Narrowing the Digital Divide: A Conversation with Jacob Martinez of Digital NESTNarrowing the Digital Divide: A Conversation with Jacob Martinez of Digital NEST
By Molly (Lautamo) Ressler
Behind glass doors in the old Watsonville Post Office, high school and college students are designing logos, developing websites, and shooting videos in a recording studio complete with acoustic paneling and a green screen. Long wooden benches strewn with pillows and sleek leather chairs are filled with young men and women collaborating on their latest tech project or silently tapping away at a rented laptop. Behind the open workspace is a well-stocked kitchen with free sandwiches, snacks, and beverages that’s always open to members.
This is Digital NEST (Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology), a nonprofit, high-tech training and collaboration space for young people that is changing the lives of youth throughout Pajaro and Salinas Valley.
Our future workforce
When you ask Jacob Martinez, founder of Digital NEST, how this innovative space is impacting local youth, his eyes instantly light up.
“These kids are not growing up with privilege,” explains Martinez. “They know how to work; they’ve seen their parents work hard to make ends meet. That’s what entrepreneurship is—working two jobs, selling tamales out of the back of their car, babysitting on the side to make extra money. Entrepreneurship is this idea of doing whatever it takes to move you forward. If we’re successful in giving these kids the training and the confidence, I think they’re going to be that much more successful and they’re going to be leading a lot of these companies.”
"Entrepreneurship is this idea of doing whatever it takes to move you forward. If we’re successful in giving these kids the training and the confidence, I think they’re going to be leading a lot of these companies." ~Jacob Martinez, Founder of Digital NEST
These future leaders include youth like Martin, a Watsonville native whose parents work in agriculture and struggle daily to make ends meet. With the support of NEST, Martin is now working with Adobe as part of the General Assembly boot camp.
Then there’s Alex who was studying computer science at Cabrillo College but lacked the confidence to network and promote himself within the tech community. Through Digital NEST, he landed an internship with Buoy where he not only excelled but also discovered a passion and talent for packaging engineering. He was recently accepted into San Jose State to pursue this specialized career path.
“These kids are diamonds in the rough—they’re not straight-A students,” says Martinez. “For those kids that are ready to learn but the education system’s failing them, we hope that Digital NEST can be the solution.”
From biology to NEST
Martinez relates to the youth he works with on a personal level. The L.A. native has always struggled with traditional academics, barely graduating from his high school in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas and ending his first college career early when he was kicked out for academic reasons. Eventually, Martinez studied his way into UC Santa Cruz where he graduated with a degree in biology. He planned to pursue a PhD in ecology but soon realized he disliked working in the solitary confines of a lab.
After working as a college counselor, Martinez had the opportunity to coordinate the Watsonville TEC program (Tecnología-Educación-Comunidad) through the nonprofit ETR Associates. He was tasked with recruiting the first cohort of middle school and high school girls for a year-and-a-half-long program that focused on game design, programming, and general computer skills. It was this work that first exposed Martinez to the digital divide—the reality that many students in his community lacked access to basic technology.
The challenge of access
Many of the TEC students didn’t have internet at home, forcing them to sit outside of a locked classroom in the evenings just to finish their homework. Some didn’t own laptops, or if they did, they barely functioned. Martinez realized that these kids needed a safe space to go with free internet access, computers, and software in order to succeed. In 2014, he opened the doors to Digital NEST, the first nonprofit of its kind to address the needs of underserved youth through free access to technology.
Today, the Digital NEST has two locations, serving youth in both Watsonville and Salinas. The Watsonville location serves about 40 youth a day with 1400 members and Salinas NEST (opened in April of 2017) serves about 25 youth a day with nearly 300 members. The Digital NEST not only provides a safe space with access to free internet but also rents out laptops, DSLR cameras, video cameras, audio equipment, and more.
The spaces also provide free food to its members. Through a partnership with Grind Out Hunger, youth can enjoy a free sandwich made by one of their peers. They can also fuel up after school with a healthy frozen meal sponsored by Dignity Health through a grant for the nonprofit’s new wellNEST program. In the near future, the program will also provide members with free yoga and wellness classes that will teach the youth how to strike a healthy work/life balance and better manage stress.
The power of a small community
Eventually, Martinez hopes to replicate the Digital NEST in communities throughout the region, but it’s no coincidence that Watsonville was its first location. Martinez attributes much of his success to the support of his community.
“There’s a real sense of community here that I’ve never felt anywhere before,” says Martinez. “People know my kids and we’re all supportive of each other’s work. Everybody had my back when it came time to launch [the Digital NEST] in Watsonville.”
Martinez also believes that because Watsonville is a small and tight-knit community, progress can happen faster if you just get the right people together.
“Everybody in this community has a clear understanding that there’s a lot of challenges and struggles but also that we can move this community forward,” he says. “It’s a small enough community where we can make things happen, like free WiFi in the [Watsonville] plaza. It took me getting four people in a room and agreeing this is a great thing for the community, so let’s figure this out.”
These four people included Martinez and representatives from Santa Cruz Fiber, the City of Watsonville, and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Their partnership will provide the entire Watsonville community with access to free high speed WiFi in the Watsonville Plaza downtown.
Support your local tech workforce
As a young nonprofit with just three years under its belt, the Digital NEST has accomplished a lot, but they’re just getting started and funding is still an issue. Martinez hopes that more Santa Cruz tech companies will champion the cause and invest in their community’s future workforce.
“We’re just getting our feet on the ground,” says Martinez. “We need people to stick with us and believe in us.”
Martinez invites the tech community to join him in narrowing the digital divide for underprivileged youth. Tech companies can provide support by donating to Digital NEST, hiring bizzNEST to provide web or video services for your company, or by hiring a NEST intern. Martinez also welcomes anyone to drop by either NEST location to see for themselves how this nonprofit is empowering our youth and cultivating a highly-skilled workforce right here in Santa Cruz County.
Santa Cruz tech companies: Join Santa Cruz Works at santacruzworks.org/membership
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Molly (Lautamo) Ressler is a writer and content strategist based in Santa Cruz. Find more of her work at mollylautamo.com.