Open Doors With Irma Olguin Jr: "No One Belongs Here More Than You"

Irma Olguin Jr. is a queer Latina founder, a first-gen college student, and the daughter of migrant farm workers. But more than anything, she’s a trailblazer whose entire career revolves around opening doors for others. Irma’s company, Bitwise Industries, is bridging the gap between people from marginalized communities to opportunities in the tech industry.

Founded in 2013, Bitwise trains people who are traditionally left out of the tech industry, connects them to meaningful tech opportunities, and builds vibrant buildings in underestimated cities. In other words: the company empowers humans to improve their own lives—and in the process, transform their city.

As part of Welcome's Open Doors event series, Olguin Jr. recently joined our CEO Roberto Ortiz for a stirring fireside chat about how her upbringing in rural Central California shaped her, how a college prep test serendipitously propelled her into a storied career in tech, and why it’s her life mission to help others create their own future. We hope this conversation lights a fire under you to open doors for others, just as it did for us.

Keep scrolling to read the full transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for clarity.

Event Transcript

Roberto: Can you take us back to the beginning? You grew up in Fresno in a family of farm laborers. Take us there—what was your upbringing like?

Irma: When folks think about California, they often think about San Diego or Los Angeles or San Francisco. But what isn't immediately obvious is that there's this whole heartland inside of California that is a very different place. We're talking about the Central Valley or the San Joaquin valley where we actually produce between 20-30% of the world's food. It's where a lot of your staples that you find on tables—not just in the United States, but across the world—come from. And what makes that possible is that agriculture has been the driving industry of that place. In fact, those towns were initially built to sustain that agricultural economy.

And so you've got a place like Fresno, which is a half a million people in the city, with a wide number of people who live in these little rural towns dotting the landscape. And that's actually where I'm from. So even though I say Fresno, I'm actually from a town 25 miles west of Fresno. My mom's house is literally situated among the orchards and the vineyards and her nearest neighbors a mile away.

And now today, you're a force for technology and a force that drives opportunity. What was the open door that got you onto that path as a young girl?

I think about the life I get to live today versus that environment that I came from, and that distance traveled. It never leaves my mind. It never, ever leaves my mind.

California has been on fire for like a month. It's very smoky and hot. So I decided to leave the area for a couple of days. And I just so happen to be sitting 40 yards from a lake right now. With the life that I get to lead, I have choices now... it's like, I can decide if I'm going to leave town. I can decide if I'm going to rent, you know, a little spot by a lake. But the background that I come from and that so many of the folks who are tuning in I imagine come from too, you didn't have a lot of choices. You didn't get to choose that for yourself. You're kind of in survival mode in many ways.

And so how does that happen? How does a girl from the descendant of Mexican immigrants whose family grew up in the fields end up here? It’s a wild story of serendipity. It wasn’t a plan someone had for me, but instead these accidental moments that put me on a completely different path so that I get to live the life that I lead today. But you don't know that they're necessarily happening in the moment. You don't know that one of those moments will change your life forever.

So I’m 15 years old, sitting in my high school classroom, out in the middle of nowhere. There's an announcement over the PA speaker that the PSAT (preliminary SAT) is being held in the cafeteria. And I'll tell you, Roberto, I didn't know what the PSAT was because I was not a college-bound student, so I didn't pay attention to stuff like that, but I was 15 years old. And I remember thinking to myself that I could get out of class for half a day if I went to the cafeteria.

I did well on the test and I started getting mail from colleges that are basically an invitation to go to school. Accidentally going to the cafeteria to get out of class for half a day, where I ended up taking a test that would change my life forever was not part of somebody's master plan, you know? But when you start reading that mail that has your name on it and you think to yourself, “maybe college is an opportunity for folks like me” it changes a lot of things. It starts to change everything about how you think about yourself, your family, your life, your existence.

I ended up receiving a piece of mail in the mail, and it was an opportunity to accept a scholarship from the University of Toledo in Ohio. I literally called the school to see if it was a scam. Like, “is this a real scholarship opportunity? Or is this somebody yanking my chain?”

A lot of times in Latino culture, there’s a tight-knit community and everyone lives down the street. And now you were the first to move away. What was your family’s reaction?

I appreciate you even going there because I think what a lot of folks don't realize is that this wasn't necessarily received as good news. They were proud of me but this created a whole new set of problems for us as a family. It was like, “if this is something you're actually interested in like good luck, because how are you going to get over there?”

We lived 2,500 miles away from Ohio and we didn’t have a reliable car. There was no way anybody that we knew had money for something like an airline ticket. The way that the story played out, you know, my family is really scrappy and we were no strangers to recycling cans and bottles. So I recruited the folks around me and we recycled cans and bottles all summer long and traded that in at the recycle depot, got some cash back, and bought a Greyhound bus ticket. And that is literally how I got to Ohio to arrive at orientation to claim that scholarship.

