Hatching techies Digital Nest programs point youth at viable careers

Francisco Godinez edits an interview with a Holocaust survivor at the Digital Nest. | David Royal

By Kathryn McKenzie
Photographs by David Royal

Jacob Martinez remembers vividly how his nonprofit Digital NEST came to be. It was October 2013 and he was strolling through the Friday farmers’ market in downtown Watsonville when he noticed a young woman sitting in front of a building, typing on her laptop.

It was a chilly evening and he wondered why she was sitting outside, so Martinez went over to talk to her. She told him that she was taking a class at Cabrillo College, and was sitting outside the college’s Watsonville facility so that she could use the free Wi-Fi.

“She had no Internet at home, and didn’t have money to go to Starbucks, and the library was closed,” recalled Martinez. “And it made me realize, there are all these brilliant young people who can’t get access to the Internet.”

Martinez, who had already been working for a nonprofit to get underrepresented groups into high tech, thought about it for a while.  Then he came up with an intriguing plan: to create a safe space for youth where they can explore the tech world and all its many possibilities for their future.

That was the start of the Digital NEST, which launched in 2014 in Watsonville, and two years ago expanded to Salinas’s Cesar Chavez Library. Martinez, NEST’s executive director, is looking to extend it even further: “We have aspirations to grow into other communities.”

Beyond what the NEST can do for these students is what it can do for the tech industry as a whole, which has long been criticized for its lack of diversity. Part of the problem is, simply, access — not only to the Internet and to reliable computers, but also to education.

Although more computer science classes are now available to K-12 students throughout the country, students of color are less likely to have these resources, Wired reported last year. Wired also noted that “they’re also at a disadvantage outside the classroom. Two-thirds of white students reported using computers at home, whereas only half of black and Hispanic students do.”

Thanks to grants, community partnerships and donations, all NEST services are free to its members. There are now some 2,200 NESTers, with about 1,000 active, from high school to age 24.

Walk into the Watsonville NEST, and the front room is populated with teens and 20-somethings on laptops, some tethered to headphones or earbuds, doing homework, watching videos or web surfing. It looks like someone’s large living room, or a common room in a dormitory, with benches, sturdy chairs and colorful throw pillows. Bulletin boards carry job and scholarship information; a frame titled “Wall of Fame” contains photos of NESTers who have gone on to a variety of careers.

An adjacent kitchen is stocked with healthy snacks, and another office offers laptops and other state-of-the-art tech gear that can be checked out as students need it. Carlos Torres, 21, said that he was there to return an SD card that he’d borrowed to use in his new camera.

Another area is for bizzNEST, where young people create websites, video and graphic designs for paying customers — and they get paid for their work as well. Upstairs, classrooms, meeting rooms and a digital production studio for video, music and podcasts offer a variety of classes and project centers. During the NEST’s busy times, every room is filled.

“Nobody is just here goofing around,” said Martinez.

For Mayra Ruiz-Valtierra, finding the NEST was the best thing that could have happened to her. She had been living in Oklahoma with her mother, but longed to move back to Watsonville after completing her two-year associate of arts degree in graphic design. She did move back, but because she didn’t have any job experience in her field, ended up working at Yogurtland.

“I was looking for friends and a job,” said Ruiz-Valtierra, 26, and now she has both. Being able to hang out at the NEST gave her a sense of community that had been difficult for her to find. “Growing up, my mom had to move around a lot for work.”

Now, after volunteering there in several capacities, she has transitioned into working at bizzNEST, where she designs logos and does other graphic design projects for clients, which she says has helped her gain real-world experience on how to deal with customers and handle critiques. Clients of bizzNEST range from Martinelli’s to American Express, as well as local school districts and businesses.

Carlos Torres came to the NEST as a natural outgrowth of his lifelong interest in computers. It’s given him the chance to develop his skills by taking classes and finding out more about business opportunities. He’s now attending Cabrillo College and hoping for a job in agricultural sales.

What Martinez hopes to do is connect bright young people with well-paying tech jobs, since there is a steady demand for skilled employees in Silicon Valley, just 60 miles from Watsonville, as well as in other communities who need everything from social media managers to IT expertise.

But it isn’t easy in towns like Watsonville and Salinas for youth to realize the opportunities that exist, and to get them on the path to digital careers.

“What Watsonville and Salinas have in common is that they are rural, agricultural communities that are under-resourced, with large young populations full of creativity, excitement and energy,” said Martinez.

What these young people don’t have, he said, are the connections that can smooth their way into four-year universities and white-collar jobs. Many come from working-class or farmworker families who have no experience with this world.

The aims of Digital NEST are many. First off, it’s a safe space for kids to be, and it gives them something to do and somewhere to be. Next, it’s a place of learning. And now, it’s also a pipeline to jobs at companies that need talented, tech-savvy employees.

That’s what Marisa Upson is hoping for. The 18-year-old Cabrillo College freshman has been involved with the NEST for several years, and now helps run its event unit and mentors younger students.

“I was kind of lost when I came here,” Upson said, without a firm notion of what direction to head in after high school. Now, she’s determined to have a career in project management and event coordination: “This made me realize what I want to do, and I love it.”

Classes and workshops at the NEST range from coding to cybersecurity to problem solving under pressure; there are also group projects, such as the filmmakers’ group that this year debuted their work at the recent Watsonville Film Festival. Meetups, activities and special events are also planned on a regular basis, and field trips have taken students to tour Facebook, Google and tech firms in Santa Cruz.

Ideally, Martinez would like local companies to hire the NESTers, giving them the chance to stay close to home, rather than going off to Silicon Valley or other tech towns further away. “They’ve got proximity to employment opportunities,” he said. “That way, the money (they earn) stays in their communities.”

To this end, job recruiters and students were brought together last fall at the first-ever NEST Flight conference, a chance for Silicon Valley firms as well as local companies to discover the wealth of local talent that could be hired. More than 300 young people heard speakers and meet with mentors.

“As a local employer, it was an outstanding opportunity to interact with talented students interested in building a career here in this area,” said Nishan Moutafian, district manager at major berry producer Driscoll’s.

One of the NESTers who’s taken off into his chosen career is Alex Chavez, hired as a software engineer at Buoy Labs in Santa Cruz even as he’s finishing up his computer engineering degree at San Jose State. He got the job through the NEST, which he also credits with helping him develop skills that employers look for in potential candidates.

“When the time came, I felt like I was more than ready to take that next step and be successful at my job,” said the 23-year-old Watsonville resident.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. Being at the NEST just confirmed my passion for this career, because they were able to connect me with engineers in the industry who were able to provide me with great advice and I was able to see what a typical day for engineer was, which I loved.”

More on the Digital NEST and its programs can be found at digitalnest.org.

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites.