn't part of a plan.

And then when I was leaving school, there were a certain subset of jobs that were then available to me. And then, there was a tragedy in my family and I ended up wanting to come back and be around family and realized that the best version of my career and whatever was going to happen next was going to be nearby them and affecting their specific lives. And when I say family, of course, I mean my biological family, but I also mean my chosen family, my community and the folks that I grew up with. Maybe not by name, but archetypally, that was the family that I wanted to affect. And so those choices, it feels like life has almost made those choices for me. And I feel as though every time a new opportunity is presented, it just makes crystal clear sense in the moment and it feels obvious and right that I do that thing next.

Eric Ries: When you made the choice to live elsewhere, did you feel like you had to give something up career wise?

Irma Olguin: Well, when I originally left California, you're giving up all of that community and support for sure. And for someone who grew up around a lot of people that are kind of--you miss your pack. You're a litter of puppies and then suddenly you're not with your litter any longer, so that was hard. And then leaving, going and experiencing the wider world, getting an education, doing computer engineering work in a bunch of different places, there's momentum that's built there, you're gathering connections and your network and experience and job opportunities and et cetera. So sure, to return home was in every way, starting over again from a professional lens. I had no network on the West coast. I had no job prospects on the West coast, I was going back to my litter, but I was not bringing any of that professional help with me. And so yeah, I think I gave away probably what could have been a lifetime of climbing the corporate ladder and traded that instead for entrepreneurship.

Eric Ries: It's such an interesting example of how privilege operates in our society, where some folks have the opportunities and family and all those conveniences. It's kind of all wrapped up into one and it creates this kind of glide path for them into conventional kinds of career success. And others are forced to make really difficult trade-offs like that. But what I think is so interesting about it is I've gotten to meet many people who have been on that glide path, who climbed the corporate ladder. And of course that many of us who are more of the misfits who have wound up in entrepreneurship, and there's actually a kind of a rich reward that comes with being off the beaten track and away from those centers of power. So you made the choice to go into entrepreneurship, to abandon those kind of professional supports. What was it like?

Irma Olguin: It felt natural. It was as though I figured out what I should be doing with the experience I was so recently afforded because I think that designing my own life, but also getting to figure out ... getting to determine how I was going to participate in the world, felt natural. Whereas, taking the job at X company, advancing to Y position, attaining Z salary, didn't feel natural. It felt as though I had become part of a machine and couldn't really find myself in it. So entrepreneurship while extraordinarily difficult from the perspective of like what it takes and what it asks of you is its hard to see a different version of my life anymore, because it's so much a part of like who I am to be able to say, we're going to go after this kind of business or this kind of deal, because it has a profound impact on lives. And getting to say that, and not having to sort of triple check that with everybody around you is worth it. It's worth how difficult it can sometimes be.

And I think too, the transition into entrepreneurship also lends itself to a mindset of like, you've just got to put down things that don't work a lot faster than in any other version of your professional life. And so that, again, that too feels natural. This thing is not working, we're not going to do it anymore. Let's try another thing, that changes the way that you look at success and failure and goals and shapes it into something I think is more attainable for the vast majority of us. So even though, again, this path is difficult from a personal emotional level, from the flexibility it affords a person to try things. And if you can really sort of sit in that mindset, and I think Eric, you know this. You wrote the book on this, literally. If you can do that, if you can put yourself there, you can bring other people with you into that mindset. And I think that there's a great power in that.

Eric Ries: Yeah, it's an incredible feeling when that team kind of comes together in defense of a common vision. What were you doing before the pandemic? How you came to run a major technology company in Fresno. That's not exactly people's first association they have with Fresno.

Jake Soberal: Yeah. So I actually grew up here in Fresno. And actually in a suburb just to the north and east of town. Like a lot of kids who grew up here, you begin to think the best and most exciting version of your future exists somewhere else. And that is what guided me, like many others, to pursue school and early career elsewhere. Bouncing around the country, went to school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Did law school in Southern California and had no intention of coming back. I did though cherry pick an externship opportunity during law school for the court of appeal here in Fresno, which was a good gig, but candidly I thought the kids from Stanford and Berkeley won't apply.

