A project by Acumen America

How Bitwise is changing communities and paving new career paths

Illustration by Justine Allenette Ross

Bitwise Industries is a story of community. Since the company’s launch in 2013 it has helped re-energize cities, connect marginalized workers to training and better paying jobs, and shown that there is a future for tech workers outside of Silicon Valley, Austin, and New York. Bitwise upskills traditionally overlooked and marginalized workers, but it’s more than that—it’s built new career paths for a whole new generation of workers who did not have them before.

Just ask Emelia Guadarrama, a lifelong Fresno resident who spent 13 years as a seamstress before going into UX design. Or Bakersfield native Bryce Jackson, whose mother is a teacher and father is a police officer—but now he’s a javascript developer. Esteban Solis grew up in the San Joaquin Valley and took the traditional four-year college route and, after a few years in the workforce, he found himself at Bitwise, where he works with the workforce training team. 

Guadarrama, Jackson, and Solis come from communities that have traditionally had very little representation in the tech workforce. They know about barriers to work. They know how very fundamental things like transportation and internet access can influence your access to opportunities and good paying jobs. Bitwise has changed that for them. 

The three of them sat down to talk with Michelle Skoor, Bitwise’s Chief Workplace Officer, about representation, quality work, barriers to work, and how Bitwise is changing their communities for the better. 

Skoor: What does a “quality job” mean in the communities that you come from? And what are the barriers for people to get access or opportunity to those quality jobs?

Guadarrama: Education, honestly. Because it wasn’t even just myself. I’ve had multiple friends and acquaintances who were discouraged from going to college and told college just might not be for them, higher education just might not be for you. There was just not a lot of faith in the people in my community that we could get out of the common job path, which is basically retail or agriculture. Because in Fresno, where I grew up, the barriers were, well, these are kind of the jobs you kind of gonna be stuck with, because this is where you are.

Which is why, when I saw Bitwise was in Fresno, at first I really didn’t understand who they were and what they were doing. But in hearing the stories from people I knew, and seeing their successes—I was able to see that it was a system that was working for us and representing us too. That didn’t exist before. Bitwise helped break down that barrier for me. 

Jackson: Just to add to that. I have a computer, I have a Mac. But some people don’t have a computer. My mom is a teacher in lower socioeconomic schools. And I remember during COVID they were sending home Wi-Fi routers. That’s a real barrier there! Even something as simple as, you know, wi-fi resources—that’s a barrier in so many communities. 

Solis: I think first off, the most obvious is paying a living wage, or more. So you have something left over if you are spending two-thirds of your income on rent. Or, if we have to take care of children or parents, making sure that you have the time and the flexibility to actually do that. Also opportunities for advancement. 

And just really quick to add to the barriers to work. Transportation is huge. Lindsay, where I grew up, is equal distance from Bakersfield and Fresno—an hour each way. There’s no way that a multi-generational household—who may or may not be undocumented—will let their their youngest go take tech classes or coding classes an hour away and risk getting stopped when that’s the only vehicle that they have. So there’s also that hidden aspect that we don’t really think about. 

Skoor: I think one of the things very specifically in the tech sector, is the automated-barrier to entry. You hit the application process for most tech sector jobs, and a background check, or any one of the boxes you checked automatically blocks you from even applying. You could have all the skills, you could have 15 years experience, and that does not matter. You are not allowed entry. And so for us, thinking about all of those barriers, Bitwise creates programs and pathways specifically for people that have skills but may have to check a box that is seen as undesirable by the tech industry; formerly incarcerated individuals for example, people living outside a certain radius from the job, people without certain levels of education on their resume. And so a part of our advocacy as well, is also shifting the mindset within the companies that we work with, to rethink how it is their hiring practices are already biasing their diversity needs.

There are so many barriers to work across different communities. How would you all fix that? What does that look like? 

Jackson: I think it looks like what Bitwise is doing. You don’t have a computer? They send you a computer. You don’t have a ride? They’ll schedule you a ride. They’ll pick you up! You need to take care of your children? I don’t have any kids, but I’ve seen multiple emails offering daycare. There are people, smarter people than me in charge [laughs] really trying to break down these barriers, and I’m watching the work that they’re doing—and it works well. It’s beautiful. And I appreciate all of it. 

