Empowering The Next Generation at Bitwise in Fresno
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Story by Jordan Venema
Photos by Amber Smith
Imagine working in a space where hoodies are more common than business suits, and the office kitchen has your favorite beer on tap. What if during your lunch break you could blow off steam at the onsite gym or by smashing buttons on an arcade? If your workspace had a 200-seat theater, would you get any work done?
The track record of the 100 or so companies that call South Stadium home would emphatically suggest, well, yes. Located at 700 Van Ness Ave., the 50,000-square-foot South Stadium, owned by Bitwise Industries, is like Fresno’s very own Googleplex. The complex isn’t just a cool place to work, but it’s also helping put Fresno’s technology industry on the map.
If your first reaction to the last sentence was “what tech industry?”, you wouldn’t be alone. Jake Soberal, CEO and co-founder of Bitwise Industries, agrees that while Fresno technology companies have long been thriving, “there wasn’t an industry for them.” Let’s call it a matrix, or just a space where these companies could exist physically.
Soberal and co-founder Irma Olguin began Bitwise in 2013, somewhat “frustrated that nobody was seeing what was going on with technology” in Fresno, he says. Soberal wanted to create an inspiring workspace “that makes you think of San Francisco, or Manhattan, or Austin.” They began with their first “tech hub” in the north end of downtown Fresno, which became home to 28 tech companies, and recently opened the South Stadium in 2015.
Other than recognizing Fresno’s need for a physical presence in the tech industry, Olguin and Soberal identified two areas that Bitwise could contribute: education and execution.
Though Fresno has its successful tech companies, there was no obvious means for people to enter the industry without education, says Soberal. “Unfortunately, there wasn’t an answer in Fresno. There wasn’t an internship opportunity.
“So we launched what’s called Geekwise Academy, teaching folks how to code, to teach them a skill that connects them to opportunity.”
Bitwise also turned its focus to helping individual companies execute their business plan through software development, and currently employs about 300 people.
These three components – space, education, and execution – “were not the beginning of the technology industry in Fresno, but they were the missing pieces to its growth,” Soberal says.
He adds that Fresno’s technology industry, though successful nationally and internationally, hasn’t gotten the coverage it deserves.
“After 9/11, when Rudy Giuliani was looking at security solutions for the city of New York, he didn’t go to Silicon Valley. He came to Fresno to me with Pelco,” says Soberal, referring to a Fresno-based security company, “because what we were doing was more sophisticated than anywhere else in the country.”
“The list is significant,” Soberal says of the various Fresno companies with national and international reach. Just recently, a Fresno-based company called Decipher was bought by an international firm, Focus Vision, for a quarter-billion dollars.
But Soberal stresses that Bitwise isn’t attempting to transform Fresno into something it isn’t. “We’re not trying to replicate the Silicon Valley,” he explains. “We want Fresno to be the best version of itself that it can be.”
Perhaps Bitwise’s biggest contribution to the technology community in Fresno is through Geekwise Academy, a six-week evening course open to the general public. The $250 course has proven popular, “and since our second offering, they’ve sold out every time,” says Soberal. Through the courses, students are “engaged in across-the-board, project-based learning. For instance, our very basic courses are spent learning HTML, as well as other web programming tools.”
Both Soberal and Olguin grew up in Fresno but, says Soberal, “much like many young people do, we had gone away, went to school, ultimately bounced around the country and made our way back.
“This is home,” he adds, “and I want to do something about it.”
But that doesn’t mean Bitwise exists to create its own technology bubble. Soberal expects Bitwise will “reach out to the ocean of people in Fresno interested in opportunity, and specifically in the technology industry.” But that doesn’t mean he expects them to stay in Fresno.
“Some will choose to leave and that’s just fine,” says Soberal, but he hopes that if they do, they’ll have left with a better impression. “That deeply ingrained negative opinion of Fresno is perpetuated by those who leave Fresno and talk negatively about it. But if we train people up and put them on a path for an outstanding future, and they find that future someplace else, they’re going to talk about us very differently.”
700 Van Ness Ave, Fresno
www.bitwiseindustries.com • (559) 500-3305
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