So it would be easier to get the good externship in Fresno than it would be in LA. And so I did, and I landed the gig and came back and started digging in. And I shared a number of times that the work was fine. What was the most impactful piece of that summer was the realization that I was deeply drawn to this place. And I felt as though the most impactful best version of my story of myself was here. It was the place where I can do the most good. I didn't know what that would look like. Then came back as a sort of a young intellectual property attorney, working for a wonderful firm here in town. Dug in and not so long after that began representing this upstart five foot nothing Latina founder from Caruthers, which is a rural town to the south and west of Fresno. That of course is Irma Olguin, who is the co-founder of Bitwise.

We very quickly realized that we had a shared vision for something better and different in Fresno. And I think in each other, found not only that high ambition, but somebody that we believed could pull it off. And began dreaming around what that might look like.

Eric Ries: What was the first thing you tried? What was your first entrepreneurial steps?

Irma Olguin: Well, it's not glamorous, but the first I tried as an entrepreneur, it was out of necessity. When I first returned to California, I was, again, without job prospects, without a network. And I lived in rural California. I was not in a city center, and so things like internet and reliable vehicles, all of those things were hard to come by at first. And so my first entrepreneurial experience, returning to California, was cleaning out pantries and garages of other people, and then selling the wares; the crock pots, the guitars, the leather jackets that you find in those places. Selling those things at the flea market on the weekend. And trying to figure out sort of one nickel at a time, one quarter at a time, what your profit margin is going to be for the week. And whether or not you can turn that into lunch, or can you turn that into a tank of gas? And can you turn that tank of gas into an interview?

It was a journey, but that was my first entrepreneurial experience. Was selling sort of thrift store level things at a flea market.

Eric Ries: How did that lead ultimately to starting Bitwise?

Irma Olguin: Gosh, I mean, when you're scrounging and scraping for your tank of gas. The victory that you feel when you realize that you're in a position to not scrape and scrounge for those things any longer, I don't think... I'll never forget what it feels like to not count the change. And to be able to give that feeling to other people or help them find that feeling. That's what Bitwise is about. Sure, we use technology as the tool to make that possible, but ultimately it's about agency. And I can't see myself living my life in a way where my time is not directed in making that possible for other people.

The path to Bitwise was not a straight line, for sure. It went from selling things at a flea market, to picking up some side jobs, building websites, to sort of accidentally accepting a challenge to start a nonprofit in the coding competition.

Eric Ries: Well, how did you do that accidentally?

Irma Olguin: I was earning these contracts, these web development contracts, and then being relatively desperate and new, building out my network. If somebody asks me to connect a printer, I would take that job too. And ended up building this client base and a reputation for doing almost anything that touched electricity. Right? I would pull cables, I would connect networks, I would build websites, I would form teams. It was just all over the map. And I remember what ended up happening was that I was doing that for this... It was an incubator. It was a very small incubator in Fresno. All of those different jobs, connecting printers and what have you. And the CEO of that place, at the time, comes to me one day and he says, "Irma, why are you the only person that I've ever met in Fresno who knows how to do these things?"

And I remember looking back at him and saying, "Because you don't hang out in the right places. The folks who do these things, they're wearing hoodies and flip flops and they have their heads down in Starbucks for four and five hours at a time, and they're writing code for eBay. You don't know them because that's not your crew." That statement was met with disbelief, and basically he said, "Prove it." And so I did. I set out to prove it. Started a software competition to draw folks out of the wood works, that I knew were doing this work silently, quietly, their own sort of single-person technology industry in the heart of California. And wanted to bring them together in a very public way. And so offered cash prizes and got a bunch of sponsors. And through this competition, it was a raging success.

And in a single day, something like a 100 or 150 new technologists were exposed to the world that didn't know they were there. And that was cool, that was a cool feeling. And ran that competition for, want to say five years. And it was actually at that competition and the nonprofit that ensued, that was my first touch point with Jake, who is my co-founder. It was a recent transplant back into Fresno. As the story goes, he was looking around for "Who's doing the technology stuff in Fresno?" He kept hearing my name and he reached out one day and said, "I want to sit on your board. I want to sit on the board of this nonprofit." And yeah, can't say that it was smooth sailing from there, but that was the very first interaction where I thought this is an impressive man.

I disagree with his choice of career. I think being an attorney is maybe not the lifelong sort of goal for this guy, but I'm interested to see where this relationship goes. That led to a fast friendship, honestly. We got into great and wonderful fights together. It was a ride, and here was this person who is at least as smart as I am, if not more, who just wants to disagree with everything that I said, but would actually listen when it turned out that I might be right. And I thought that that was refreshing and different and challenging for me to have to deal with somebody who could be wrong. He ended up becoming my representation for a different company that I started. He was our IP attorney. And again, we were friends through that process. We ended up sharing our frustrations around what was not happening in our city. This really, really challenged place. Like why couldn't we be something else or become something else. In pursuit of that answer, we started Bitwise.

Jake Soberal: I have so many things to correct.

Eric Ries: Yeah, Jake.

Irma Olguin: Oh, I dare you.

Eric Ries: I was going to ask who wins most of the arguments?

Jake Soberal: Irma. That's not a good question.

Irma Olguin: I thought I was going to get through that whole thing unscathed. I couldn't even hear you breathing.

Jake Soberal: Yeah, where do I begin in correcting the record here? First of all, Irma is a genius. I talk nice. And so the intelligence question is not in play, but I think the most important thing substantively that I think was sort of glossed over there is we tend to... Even as entrepreneurs, fundamentally we're disrupting something, we're trying to do something in a way that it hasn't been done before. We tend to get locked into, "Well, this is the way things work." And what I think you heard in that, like "I accidentally created a software development competition," is actually not quite right. I think that one of Irma's real gifts is that... What was being said there by the CEO she was speaking to, is that, "We can't do technology in Fresno because we don't have the talent." And Irma's response was, "No, no, no. The problem is you don't know how to find the talent. One, and you haven't done anything to create the talent. Two. And we can change that, we can build a system. We can build pipes for that."

And I think that becomes so profound, in that, Bitwise here is this big company now that is somewhat flashy and making meaningful amounts of money and having big investors and all of these sorts of things. But if you rewind the tape to the day that I was seeking out Irma, what Irma was doing is she had a software company where she said, "Well, I'm going to grow. And so I'm going to also sort of teach a cohort of people around me how to do the things I do." And so she had an Academy. "I need community in order to support those people and the idea that tech could thrive in Fresno." So she started a co-working space. "And then I, of course, need revenue for this." And so, as she described, "Fixed everything that touched electricity."

Irma had built the ecosystem that is Bitwise in it's sort of beta version just because it was natural to her to fix the whole problem, and not just a piece of it, that made things better for her. And I think that's a really, really big deal. And so much of what we do today at Bitwise was really where... And in my role, I was a very useful microphone to the work that Irma very naturally came to, and happily so. So really what you've just heard is the origin story of the work that today is Bitwise.

Eric Ries: That is actually a common trait among the very best entrepreneurs. You know, there's certainly people out there who are very self-aggrandizing and think everything they do is brilliant, but a lot of the really great entrepreneurs that I've had the chance to meet, they don't see their work as a big deal because they can't imagine doing anything else. So they can't imagine the world in any other way. And it's actually a common finding in the entrepreneurship literature, that people think of entrepreneurs as risk seeking. But actually, if you genuinely believe in your vision, it doesn't seem risky to you at all. It's the people around you who see it as risky. And so the attribute that is needed is the ability to help them cope with the stress and the anxiety of what they perceive as risk, but in your heart, if you see that Fresno can be a different way, the fact that that vision has not been realized for, I don't know how many decades you want to count it as, but for a very long time, it doesn't really matter.

And so I really appreciate both of you kind of sharing that prehistory of how this came to be, because I think it's important for people to understand how change actually happens in the world.

Irma Olguin: That's a really strong point, Eric. I got to say the idea that you really can't see it a different way, and it feels... Not to sound condescending, but in many ways it feels like this is an obvious next step. And we must do this if we're going to change X. I feel convicted by that every single day. Every single day, I feel like we must put this foot in front of the other in this direction, or we are not going to have the effect that we said we could have.

Eric Ries: What did you want to change with Bitwise?

Irma Olguin: I wanted folks to feel that same sense of empowerment that I currently feel in my life. And in my life story, I come from a family of field laborers. What I saw for myself was more field labor, right? Or the highest and best getting that job at the Texaco or the ACE Hardware and climbing the ladder to be management, right? Like that is what I saw for myself. And it didn't turn out that way. And when you look in the rear view mirror, the fact that it didn't turn out that way had nothing to do with this master plan that I had laid out for myself.

