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MBEP MEMBER SPOTLIGHT:

Digital NEST

Expands Career Options for Youth

Seven years ago, when MBEP member Digital NEST opened in Watsonville, it filled a huge void, providing access to computers, software, and technology for underserved youth, from high school age up to age 24.

But access to digital tools is just the start: The nonprofit also provides skills training, networking, and empowerment opportunities for youth traditionally shut out of high-tech careers.

By targeting agricultural communities where many households lack access to technology, Digital NEST not only provides hands-on opportunities for youth, it also helps them envision what is possible, says founder and CEO Jacob Martinez.

In those seven years, Digital NEST — the NEST stands for Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology — has had a powerful impact on workforce development in the region. In that time, more than 2,200 teens and young adults have participated in programs that build skills and resumes to launch them into well-paying, high-demand careers. In that time, more than 100 of those youth have been placed in jobs, internships, and school placements. More than 74 percent of participants have developed essential workplace skills. And Digital NEST alumni have an average starting annual income of $45,760.

Digital NEST continues to expand its reach: In 2017, it opened to Salinas youth with a site at the Cesar Chavez Library, and last month, fully reopened in a new downtown Salinas location.

Martinez said he’s thrilled about that new downtown tech center, opened in partnership with Bruce Taylor, inside a remodeled former fire station at 210 Salinas St. With more than 8,000 square feet of space, the site is filled with creative, modern energy to not only inspire youth, says Martinez, but with enough space to also open the center up for community meeting space.

A Gilroy tech center could open early next year, says Martinez, and Digital NEST has plans to open six more locations.

“We’re looking at communities that have been forgotten or overlooked around the Bay Area,” says Martinez, “communities that have been impacted by Silicon Valley but aren’t getting the investment that’s needed, but also communities that have lots of untapped talent.”

Through ongoing programs and workshops, youth can build foundations in cinematography, graphic design, short film marketing, event coordination, project management, coding, data science, and web development.

BizzNEST also creates bridges into the workforce for youth through on-the-job training opportunities that partner young web designers, videographers, and more with local paying clients. An annual conference, NEST Flight,  brings together representatives from Silicon Valley, local companies, and educational institutions with over 300 talented youth from underserved communities who are beginning to map out their career journeys.

And from its inception, Digital NEST has fostered strong connections with a wide range of companies and organizations across the region, including Adobe, Amazon, MBEP, and many of its member organizations, including Taylor Farms, Martinelli’s, and Driscoll’sSanta Cruz County Bank, South Swell Ventures, Cabrillo College, UC Santa Cruz, Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Santa Cruz County Office of Education, Kaiser Permanente, and the city of Watsonville.

Martinez says those local connections are crucial for empowering youth with limited exposure to white-collar jobs. These days, many local employers are the ones reaching out to the nonprofit in hopes of helping develop a strong workforce. One of those, Scheid Vineyards, recently came to tour the Salinas tech center, then invited Digital NEST staff to visit their facilities to better understand the technical side of the winemaking industry.

That network not only helps build pathways for young NESTers, it also helps shape the programs offered. In addition to Web/IT and Digital Arts/ Technology programs, Digital NEST added a third pathway, focusing on Project Management, in response to input from local industries.

Martinez said he heard time and again that companies needed employees with good technical skills to fill support jobs across industries. By focusing on building those people skills and management, those young employers come prepared to bring a wide range of skills and new technology to those employers.

“People say they need talent,” says Martinez, “and we’re building that talent.”

As it scales up, Digital NEST remains focused on creating opportunities in communities where exposure and access are most needed.

“People often ask me, ‘What’s the secret of Digital NEST,’ ” says Martinez. “The real secret, and the power, is building social capital for youth.”
Video courtesy of Raul Ceja.