The female, Latinx co-founder of Bitwise Industries says the company’s recent $27 million funding milestone means it can train more people in underserved communities, and expand south. But amidst the optimism in Bakersfield, there’s also some ambivalence.
Still, co-CEO of Bitwise Irma Olguin Jr. is used to challenging expectations, including her own. She grew up in a farming community south of Fresno. As a kid, co-founding a tech-hub and raising tens of millions from investment companies didn’t seem possible.
“You know, when you grow up in a rural town and your family is a farm labor family, you kind of picture your life as being more of the same,” says Olguin.
But it wasn’t. After college, Olguin worked as a web developer, and later created a non-profit to run Fresno’s first coding competition. Then she developed a coworking space and consulting company that are now part of Bitwise. Olguin says her success shouldn’t be unique.
“When you achieve agency, it doesn’t matter what the industry is technology or otherwise, that's when you change a community,” Olguin says. “That’s when you change the face of a city and that’s when you build that inclusive workforce that maybe doesn't exist in other places.”
The inclusivity starts with training, says Olguin. More than half the people enrolled in the company’s coding classes are women and people of color. Twenty percent are first generation immigrants. It’s a model Bitwise wants to replicate in what she calls another underdog city, Bakersfield.
“So when we examined the issues that might be facing a place like Bakersfield, I think the next step is then, do the people there, are they in love with their city and do they want to fix it?” Olguin says. “We’re relying really heavily on those local stakeholders to want as badly as we want for Fresno, to really do something with the technology industry that can transform that place.”
But some software developers like Kevin Mershon worry the city already has a glut of tech professionals.
“I know too many unemployed software developers and computer science and engineering graduates that can’t find work for that to make sense to me,” says Mershon.
He says part of the problem is existing Bakersfield companies don’t pay competitively for technical work, or simply haven’t modernized to keep up with technology advances.
That’s why Bitwise wants to invest, Olguin says, to help create more businesses and attract more outside employers just as it has done in Fresno, and all while paying attention to the Valley’s diversity.