And it was really these moments of serendipity that continued to pop up. Certainly, I had to take advantage of those moments of serendipity, but it wasn't... Again, I did not puppet master myself to this place. Instead, I feel like life sort of shoved me at these opportunities. And that feels like a fixable thing. We don't have to wait for serendipity. We can be deliberate about these things. We can get folks to see their lives differently. We can get the training into their hands and provide the reliable vehicle, so that they can arrive at that training. We can help them get that first job. Like all of the things that led me to that moment, where I realized I was no longer counting the change, we can do that on purpose. So that's what we set out to do, and every day we have to ask ourselves, "Are we still doing that? Or are we just getting big?"

Eric Ries: Tell us a little bit about where Bitwise is today. What's the growth trajectory been like?

Irma Olguin: I believe the world thinks that we are growing quickly, Jake and I feel as though... If Bitwise lives in dog years, can we do that twice as fast? We are impatient, and in some cases, petulant and would like to do a lot more of the things that we are working on. We'd like to try a lot more things that factually won't work. When we set out to grow this thing, we wanted to build something that Fresno itself was going to be proud of. And then when we realized the impact that all of these moving pieces were having in Fresno, we had to ask ourselves from a moral obligation, "Is it on us to take this to other places that faced similar challenges and see if it works there as well?"

And so we set out to do that. I think that our lives and the trajectory has been interrupted by this pandemic, but largely we're making that same effort. "Can we change things for the folks among us who are the least advantaged, and help get them into positions where they have that agency in their lives? Onward was born out of that. is the platform we built to help shorten the time of displacement for folks who were being laid off in really great numbers in one industry. While we're watching these announcements on the news that other industries are surge hiring, can we matchmake? Can we put those things together? We wanted to accomplish that but then if you think about how that actually has to happen? A person needs dollars in their hands. Right?

They need food on the table. They've got to take care of these immediate needs even before they think about a replacement job, at whatever hourly rate or salary they were at before. That became Onward. Life essential services, job matching training resources. What we're doing with Onward, is the same thing that we were doing with the Bitwise ecosystem. It's just taken this format during a pandemic. When the world stops being on fire, do we want to go back to sort of the more, maybe not traditional to everyone but traditional to us, format of we ran in-person classes and we build wonderful buildings and we put those people into jobs, and we have this sort of ecosystem effect where the technology industry is activated in places where you don't expect to find it in the United States. Yeah, we would love to do that, but let's also answer this moment. Let's answer the requirements of this moment in helping people survive.

And let's do that in a way that feels genuine to us. So while our growth trajectory in the way that we announced to the world we would grow, is probably delayed a couple of months. We haven't stopped growing and executing on our mission during this time, and it's probably important now more than ever that we do that. So I think shooting the moon, we get to do this. The world stops being on fire, we go back to growing and we're across the United States changing lives and helping people get to that moment where they're not counting the change either.

Jake Soberal: I think there's something so important and strange about where Bitwise is at in its growth trajectory. Our fundamental thesis is that people of color, women, communities of concentrated poverty, have immense talent to contribute to the technology industry, which... Oh, by the way, sort of is the industry of our age. We're creating more opportunity and wealth than any other industry on the planet. In addition, those humans, collectively, are the majority of America and they reside disproportionately in non-primary markets. That thesis to us, doesn't feel controversial. It feels really, really obvious. The strange thing is that Bitwise is in three cities today. And in those three cities, we are the largest actor in the United States that is doing this work that is advancing this thesis. And so the world is beginning to say, "Man, you really did it." And Irma and I are looking at each other, and saying, "That's not even a rational statement." There is so much more work to be done. It's so profoundly obvious that we are neglecting the majority of talent that could be leveraged to grow prosperity on the planet, it just feels like this gigantic disconnect.

And so while we might be making venture capitalists quite happy in terms of our growth and return profile, et cetera, it doesn't feel as though the world really understands the work from an impact standpoint, or from a size of opportunity standpoint.

Eric Ries: So I'd like to get some more specifics from you, because I feel like we've been talking about this very conceptually but we're losing the human beings behind the story. So could you tell us about what actually happened behind the scenes that led to Onward California?

Jake Soberal: So we were, I think, just a couple of days into being fully remote as a team, and our thought process had been that step one was to get our team home and safe, and step two, and there were literally hours in between, was to think about what is our role in meeting this moment, particularly set against the context of Fresno. We're a venture-backed technology company with a bunch of cash, a bunch of really smart people. We've got a degree of privilege and influence, and we felt obligated to put that to work in a moment where there were needs emerging around us.

