What do you think of when you think of Silicon Valley? Something sleek? Google, keycards and lanyards? You probably don’t think of furrowed fields of strawberries, and you certainly don’t think of the old post office in Watsonville. But here, behind the rollup doors where clerks once sat and shuttled mail, is Silicon Valley.
“This is the original Watsonville post office and in Salinas we have the old firehouse. In Gilroy we have a popup location at an old bank,” Jacob Martinez, CEO of Digital NEST, says in the foyer. In front of us are clusters of tables, a reception desk, a neon sign which reads “Nestworking.”
Martinez founded Digital NEST, a nonprofit that focuses on tech and career job training for rural youth, in 2014. NEST stands for Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology. And like a nest, its locations in Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and Monterey counties are incubators for young people to practice new skills and spread their wings.
“I’m done taking kids to Silicon Valley. What if we brought Silicon Valley to them?” Jacob Martinez asked himself. “And what if we invest in our young people the way that Silicon Valley invests in their employees?”
Eight years later, Digital NEST is growing.
The idea of Digital NEST came to Martinez in 2013 when he approached a young woman outside a building in Watsonville. It was an October evening and it was cold.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m Jacob and I’m involved in tech education, just curious about what you’re doing sitting here,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I’m a community college student and I’m working on a research paper.’ And I said, ‘Yeah but what are you doing sitting here? I can tell you’re cold.’ And she said, ‘Well I don’t have internet at home. I can’t afford to go to Starbucks, the library is closed, so I’m tapping into the wifi of this building.’”
Martinez went home to his wife that night, fed up. He told her, “I’m done with this work. I’m so frustrated. I’ve been bringing millions of dollars into this community and nothing has changed.”
A few weeks later, he spoke with Jeremy Neuner, a friend and founder of NextSpace, a coworking organization in Santa Cruz. He said, “Man, Jeremy, we need a NextSpace for kids. A coworking space.” When it became clear that kids were not part of NextSpace’s scope, Martinez approached local venture capitalist Bud Colligan. He imagined getting 5 or 10K and working on Digital NEST as a side project.
Colligan was enthusiastic about the idea and told Martinez, “‘We’ll give you $100,000 to launch this project.’ But,” Martinez pauses and puts up a waiting finger, “‘you gotta raise $200,000 in six months.’ He wanted to see if I could fundraise.”
And fundraising is what Martinez did. “I actually raised about $350,000 in about three months and Digital NEST was born.” The majority of these funds came from small, individual donations and some foundation support. People were taking notice.
“I gave a talk at the White House about this because nobody was talking about rural tech education. We were one of the few. We got a lot of visibility out of the gate. In 2017, the city of Salinas approached me and said, ‘Look, we are seeing an emerging tech ecosystem surrounding Salinas. Can you bring this to Salinas?’”
The Digital NEST location in Salinas is huge—8,000 square feet in the old firehouse. There is also a temporary office in Gilroy. The next site will be in Stockton, where Digital NEST has someone on the ground scouting its permanent home. NESTs are popping up everywhere. What exactly happens inside of them?
Past the lobby, five young people sit in a room. They wear oversized headphones and stare at computer monitors. You can hear every click of their keys. This is the arm of Digital NEST called the BizzNEST.
Martinez lowers his voice. “We actually hire our top youth. Right now, we have twelve. They do work for paid clients. They are all working on video, graphic and web design. We’ve done websites for UC Santa Cruz. We rebranded Santa Cruz County Public Defenders Office. We have done work for the city of Salinas.”
These employees have access to an Adobe Creative Cloud license and have been trained in WordPress, a website building program. “The plan is we have them here a year, a year and a half, and then we get them placed into permanent jobs.”
Digital NEST is also open to coworking for youth. Anyone from age 14 to 24 can become a member free of charge. Those under 18 need parental consent. “We focus on 17- to 24-year-olds. You can just come in, grab a spot, get internet. It is a safe space. A creative space.”
Beyond coworking, the Digital NEST is where many Watsonville high school students spend a period of their school day for internship credit. They can select one of three pathways: Digital Arts and Technology, Web and IT, or People, Projects, and Leadership.
