Last year was a big one for Bitwise and for me personally. I was riding high on the excitement of what we were going to accomplish after securing one of the largest Series A rounds ever by Latinx woman-led company. Then, COVID-19 began to spread across the country.
Bitwise normally operates three lines of business that have nothing to do with emergency response. Our mission is to develop a diverse and representative workforce, create community, and design technology that helps people and businesses. We put the wheels in motion to make some big waves on these fronts.
Geekwise Academy teaches people from marginalized communities to code. Shift3 Technologies builds custom software, in part with some of the talent coming out of Geekwise. And, under the umbrella of Bitwise, a home is created for these diverse individuals, companies, and ideas through coworking spaces, commercial real estate, and community hubs.
Once the pandemic hit, we evaluated the threat of the virus and were one of the first businesses in Fresno, California (where our headquarters is located) to move our employees to remote work, before the city or state put ordinances in place. As shelter-in-place orders went out and nonessential businesses closed their doors, we saw our community struggling. Small restaurants, large industries, and individuals were all being affected. We felt empowered to take charge and take action to help our community.
To be of service in this time of mass uncertainty, we did what we always do, looked to our mission. We know that nontraditional (Black and brown people, women, LGTBTQ+, veterans, people from rural areas, etc.) technologists can do great things. We believe that technology can solve big problems. So, with our mission in mind, we set to work.
In 11 short days, our software development arm launched the first version of OnwardCA.org. It started as a statewide network connecting people who had lost their jobs due to COVID-19 to services, funds, available jobs, training and necessities to survive this crisis. California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the new resource for Californians to help workers get back on their feet on April 2.
We are proud of what we built, but more impressed by the people who built it. As a Bitwise company, Shift3 deliberately hires a representative workforce. People of color are disproportionately impacted by the effects of the virus. Our diverse group of developers had a personal connection and a unique view on how tech could provide creative solutions for the most relief. The software they created would evolve into OnwardUS.org and launch in nine more states (NY, VA, MD, WA, IL, OR, CT, CA, and CO) and D.C. OnwardUS shows how marginalized groups can build world-class software from anywhere in the country if given the opportunity.
Bitwise’s investments in people and commitment to our values made these innovations possible. This is what we want the rest of the technology industry to take note of. These were the people who weren’t supposed to save the day, but they did. These folks were feeling the effects of the pandemic early and fast. They were losing jobs and getting sick. They were the family and neighbors of the workforce we invested in. To them, building out Onward seemed obvious and they understood exactly what the platform needed to do. It was not just a lucky idea from a big tech firm. The need was very clear and the team rallied together with a sense of urgency that only comes from having a personal connection to the solution you’re developing.
If tech companies truly looked at what having a diverse and inclusive workforce could bring to their teams in terms of innovation, the industry would look very different. I hope that our creation of the Onward platform can serve as a case study to prove the value of our approach.
While driving diversity into the tech industry has always been our goal, we want to take this moment to encourage leaders to change their views on what a technologist should look like. They don’t have to come from the best universities or be white men. A technologist can come from any place and look like any of us.
We invite other tech companies to follow our lead and when the world returns to normal. I hope we’ll have a tech industry that is more reflective of our communities and ready to face the next challenge impacting our industry.
As CEO and cofounder of Bitwise Industries, Irma Olguin Jr. oversees the company’s operations teams, as well as technology-focused training program Geekwise Academy and software development firm Shift3 Technologies.