And so we tackled a couple of different things. We started a grocery program that ultimately grew to be one of the largest in the state. And then we began to think also about the fact that fundamentally in a non-pandemic setting, Bitwise is about helping folks without opportunity get opportunity. And what we were watching, here in Fresno, were our friends and neighbors by the hundreds lose their jobs, watching individuals literally in the buildings beside us at Bitwise, where we've got four downtown buildings, be laid off in the dozens.

And it felt as though the world was talking about unemployment as something that was coming, and it felt very present for us. And so we had not long after that a session set aside with Mitch and Freada Kapor of the Kapor Center, who are also investors in Bitwise, Mitch serves on our board. And I think it was a day or two later, we had been wrestling with these things, and then that conversation surfaced them and their hearts were in a very, very similar place.

And so in that conversation, I think we spent two or three hours together over Zoom, we began to not just say, "Okay, well, this is a big problem. We should do something about it." But to really like get tactical and well, "What could we do about it, and how would that work?"

And before you know it, we're sitting there with the founder of Lotus 1-2-3, architecting a system for putting America back to work. And it was pretty amazing. And then in their trademark fashion, without more, said, "We'll put up the seed donation to accomplish this, and let's call this person and this person and this person to see if they want to participate."

And all of a sudden Eric Schmidt is at the table, and MasterCard is at the table, and the folks at McClatchy, and on and on, and now we've got this coalition built. We are connected with the governor of California, who's saying, "Let's deploy this at the state level." It felt like it really gained immediate and fast momentum, but was born out of something that weighed heavily for us, and it weighed heavily for Mitch and Freada, and fortunate to be sitting in a spot in the world where there were enough resources in the room to begin to do something about it.

I think that what shouldn't be lost in there is that Bitwise's model fundamentally is about how do we raise up folks from a story of poverty, folks from communities of color, women, to be software engineers. And we do that via apprenticeship. So when we're talking about building all of these things, we're not talking about your conventional team that was ultimately responsible for building and deploying Onward. We're talking about folks who had come up in that apprenticeship model, women and people of color in Fresno, and in Oakland, and in Bakersfield. That because of the model that unearthed them, we're in a position to build a software platform in 11 days that will ultimately put tens of thousands of people back to work.

And that's a pretty profound circle of life, if you will, that was realized in such a short loop.

Eric Ries: Talk a little bit about what the platform does.

Jake Soberal: Yeah. OnwardUS is a web-based platform. At its core, it's built on Salesforce and WordPress. And what a user experience is for somebody coming to the website is hopefully it's communicating to you that this is a resource to help you find the things that you need on your way back to work, in addition to getting back to work. So the site takes in a little bit of information about the user, their identity, their preferred industry, their desired earnings, their education, et cetera. All of that is voluntary. But then what it uses that information to do, is dynamically then return the resources that are most relevant to you, the user. You, the job seeker, across three categories. Life essential services, so food, shelter, money, childcare, training, and jobs. And the idea is that one of the things that we do as a society, and it's well-meaning in a moment of crisis, is that we throw information, and lots of it, at the individual who's experiencing trauma.

And what Onward is endeavoring to do is both aggregate that information, but also organize it for the individual who's living through traumatic unemployment. And so that ability to match the resource to the human, based on the human's unique attributes, is really the fundamental functionality of Onward. And the hope is that Onward is... It's not an endpoint to anything. Onward is not the one hiring the individual, Onward's not the one training the individual. Onward is not the one providing groceries to the individual, but we want Onward to be a beginning point to everything that is necessary for the wide variety of stories and journeys back to work that are going on across our state and country today.

Eric Ries: Tell us a little bit about what surprised you in building this so far.

Jake Soberal: I think one of the things that was most surprising with Onward is the number of actors in this space, broadly workforce and systems of unemployment, and the like, and one, how much, really, really good work has been done in thinking about how we serve unemployed people, but two, how disconnected it is from one another.

And so you have this agency in this state, or this secretary of labor in this state, or this foundation in this other state that is thinking deeply about training, and how we match a person to training, or jobs and how we surface them to a job seeker, and on and on. But so terribly disconnected. And that was I think, somewhat alarming, because we're spending these same resources over and over, essentially 50 times across the country, to solve the same problem.

And I think that then the thing among that that stands out the most is just how complicated, and just how early days we are in in how match we human beings and people to training, to the training that is going to help them get to the thing that they want. Our system for doing that is really, really bad.