This last pathway came out of needs local to the Watsonville area, home to employers such as Driscoll’s, Taylor Farms, Nature Ripe, and Martinelli’s.
“This one is really focused on local industry needs. Local employers were saying, ‘Hey Jacob I love the NEST and we want to support it, but we don’t need a bunch of graphic designers and coders: I need a salesperson, I need an operations person, I need an admin assistant.”
The Digital Arts and Technology pathway is for young storytellers engaging in graphic design and videography. The videography arm begins with script writing in the fall. It then moves through preproduction, summertime production and post-production, and culminates in a fictional or nonfictional film. Leads in the department come from the previous year’s cohort.
One student from the program got a full-ride scholarship to University of Southern California.
“She has run production, on video, films. She has more experience than a lot of the kids that are getting into that film school. In fact, she said a lot of the stuff she is learning … she already knows!” says Martinez.
The Web and IT program focus on traditional coding and website design.
“This is more Silicon Valley focused. We’ve got four youth working for a company up in San Francisco. Alumni now. Two of them are making six figures. One of them has a college degree and the other one doesn’t. We have three that are doing internships with Adobe right now.”
The Digital NEST is not just a training ground for high schoolers. “We are starting to see college graduates who are coming to the NEST who are getting these degrees, but they aren’t being trained for the workforce. Colleges, universities? Their measure of success is graduation rates, not employment rates, so you’ve got a lot of people who once they cross that stage—which is happening right now—they get that diploma and then they go, ‘Great, you’re done! Check. It is a win for us.’ The only time you hear from college again is for alumni donation, right? So, we have a lot of college graduates coming back to the community and saying, ‘Hey I’ve been told to go to college to get a job.’”
According to Martinez, these college graduates lack a network and aren’t getting these jobs. So, they come to the Digital NEST.
Martinez wants to place youth in career jobs specifically. To Martinez, this means “Jobs that are high paying, jobs that are growing, and jobs that won’t be replaced with automation.”
He continues, “Our goal by the end of the three years is to have 1,000 youth in careers or jobs. If we have 1,000 youth infiltrating these companies, then we’ll start seeing change.”
IMPACTS AT HOME
The kind of change Martinez wants to see is simple. He wants people to get “jobs that allow them to thrive in their communities and allow them to stay in their communities.”
One Digital NEST graduate now works in San Francisco and still lives in Watsonville. He makes a good salary.
“His parents are farmworkers. They’re still working in the fields. I was like, ‘What does it feel like to now be able to support your family?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh good. My parents don’t want anything—they’re not taking my money—but I took them to the dentist for the first time in over ten, fifteen years, maybe the first time in their lives you know. And I’m like, ‘Dude, you know that good dental care—medical services like that—will add years onto people’s lives?’”
These changes have ripples into the future.
“That’s what we are talking about. We are talking about youth ending the cycle of poverty for their families. This is generational. Now we have an alumni network. These alumni are starting to pull other people up. Just the other day, someone wrote me—an alumnus—at a tech company in Santa Cruz who said, ‘My boss wants me to hire another person and we’re looking at the NEST.’ This is the Ivy League, fraternity, sorority, club, that our people have never had access to.”
The change that Martinez envisions relates not only to getting predominantly Latino, rural youth into high-paying jobs; he also wants Silicon Valley and the Bay to realize their impacts on surrounding communities and take active measures to rectify those impacts.
“Good luck finding a house in Watsonville that is under $700,000. It’s not going to happen. That’s ridiculous. This is a farmworker community and you can’t find a home for under $700,000? Our people are getting further and further pushed out. There is a big advocacy piece we want to do at the NEST.”
One way that Silicon Valley can step up to the plate is by hiring from the local workforce.
“Most importantly, you need to hire our kids because that’s how things really will shift. If I can get our youth, our young people, the jobs that can allow them to stay in their communities, and thrive in their communities, it is a win-win for both the communities, the tech industry, and for local businesses too.”
