It was a chilly Friday night in October 2013. Jacob Martinez was walking around the farmers market in downtown Watsonville, California, near the community college extension center, when he saw a young woman sitting outside the center, wearing a thin sweater, working on her laptop.
As Martinez got closer, he realized he knew her. Martinez had worked in the education tech space for about a decade and was involved with various programs aimed at connecting underserved youth with tech skills. This young woman was a former student from about eight years prior.
He went up to her and said hello, and asked her what she'd been up to, and why she was sitting outside in the cold.
She said she was studying at the community college now and working on a research paper, but the library was closed, her family didn't have internet at home, and she couldn't afford to buy a coffee at Starbucks so she could use their Wi-Fi. Her best — and basically only — option was to use the extension center's Wi-Fi, but since it was closed for the night, that meant she had to sit outside.
"That just hit me," Martinez said, "Here's this girl with tons of aspiration, hitting these barriers because of access."
For Martinez, this was the fabled last straw that made him start working to establish Digital NEST, a collaborative space that offers high tech and professional skills training to young people ranging from 12 to 24 years old.
That young woman was representative of much of what Martinez has seen through the years. Prior to founding Digital NEST, he worked for nonprofit ETR Associates, which received government grants for workforce development, with a special eye toward diversity. After doing multiple research projects on diversity in tech, he got interested in tech education, and started programs for kids with little or no access to technology.
Since Watsonville is about 45 minutes outside of Silicon Valley, he was able to take those kids to visit companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Cisco. They'd get all fired up seeing all these unconventional workspaces, and decide on the spot they wanted to someday work at places like those, but when the visits were over, they had to go back to a best case scenario of old, malfunctioning computers that were missing keys at their schools; and at worst, not even that.
He saw it over and over. High aspirations, high barriers.
So, shortly after that cold night in October, Martinez grabbed coffee with a friend who is the CEO coworking company NextSpace.
"I was like 'Wouldn't it have been cool if there was like a coworking space for her to go to? And we provide all the tech?' and he was like, 'Yeah, it's a good idea, you should totally do it,'" Martinez said.
All that's happened since has been fairly whirlwind, and you can still hear excitement in his voice when Martinez recounts it. By January, he'd secured a $100,000 donation from a venture capitalist to get the NEST started. Adobe offered their software. Lynda.com offered free, unlimited licenses for their professional accounts. The Packard Foundation kicked in $30,000 in seed money. Basically a year to the date that Martinez got coffee with his friend from NextSpace, Digital NEST opened its doors.
Digital NEST works on two primary levels — the first is providing access to tech, and also providing access to a diverse community. It's modeled after companies like Google and Apple, so there's plenty of food, the furniture is moveable, and it's just a cool place for kids to set up shop.
The second level is education. Digital NEST offers short courses they call Institutes that cover everything from how to write a resume, to graphic design, coding, and videography. Basically, any tech skills that could lead to a job, Martinez said.
It's impossible to explain the mission of Digital NEST without getting into the much larger, flawed ecosystems of both the tech industry and the plight of a community like Watsonville.
Though it sits so close to Silicon Valley, Watsonville is nothing like the primarily white, male, middle class world of tech. Watsonville is mostly an agricultural community that's roughly 80% Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest US Census data. Only about 9% over the age of 25 have bachelor's degrees or higher. The median household income is about $43,000, which is about $20,000 less than the rest of the state. Martinez said a large chunk of the population is farm workers, and the city's suffered a lot economically.
But the thing is, Martinez said, that there's plenty of industry in Watsonville, like Driscoll's, which is the largest berry company in the world, and Martinelli's, which is a big apple cider company. There's the boating company West Marine, and there's even granite construction.
When Martinez has met with companies like Driscoll's, he's quickly told that only 40% of their jobs are in the fields, and that there are other better paying jobs within the company — but they just can't recruit in Watsonville because no one has the skills.
"That's bottom line what digital NEST is about — is economic development," Martinez said.
He imagines how Watsonville could change if 40, 50, or 60 kids from the community landed jobs that paid at least $40,000 — how that could end up lifting up the entire community.
"A lot of the things that are tied to low-income communities like homelessness and gang violence and rates of diabetes, teen pregnancy, and high school dropout rates, all of those things are associated with economics. If we could raise, economically, communities like this, then we'll see all those negative things decrease," he said.
An effort like this takes a lot of time, resources, and buy-in. Martinez is able to use his connections to get companies like Dell, Netflix, and LinkedIn to come in and teach. And hopefully, eventually hire some of these kids. And as diversity continues to be an issue that's painfully slow to resolve, a place like Digital NEST could be a steady, reliable, and nearby talent pool from which to draw — NEST members are 80% Latino, and 40% female.
In the meantime, there's still a lot to overcome.
Martinez talked about one young man who had come in with no tech skills, but took an interest in videography. Not long after joining, he was able to enter a contest to create an environmental video and his submission won a cash prize. But having recently turned 18, he approached Martinez with an all too common problem: His family relies on him to help earn money. Being 18 means he could work 12 hours a day, six days a week in the fields. He was trapped.
But because he'd developed these video skills, Digital NEST was able to help him find a part-time job doing videography work. So, he could earn money for his family while honing his skills, and still had the time to come to Digital NEST.
"I tell the kids that come through the door — our job is to get you paid, and that's what we're trying to do because there is so much opportunity to financially move up for upward mobility within tech, and there's huge demand for workforce," Martinez said.
Demand is a keyword these days. They've got kids coming in from surrounding communities. Sometimes, Martinez said, they run out of computers.
Soon, though, Digital NEST will be moving into a larger, permanent facility which they'll design and build out from — it'll be four times as big as where they are now. They're also in talks with another community about opening a second location. And beyond that, Martinez said he's gotten calls from other cities across the countries who are interested in the establishing something like Digital NEST.
"We haven't even celebrated our one year anniversary of being open and all this is happening. It's been amazing and scary at the same time," he said.
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.