If somebody wants to get into say a construction job, how do we tell them what to do? Is there a pathway to go and try and get a job with a construction company, because there are construction companies that will hire them? Is it a better pathway to get an apprenticeship with a union, because that's a pathway into a really good paying job? Is there a pathway to go and get a degree in construction management from Fresno State University, because that's a good degree? Is there a pathway instead to go and get a two-year degree that's going to communicate that they have a base level of soft skills that are going to ready them for a wide variety of jobs potentially within the construction industry? All of those are viable paths. We have virtually no ability to help an individual make that decision. We simply leave them to it.

Irma Olguin: I'm laughing to myself over here because you are so much more muted about your opinion than... We're trash at this, like as a whole, we are bad at this. There doesn't appear to be one working system that is helpful in the way that you could talk about this makes sense to do this at scale.

Jake Soberal: It's absolutely true. So we drop folks off at the end of high school, if we are able to get them that far, and then we hope to meet them on the other side. That's literally our plan. And that I've given the example of a construction industry, now let's imagine any other industry. Software development. There are as many, if not more pathways. A career as a medical technician, same story.

Now throw a pandemic on top of that, and I have begun down my pathway and landed a job in the restaurant or food service industry. And now I'm not fresh out of high school, I'm not still living at home. I do not have a safety net. I've got to not only build a track, I don't have the option of going further in the industry I pick, I've got to build a track out of that industry and into a new one. The standard, we'll go to community college and then get your four-year degree, and then maybe get a master's degree, and then do this other thing, is gone. Your life has already spent those days. And so the problem of not being able to chart humans to training is exposed in a really profound and tragic way by the state of things today.

Irma Olguin: I think if you imagine a, and this is not any particular person, but I'm just building an avatar on my feet here, a 49 year old woman who has been a waitress at a diner for the last 28 years of her life, and maybe has raised a kid or two and they've recently flown the nest. In the pandemic, in this pandemic, she's lost her job. She's not looking for a re-skilling opportunity, she wants another waitress job. She's looking to recuperate lost income one-to-one, or as close to one-to-one as possible.

And we hear that story, the world at large I think hears that story. And we think, "Ah, let's get her into training so that she can become something else." I think we really need to take a long look at how we are thrusting that viewpoint onto other people, that that's not always what they're looking for, nor is it their life's goal.

I think the diner waitress at 48 is thinking, "Can I get something to do at roughly the same hourly rate and tip structure for the next four or five, six years of my life, and retire?" And I think that that for me, is a surprising piece in this process of building Onward, and deploying it to all of these different places, is how much we want to inflict that viewpoint onto other people, that they should up-skill or re-skill, or retrain into a better paying job. I would like for us to stop doing that, and instead make it possible for folks to meet their goals where they're at, in the way in which they want to meet them. That feels profoundly important to me.

Eric Ries: What do you hope for Onward going forward? How do you see it growing?

Jake Soberal: I think that we see two threads for Onward. The first of them is that we want the tool to continue to reach more people in more places, because we think it has great value in helping them get back to work. And so that is continuing to lean in to the present rollout. But I think that as important, particularly with our entrepreneurial lens on, it's revealing all of these gaps in things that are problems we're really interested in tackling. So for example, this surfaced a conversation with a good friend of ours, Michael Tubbs in Stockton, the Mayor of Stockton, who rolled out a couple of years ago a pilot program in universal basic income. And that's deeply related obviously to the idea of being a displaced worker.

And so we've been collaborating and in conversation around might we be able to accomplish a software platform that made the work that he's done with UBI in Stockton, and which is fundamentally getting dollars to financially poor people. And that's the challenge. Can we make that plug and play, such that if another mayor or county decides to adopt that, we can have a system ready to help them do so. And that's just one example of about a dozen, where the work of Onward has revealed gaps and problems that we're interested in solving.

And there's a broad coalition attached to it, where we're now thinking one-to-one conversations with a wide variety of them of, well, how can we do that? And that's really, really exciting, but it exposes a great depth of need.

Eric Ries: Has building this, I don't even know what to call it, it's a platform, it's like a part tech platform, part social service agency, quasi-public private model for what a 21st century response to a crisis might look like. Has building it made you more optimistic, or less optimistic about our situation?

