As Californians started to lose their jobs in the havoc wreaked by coronavirus, Bitwise Industries, a unique tech startup in Fresno, badly wanted to help. So it hastily got to work on a website for displaced workers: a one-stop shop for information about essential services, retraining opportunities and jobs that remained open.
Now, Bitwise is working on the initiative with some of Silicon Valley's biggest tech companies, the governor's office, the state's universities and others. The site, OnwardCA.org, launched this week with a plug from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who during one of his news conferences about COVID-19 called Bitwise a "remarkable economic story."
Bitwise was founded in 2013 with the intention of bringing tech jobs to Fresno, a city of 530,000 in California's Central Valley where more than a quarter of residents live in poverty. The goal was "raising up new tech talent from nontraditional stories, particularly out of poverty," Jake Soberal, co-founder and co-CEO of the company, told Protocol.
Soberal said that after COVID-19 spread, he made sure his team was safe and working from home. After that, "We asked ourselves our role in this time. What was our responsibility as a tech company?"
The answer for Bitwise was to organize badly needed resources and tools for workers: from where to find food, shelter, child care and health care to an automated job-matching service that finds potential positions for people after they answer questions about their location, skills, experience and more.
The Oakland-based Kapor Center, which focuses on diversity in technology and was an early Bitwise backer, got on board immediately, providing financial and other help, such as introductions to key partners. "Their hearts and heads were in the same place," Soberal said.
Freada Kapor Klein, co-founder of the Kapor Center, praised Bitwise for its initiative and approach to tackling the massive problem of displaced workers. "Bitwise was thinking at scale," she said, adding that Soberal and Irma Olguin Jr., his co-founder and co-CEO, have "the understanding of community and technology to do this."
As of Friday, Bitwise had more than 70,000 jobs on OnwardCA.org — and the initiative was set to expand. "It's impressive that they built this so quickly," Mitch Kapor said. "Now it's a model that can be used in other states."
But Bitwise and its staff of a couple hundred people are also thinking small, Soberal said. The company is committed to finding open positions that aren't listed on well-known job sites. "There are hundreds of logistics jobs in smaller companies, or maybe dozens of jobs, that are not getting the same level of oxygen," he said. "We want to unearth those jobs."
Among the other familiar names and companies donating time, money or effort to Bitwise's efforts are LinkedIn, Salesforce, Facebook, Google, Twilio, Schmidt Futures, MasterCard and McClatchy.
Soberal, an intellectual-property lawyer, was raised in Clovis, just northeast of Fresno. Olguin, who has a degree in computer science, was also raised in Fresno County, in the town of Caruthers. They founded Bitwise to "do great things with nontraditional talent, tie work to place, and build tech centers in underdog cities," Soberal said.
Bitwise has three components: Shift3 Technologies, which makes custom software and is doing the work on the new website; Geekwise Academy, a tech training program that is a source of talent for Shift3; and the property it leased and developed into a tech hub in Fresno. Since the company's founding, it has expanded to Bakersfield and Modesto.
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"I'd love for [the crisis] to be over tomorrow," Soberal said. But realistically, he said, the need for OnwardCA.org and other tools like it will most likely endure for 12 to 18 months: "We're in this to serve workers for as long as they need serving."
Correction: Bitwise has expanded to Bakersfield and Modesto, but not Oakland. This story was updated on April 6, 2020.