If Silicon Valley wants to keep arguing that its lack of diversity is due to a talent pipeline problem, it’s going to have to answer to Jacob Martinez.
Martinez, founder and executive director of Watsonville-based nonprofit Digital NEST, is expanding on the vision of the NEST’s free tech training for youth with the launch of a new conference this fall bringing top local talent together with companies looking to hire.
He’s gathering 300 high school seniors and college students from the region to attend workshops and panels. The students will also meet with recruiters on Oct. 13 in Watsonville at the inaugural NEST Flight conference. Martinez hopes to prove wrong any Silicon Valley tech execs who say they can’t find a diverse pool of talent to draw from.
And he has a similar message for local companies saying they can’t find talented workers without looking to places like Stanford University or Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “I look around here and see tons of people with tons of talent, and they’re diverse,” he says.
To those companies that haven’t changed their recruiting practices, Martinez says, “I’m doing the work for you.”
He’s landed big corporate and tech-world names on the list of conference sponsors, including Adobe, Comcast, Kaiser Permanente, Plantronics, SurveyMonkey and GitHub.
Martinez wants to get the word out to other companies interested in recruiting now, as well as to high school students who might want to sign up. His goal is to stem the brain drain of young talent in South County.
“Ultimately, what we are trying to do is get the young people in our community the skills, network and connections to get the better-paying jobs in their community,” he says.
If they stay local and land good jobs, Martinez says, it will “spark economic development from within” as they buy homes and push back on the gentrification that’s been spiraling out into rural areas.
Martinez has been focused on this mission for years. Before starting Digital NEST, he worked for nearly a decade on diversifying the tech workforce. When he paused in 2013 to reflect on his efforts, he realized that not enough had changed nationally or locally when it came to adding more women and people of color in tech—and, in some cases, the numbers were actually getting worse.
Martinez used to take students on field trips, via Watsonville TEC, to be face-to-face with the newest tech at companies like Google, Facebook and Apple. Then, he then had to bring them back to schools that too often had outdated machines.
“The tech industry was creating these environments to spark innovation and drive creativity, but the educational system was doing the complete opposite,” Martinez says.
In 2014, he raised more than $300,000 in four months to open Digital NEST in Watsonville. A second location opened in Salinas in April 2017. In total, the program has had more than 2,000 youth and young adults, from high schoolers to twenty-somethings, sign up for its programs.
The 4,500-square-foot space in Watsonville is bathed in all the allure of a Silicon Valley tech office, with neon lights, music and some 120 machines loaded with software from Adobe and connected to Plantronics headsets, Logitech gear and more. There’s also a range of free, organic, locally grown food and snacks in the kitchen. Upstairs, there’s a recording studio, cameras, music equipment and large-format printers.
“The biggest feedback we get is they vote with their feet,” Martinez says, counting at least 30 students at the NEST on a recent Friday afternoon. “Nobody has to be here.”
Marcus Cisneros, a graphic design student at San Jose State University, says being part of Digital NEST makes him feel like he’s ahead of his college peers, because he gets to put what he’s learning into practice. As part of Digital NEST’s youth consultant group bizzNEST, he’s been able to put his video editing and graphic design skills to work for clients. BizzNEST clients have included UCSC, American Express and Martinelli’s.
These days, when Cisneros visits tech companies or conferences, it feels like a bigger version of what he’s already experienced through Digital NEST.
“At its core, the energy and atmosphere is the same,” he says. The experience is not only technical, says Cisneros, but also collaborative, playful, nurturing, exciting and inspirational.
When he goes to NEST Flight in October, he’s most interested in talking with recruiters to learn what they’re looking for and what he needs to improve on, he says.
Companies like Watsonville-based California Giant Berry Farms are eager to meet with local tech talent like Cisneros. As soon as the berry company’s managers heard about Martinez’s idea for the conference, they were on board with the goal of keeping tech talent in the community, says Cindy Jewell, the company’s vice president of marketing. The world of agriculture is becoming more tech-focused, after all, and it needs to draw on the next generation for those skills.
“We don’t want them going to Silicon Valley, either,” Jewell says. But to many youth, “the money and the prestige is all up in the Bay Area. That is where kids want to go.”
Masha Chernyak, vice president of programs and policy at the San Francisco-based Latino Community Foundation, which is a lead sponsor of NEST Flight, sees the conference as a win-win for employers and local talent.
Since Latino youth make up the majority of California’s young people, Chernyak says, their future is the future of the state, and they’re full of brilliant ideas.
“We have never tapped into their true potential,” Chernyak says. “And once we do, we are all going to benefit from it.”
This article was originally published in San Jose Inside/Metro Silicon Valley’s sister newspaper, the Santa Cruz Good Times.