NESTING THROUGHOUT THE MEGAREGION
Martinez has plans to surround Silicon Valley with Digital NESTs. He calls the greater Bay Area the Megaregion. Beyond the next location in Stockton, Digital NEST is looking to expand in communities like Antioch, Hayward, Concord, Modesto, Turlock, Manteca, Lodi, Napa, Sonoma and Santa Rosa.
When Martinez maps out the Megaregion, he gestures to the north and to the east, and curves a space for Silicon Valley in the center. “The Central Coast, southern San Jose area, we got covered—the Salinas, Watsonville, Gilroy area. Where in the east can we look? And where in the north? Because if I can surround Silicon Valley with all of these communities, with this talent, then I can start putting pressure on the Bay to start looking regionally for talent.”
Digital NEST is able to have such a far-reaching vision due to a partnership, created in 2018, with the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation (DRK). “They are a Silicon Valley–based foundation focused on bringing promising nonprofits to scale. It is a huge vetting process to become a DRK fellow. We ended up getting it.”
Working with the DRK, the Digital NEST identified target communities for new NEST locations. “They did a study and they looked at: What are the 14 counties surrounding the Bay Area? Which communities are greater than 25,000 people and less than half a million and have a median household income of less than $100,000? And then, which of those communities is greater than 30% Latino? So, we identified 33 counties around the Bay.”
Martinez is not looking for NESTs to become permanent fixtures in these regions. “Really, nonprofits should have a long game, an exit strategy. Nonprofits should not exist forever. Right? Because we are here to address the problem. We should be solving the problem, so what we do here at the NEST—this innovative, creative space that youth want to be, this curriculum that’s addressing current workforce needs, this getting young people ready for jobs and careers—all of this should be embedded within the public school system.”
Digital NESTs are working on their exit strategy by partnering with public school institutions. They currently have a grant with UC Santa Cruz to run a drone camp in Marina. The organization’s board is made up of public school administrators, members of school boards, the assistant superintendent of Salinas Unified.
“It is about getting these people to work with us that will really impact the future of young people. The reason why we exist—the reason why they aren’t doing it—is because we are nimble. There is so much bureaucracy in K-12 and higher education that it would take mountains, it would take so long for them to do what we are doing. So, we’ll do it till they catch up. Then we’ll move on.”
In this way, the vision for the Digital NEST takes inspiration from a physical nest. “The idea is: you’re not here forever. You leave. You leave the nest,” Martinez says.
“A lot of these communities, the kids have nowhere to go. There are youth centers, but that’s for sports. There’s Boys and Girls Clubs but that’s really targeted for younger students and we don’t have one here [in Watsonville]. There’s the YMCA, but again that’s mostly sports. There’s nothing like this that exists. So, it has been a magnet for young people.”
Digital NEST hires people locally. “Most of my staff are from these communities. They look like our youth, meaning that they are predominantly Latino. Sixty percent are Latino. Sixty-five percent are women. Kids from this community can walk into these doors and feel welcomed and told, yeah, hang out, move our desks around, get a computer, take some classes, you can do it.”
On a larger scale, Martinez explains that one of Digital NEST’s goals is to redress a lack of funds going into Latino-led programs.
“Three percent of nonprofit CEOs are Latinos. Less than two percent of philanthropic dollars go to Latino-led organizations. Two percent. We make up forty percent of the state’s population.”
Leaning over the table, across the Bay Megaregion he has mapped in the air, Martinez addresses himself to Silicon Valley at large.
“We have the diversity you say that you want. We have the local workforce you say you want. We can live here. We can commute. We’ve got our families here. You’re gonna find young people who are hungry for good economic opportunities, are willing to stay local, who won’t be displaced.”
Martinez also addresses himself to people who can support programs like Digital NEST: “I’ve said from the beginning, I am not nickel and diming this thing. Our kids deserve the best. They deserve the best space, the best technology, the best staff, the best board, but that takes resources. Resources that historically haven’t gone to us. So, we need help. This is working, and our youth need the support.”
Summer programs at the Digital NEST run from June through the beginning of August. Learn more at digitialnest.org.