Jake Soberal: It has made me less optimistic about the system that is in place. What I think present circumstances are revealing is not just a hard moment, but a broken system. The systems we have set up for putting people back to work, for serving them while they're out of work, for making sure that people get a proper wage in the job that they're in, for any number of different things, are broken. They're not working well. What leaves me though optimistic, are the human beings at work on the problem. And so what I mean by that is you have Joe Barilla, the secretary of labor in Colorado, who is coming at this work in a holistic way, and engaging community partners to think about, openly, about how they make their system better. You have Schmidt Futures that is just pouring out money to solve problems all around them.

And you have the Kapor Center which is stepping up to the plate in about 100 different directions to do something that matters in a difficult moment. And so the human beings that we're interacting with. Governor Newsom in California, they're the right people, we have the right stuff to solve this problem. So we're optimistic that this is a moment where we can begin thinking differently about how we rebuild these systems, and not just rebuild the same systems that advance the same inequities.

Eric Ries: Just move them into the cloud, and make them 20% more efficient at producing gravely unequal opportunities and outcomes.

Jake Soberal: That's exactly right. I'm optimistic that we can make different decisions in this moment that is measured by, I think, a reality that there's a window in time in which we get to make a decision about whether we're going to rebuild the inequities, or build something new and better.

Eric Ries: So what does success look like? What do you hope will happen if we build a new set of more just and sustainable institutions as part of the new normal, on the other side of this?

Jake Soberal: Oh gosh, I've got a list.

Eric Ries: Let's hear it.

Jake Soberal: I think that cities around the country begin adopting universal basic income.

Eric Ries: Talk about why that's important to you.

Jake Soberal: It is because of something that is an often refrain for us. And that is that there is something magical inside of every human being wandering around, we only get to experience that magic if that person feels as though they're secure enough to have food today, water today, a place to sleep today, and those require dollars.

And so if we can get everybody enough dollars for that base set of things, we get to experience their magic. If we do not, then we do not experience their magic. And we choose over and over again to not give the majority of human beings that opportunity.

I think that we need to lean in heavily in this moment to apprenticeship models, as a way back to work. Where we are doing something... Irma just put forward the commission around jobs recovery that was convened by Governor Newsom. It said, "We have been lamenting for decades, the need to rebuild the state's digital apparatus. This is the moment to do it, and it should be accomplished by thousands of apprentice software engineers that we're readying for industry when they finish that work." And in the process of doing that, could create tens of thousands of jobs. And you could take that same model and apply it to any number of different industries. I think that we have not thought deeply enough about what a proper minimum wage looks like. And as we put people back to work, why not pay everybody $20 an hour instead of what felt like a radical conversation around 15? And any number of different things in that category that think deeply, not just about how we get people back to work, but about how the work that we put them back into is something that could sustain the quality of life that any one of us would be satisfied in.

Eric Ries: Irma, what are your hopes and dreams for the new normal?

Irma Olguin: I'd like to take down some of the expectations. So we have been so ingrained in our culture. This is very pie in the sky, and it's hard to imagine....

Eric Ries: Well, so is building a major technology company in Fresno not that long?

Irma Olguin: I'm not without hope, but undoing some of those things that have become part of the fabric and fiber of these barriers to entry that we have stood up in a person's life journey, in some cases, that's college, in some cases, that's the ability to afford a home. There are lots of places... The ability to bank, honestly, let's go all the way to whether or not a person has access to a bank so that they can do normal things like have a legit cell phone, right? Or apply for a credit card, these things that we have stood up over time as barriers to entry in the way of life that I currently enjoy, now, to me, it feels like the moment to tear them all down. Why wouldn't we? They've been broken. The world broke them for us.

So I think that this is an opportunity to enact a bunch of different things. UBI, or universal basic income, is a really wonderful example of a thing that solves, could potentially solve a lot of those issues at once, if you sort of spider out from it. Where do folks bank if they are... if UBI exists? And what are the requirements for that? That's just one simple example. Look at the school system, right? Nothing about our school system works right now. It was built 100 years ago in a world where, literally, the time in the seat was the most important thing. And now, we're in a position where time and seat does not make sense. Can we rebuild that so that there's a different, important thing that we are watching or set of things that we are watching?

And if in fact, 50% or more of your schooling is going to take place online, then does it matter which district do you live in, or can this become a system for choosing where you go to school differently, such that you can enjoy the same benefits as the person on maybe the affluent side of talent or in the school district that has a reputation for doing a great job? Now is the time to rebuild those things and to rethink those things. But I think what we are facing is a world that's waiting to go back to normal. We long for that normalcy. Great chunks of that normalcy were trash.