Solis: I think what Bitwise is doing is exactly what needs to be done. Bringing about this generation, multiple generations actually, creating a movement of people who do have the skills and the confidence to actually put Fresno, Merced, Bakersfield, Oakland, Visalia, all of these cities on the map. And saying that, in the past, people have been ignored, because there was no money; and they were just able to ignore them. 

But if we have enough people who actually have good jobs and who actually can attend city council meetings. Who can actually be present in their communities, then that will put the city governments on notice and say stop sprawling, for example. Start building, start infill development, bring in more housing, and more transportation—bus rapid transit! Whatever you need to do, so that we can actually deal with these systemic issues. And make sure that all of this is happening. But these cities need to see that it can be done and that people want these things I think we need more people, more critical mass to really get some momentum going.

Jackson: A quick extra caveat, though. What also is part of fixing these issues is having people like you. I’m telling you, because Floyd [Bitwise recruiter] was on the phone with me, interviewing me to come there, and he was cussing. He was super chill. That’s normal to me compared to a suit and tie, you know what I’m saying? You can’t say, “you know what I’m saying!” I’ve gotten in trouble for that expression so many times, which is really funny. But I think it’s really important to have people who look like you and sound like you to make you believe that a place is for you.

Skoor: I think about that at my level, too. I don’t see a lot of non-binary people in technology and leadership teams and on C-suites. And so at every turn at Bitwise, there is opportunity for us to retell and reshape how we think about the stories and the work and the type of company that we’re creating. And I think here we do such an incredible job, making sure that this place fits you right, that it is representative of you, but we’re not trying to be something else. We’re just trying to be us. And I think that creates that environment that you speak to Bryce. 

Guadarrama: When we think about quality work, there’s this massive awakening, especially among young people, that it doesn’t have to be a certain way. There are different methods and journeys. It’s really exciting to see where it’s gonna go, because I think there’s just this big change in how we’re thinking of  the places we belong. Being able to see that we have a place in tech, that there is a place for everybody in tech. It gives me so much hope, especially for younger kids. I meet so many younger people, because I’m really out in the community a lot. It really gives me hope that they’re going, “Oh, I can totally do that. Like, I’m really good at that.” It’s like, yeah, you are, let’s go! And Bitwise is going to inspire a whole mess of cool businesses in our community—in Bakersfield, Oakland, and Toledo – it’s just going to spread and that’s exciting. 

Jackson: I love Bakersfield. There are people with the intent to build our community here. Obviously everybody wants to do good for the community, but this [Bitwise] is something that has the potential to fundamentally change how the city works. There’s this pride that people have in their community and an intention on bettering the community, not just yourself but those around you. 

Solis: What gives me hope is that my cousin finished her first class and she’s trying to become an apprentice at Bitwise. And my sister, when she has her baby, she’s going to do it also. And it’s not because I forced them to. They saw me de-stress and they saw my finances get better. They saw everything about my life take on a new feeling, I guess. And my mom, even she’s like, “my job does not treat me well. It’s not working out. I think I want to take classes [at Bitwise].” And I never would have thought that would have happened. I can actually be a lighthouse—or a beacon of hope. But I’m seeing it in real time, and I’m seeing real people’s lives being affected.

Skoor: And that kind of gets back to changing things at the community level with representation, right? Now you’re able to be an example. Not necessarily lead by example, but show different pathways that people didn’t think previously exist. 

Guadarrama: Yes, and  because Irma [Bitwise’s co-founder] is very representative of the Central Valley—for us there’s going to be other people in our community who are going to go, “man, she’s making it work. She did it.” And then it’s not just going to be Bitwise; there are going to be other little communities or businesses that can come from this because they’re going to be inspired. 

Jackson: Representation, if anything, is the most important. My mom’s a teacher. My mom’s friends are teachers. My dad is a police officer. But I don’t know any coders! I don’t know any engineers. Representation of not even, “he looks like me, let me gravitate towards him,” but in the fundamental level of seeing it. I could become a teacher, but I didn’t know coding and tech was a thing I could do —the universe had to lead me here by chance.