The problem is the bus ticket. What stands in the way of so many people taking advantage of their next opportunity is whether or not they can put gas in the tank to get from here to there. So many folks grow up in the places we call “underdog cities” or underestimated cities. That’s what they’re facing. They're too hungry to think about it. They can't find somebody to take care of their kids so they can take a class that doesn't cost them anything.

Those are the real-life pieces that we don't talk about enough if you ask me, and that's what stops people from accessing opportunity—whether it's in the technology industry or anywhere else—that might change their lives. 

One of those things I appreciate about you and your story is that you're an open book. I really appreciate you sharing that story. So now you're in college, you studied computer programming, but you never had exposure to it before. So how did you first get into tech?

Well, the plot thickens. I arrive across the country. I get off the bus with my duffel and my backpack. I'm 17 years old. I don't know anybody here. I’m telling myself, “please don't let this be a joke.” I get to the table to claim my scholarship and this lady looks at me and says, “tell me what your major is so I can send you to the right college for orientation.” 

And I was like, what do you mean? I don't know the system, the language. I feel like I'm in a foreign country, you know? She gives me this catalogue and tells me to look at the areas of study to choose a major, because that’s what you’ll focus on for the next several years of your life. So I flipped through the catalogue and this is not a joke: I spotted a new glass building that had just been built. And I remember thinking to myself—again, I was 17 years old across the country—”wouldn't it be neat to take classes in a glass building?”

That building turned out to be the college of engineering. And that is literally the story of how I became a computer scientist and computer engineer, because I thought it would be neat to watch the snow fall outside the window.

You can’t make that up. Okay. So you're in Ohio, you study computer science. Then after you wrapped that up, you decided to go back to Fresno. What brought you back?

I think it's really important to play that song to the end because now I'm in a completely different arena. I'm not a laborer at the bottom of the minimum wage jail anymore. Now I'm getting into my professional existence where I'm a computer engineer and earning an engineer wage.

Those first couple of checks blew my mind. I didn't realize life could be like this. I did not realize that I didn't have to pay attention to whether gas was 5 cents cheaper across the street. I kept having those moments again and again, where I was like, this is changing everything I thought I understood about what life is like. Even at the bottom of the totem pole in the technology industry I was earning more than I had ever seen in my life, and it was already radically changing my existence.

And there's one story I need to tell. I was working late with my peers and they decided to order a pizza. I gave my colleague a $20 bill to pay the pizza delivery guy. He turned back to me and said, “hey, how much do you want to leave for the tip?” And I yelled back across the room at him, “tell him to keep the change.” The world stopped spinning altogether at that moment, because I'd never in my life, not counted the change. Never in my life did I just say, “keep it, it's fine”.

That ability to choose for yourself and to help somebody else with an extra couple of dollars in their pocket–I needed to figure out whatever that is. I needed to bring that home to people who grew up like I did. The “keep the change” moments. And that is ultimately not just why I came home, but also what Bitwise does. To create more of those moments.

"I did not realize that I didn't have to pay attention to whether gas was five cents cheaper across the street."

Keep the change moments. I hope that folks on this call are thinking to themselves, “I’ve had moments like that in my life too”. Now let's get into Bitwise because I'm a big fan. What was the spark behind Bitwise Industries?

My co-founder Jake Soberal has a similar life story to mine; he’s also the descendant of Mexican immigrants and has a family who weren't necessarily in knowledge work. They were using their bodies as a way to earn their wage, whether it be labor or being a security guard. What we wanted to do with Bitwise was to take the things that are serendipitous in our lives and see if we could actually peel them apart and create a system out of them.

At Bitwise, we build tech economies in underestimated cities. So how do you build the tech economy? Take each of the things that you just heard about my life story: the scholarship that I ended up with by accident, that bus ticket that was standing in my way. How do you actually skill people into this industry when you know the reality of their life? When what’s standing in their way are food security, transportation, and being able to pay all the bills in the same month? The answer to technology education is knowing where folks are coming from. So that's the first thing that we do.

The second thing that we do is just like that glass building in the catalogue. The “castles for underdogs”, the aspirational places that make folks feel like it's for them and they can self-select into being there so that they can be around that community. What we do is route all of our work to your hometown, so you don't feel like you have to leave to go somewhere else to live the highest and best version of your life. 

And then the third thing is that first job that changed my life. How do you get more people into those jobs so they can experience that “keep the change” moment for themselves?

So each of those three things became Bitwise industries, but these things in my life happened by accident. We asked instead: How do you do them on purpose? How do you expose more people who grew up like you did in the places that you did to this opportunity in the technology industry?