Eric Ries: How do we make sure that we don't waste this opportunity? One of the recurring themes in conversations that I've been having has been the consequences of past crises, not just past epidemics, but past crises in education or in finance, and the times in history when we have reacted to crisis as an opportunity, and really used the facts of the crisis, the fact that there is tremendous labor and raw materials that are suddenly available, where the economy is no longer putting the pressure on every company, every organization to deliver everyone's 2020 plans. Everyone's 2021 plans are totally blown to hell. So sometimes, we retrench and retreat in the face of fear and despair when those things happen. And occasionally, it becomes an opportunity to lay the foundation of a more equitable, more sustainable future. So what's your view on how we make sure we don't waste this opportunity this time?

Irma Olguin: I think if we're not going to waste this opportunity, we have to get a lot more creative about what acceptable looks like, looking at things like training programs and what were the gates before to creating a training program that was recognized, being able to tear some of that down and say there are a lot of opportunities right now. It doesn't look like what the world used to look like. That mindset of the thing... the world that this thing was built in doesn't exist anymore is a complete mind shift. So I think in order to not waste this moment, we have to do a lot more letting go, a lot more saying this doesn't work anymore. It didn't work before. Let's not return to a thing that didn't work. Let's get really, really creative about what we think works now.

And really, I think adopting a lot of what you've been saying for years and years and years, which is we got to try some stuff, we got to do it quickly. We don't need to build out the whole thing to know whether it works. We just got to get to that, that MVP, that version that tells us enough data before we can make a new decision, I think we have to do a lot more of that. And I think that, thanks to your work and the work of others in the technology startup space in particular, that mindset is easy to come by. But I think when we were talking about systems that have been in place for 60, 70, 80, 100 years, those things, it's going to be really, really hard. So I think if we can adopt more of the mindset that we have to try and fail and try and fail until we get to a new MVP, it's going to be really hard to change anything. So, that's how I think we make the most of this moment is encouraging the folks who have power, decision making power, to try new stuff.

Eric Ries: Where do you think we go from here? How do we get out of the crisis?

Irma Olguin: I think the most sort of level headed version of this crisis is to accept that its ramifications will be with us for a long time in that folks who were recently laid off, it will take them a while to get back into jobs. We need to accept that school will not look or feel like what we expect school to look like. We have to accept that things like life events, right? Weddings, funerals, those types of things, it's going to look and feel different than before. But I think if we're ever going to get to a place where we recognize something that's normal, we have to give scientists time to do work. I mean, we've never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes, at least, where we're relying on one profession to sort of save the day.

But I think that this is it. We've got to give them time to come up with the therapies, to figure out whether or not a mask works, to come up with a vaccine that is not harmful. And that profession, we have to buy them time, and that means changing what we do for longer periods of time than we are comfortable giving them. On the other hand, on the other side of the coin, I think that they are working at light speed. We are seeing unprecedented announcements and the time to trial and all of these things that are really, really impressive. Meanwhile, we are at home, making our 17th batch of Rice Krispies treats and wanting to go back to normal where we can see our friends and have coffee together. We've got to buy them time. I think that, that's ultimately how we get out of this thing is if we can all be responsible citizens and give our fellow human beings who are doing the super hard work time to save us.

Eric Ries: Irma and Jake, I want to thank both of you for coming on and taking time out of what I know is such a busy time. And just, thank you for the work that you do. If we're going to get out of this mess, if we're going to have a better future, it's going to be thanks to entrepreneurs who build those new 21st century institutions. So, thank you.

Irma Olguin: Appreciate you, Eric. Longtime admirer of your work. Everybody in my industry of course knows who you are, and so it's an honor to have this discussion with you and to be able to just share thoughts.

Eric Ries: Thanks. That's very kind of you to say.

Jake Soberal: Thank you so much for having us. Really enjoyed the conversation here, and appreciate the work that you're doing with this podcast.

Eric Ries: This has been Out of the Crisis, I'm Eric Ries. Out of the Crisis is produced by Ben Ehrlich, edited by Zach McNeese and Sean Maguire, music composed and performed by Cody Martin, posting by Breaker. For more information on ways to get involved, visit If you or someone you know is leading an effort to make a difference, please tell me about it. I'm at E-R-I-C-R-I-E-S on Twitter. Thanks for listening. Please rate and subscribe wherever you like to listen.

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