You're building these castles for underdogs and hopefully in every city, across America, every underserved community. So what does that mean for someone stepping into Bitwise who sees folks who look like them, people who are championing their success? People that are championing them. What does it mean for the communities and the people that you guys are impacting?

What we do is build tech economies in underestimated cities, but how we do it, the ethos behind it, our mantra is: “no one belongs here more than you.” And it's printed on stickers and shirts and hats.

And when you really take a step back and internalize that, the technology industry as a whole has not made people feel welcome, right? We really ostracize the the black and brown communities, the female and gender non-binary communities, the single mothers or single parents. Like as an industry, we really do tell folks, “hey, this is not for you.”

So Bitwise is all about doing away with that and saying: “We're not cool with that. That's not going to be the industry or the place that we represent.” And so everything that we can do—whatever your life circumstances are—is to help remove those barriers, because let's be honest, being in the technology industry is not about being good at math. That is a fallacy. That is a myth. What it is about is creating enough space in your life that you get to practice one thing over and over until you're good at it. That is what the true barrier to entry is with the technology industry. Really, that's what it comes down to.

If we can remove the idea that you don't have anybody to watch your nephew, if we can remove the idea that you don't have a reliable vehicle to get you 30 miles to where you take your class, if we could do away with that and create space in your life to practice, you belong in that place as much as anybody else. And you can be just as good as the Co-founder and the CEO of Welcome or Bitwise Industries.

"The technology industry as a whole has not made people feel welcome. We really ostracize the the black and brown communities, the female and gender non-binary communities, the single mothers or single parents. As an industry, we really do tell folks, 'hey, this is not for you.'"

Let's go. Let's go. You know, I'm getting goosebumps here. I think what you're doing is phenomenal. What many folks don’t see are the barriers. We don’t go knocking on the door because we don’t see the door, or even if we see the door, we don’t have the keys to unlock that very complicated lock.

So what has to change in the technology industry in order for us to really give people the shots and open up the doors?

When you think of the industry, you think of the big technology companies that are famous and everybody's got one of their logos in their living room right now. But that is not how we're going to change things. Let me be as clear as can be: they are not coming to save us. They're going to spend a lot of money on PR and other things, but they are not going to move the needle when it comes to bringing more of the black and brown communities or the female and gender non-binary folks into the technology industry.

What is going to move the needle though, is that first line on the resume—whether you're working for a school district or a local hospital or a local manufacturer or a local startup—being local. That’s what is going to move the needle when it comes to D&I in the technology industry. We really need to adjust our thinking in that the first line on the resume, it needs to be local. So 1) you're going to go get your licks in and earn your stripes with a regional company; and 2) We have to stop expecting those big companies to come and fix everything.

And so when you're looking for that first line and you're getting rejected by the big names and technology, think of the Welcomes, think of the Bitwise Industries. There is a cultural shift that is happening when it comes to startups and-growth stage companies who believe in a more just and equitable world.

You are a queer Latina, female engineer from Central Valley who collected cans to buy a bus ticket to go to college out of state. There is no story more unconventional than that, but the truth is that a lot of folks don't realize how hard it is, even in the midst of the journey. In the midst of scaling an organization, leading, and trying to make these decisions. What were some of those challenges that you had to work through yourself?

I think the benefit of coming from the places that you and I come from is that you kind of expect it to be hard, right? Like everything you ever do is not not going to be a battle. So you're sort of built for that. Don't get me wrong, it's exhausting to not feel like you belong or let you're not good enough, or that this opportunity is never going to come in your direction. You're always chasing it. But you do have the muscles and you get to experience the fight in a way that you've been taught your whole life.

So I think that’s a positive, but one thing that’s been really hard is the distance that my current life creates for my family. And what I mean by that is these things that I get to do the way, the decisions that I make every day, the way that I run my company and live my life is pretty far away from what my family knows and understands.

I was reading up on an open letter that you wrote. I think that was at the beginning of this year for Bitwise and I'm going to read this quote from the letter to set it up: “It’s time to stop expecting the tech giants to be better and instead become a giant ourselves...We're going to use tech to solve real problems by betting on talent that knows real problems.” Come on. That's an incredibly powerful statement. Tell me, what’s the future of Bitwise?

Being invited to a talk like this so that I can tell my story and help people understand what Bitwise does is a really big deal, but nothing would make me happier than if my story weren't at all special. That's the future I want to live in, where folks get to choose for themselves what their lives are going to look like and don’t have to live in economic terror all the time.

When I think about the future, I think that we're at the starting line in many ways of what can be accomplished. I'm excited that I get to tell that story, to encourage more people, to be a part of it so that we can be in that future we all want to create for ourselves.

"Everybody is deserving of a basic level of safety and dignity. If we can get anywhere close to that, that’ll fulfill not only my life's desire, but my purpose as well."