02/20/2015 02:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Non-Profit Brings Tech to Rural Youth

2015-02-16-DigitalNEST20of29.jpgStaff members prepare for a workshop.

It was a foggy day in Watsonville, a town on California's central coast known for its berry farms and predominantly Hispanic population. We followed directions to an unassuming brown office building, with a paper sign reading 'Digital NEST' hanging near the door. The atmosphere completely changed once we went up the stairs.

The second floor of the building felt like a nest with its hip green interior and modern lighting. Jacob Martinez, the founder and Executive Director of Digital NEST, gave us a warm welcome.

"We are already looking at getting a larger building." Martinez told me. Pretty crazy, since the center hasn't been open for half a year.

As we looked around Martinez reminisced on Telemundo's recent visit. I remarked that the project was certainly getting press, I had recently read about Martinez on TechCrunch's list '10 Men Making Waves For Women in Tech.'

Digital NEST is getting attention because they are tackling tech's demographic problem. Silicon Valley is reliant on imported tech workers, and only about 25 percent of people who work in tech are women. To top it off: minority groups -- like Latinos -- are disproportionately underrepresented. This is exactly what Digital NEST wants to fix, and why they are located in a farming town populated mostly by Latin Americans.

By bringing in local 15-to-24-year-olds, encouraging young women to join, providing a safe place, contemporary computers, software, and workshops, Digital NEST aims to change the face of technology. Martinez sums up Digital NEST as a "Technology center that is removing barriers that youth face on the pathways to their careers."

Most importantly, Digital NEST works with local businesses so youth can gain on-the-job experience.

Digital NEST is in its infancy, but it already has received encouragement from Silicon Valley and the tech community in Santa Cruz County. In a short month, the nonprofit was able to raise $300,000 from individual donors (helped by an anonymous $100,000 matching donation). Pretty impressive for an organization that just sprouted up.

The center offers technology that many local families would find too expensive. This is made possible by software and hardware donations by some well-known names in tech. For instance, Adobe has provided the Adobe Suite, Smith Micro their animation software, and has given access to their learning platforms. Logitech and Plantronics have also supplied their hardware.

Recently, a representative from Google also came in and did a class on "deconstructing websites," Martinez told me.


Digital NEST members check out laptops.

The idea is not that all of these youths will necessarily go into the tech industry, but at least the programs will open doors to jobs requiring more specialized skills. The center is launching a certification program that will certify basic, and not-so-basic computer skills for the job market of today. Of course, by providing classes in animation, web development, and programming, youth can also be inspired to work in higher tier tech positions.

But even just basic skills with spreadsheets are in demand by local agriculture company Driscoll's, and according to Martinez, the berry farming company has to resort to importing workers from elsewhere. The center's certification program could provide a new pool of talent for local businesses.

Martinez is dreaming big for the project, he hopes that Watsonville will serve as a pilot program for a grander vision. To provide upward mobility for youth, he imagines having Digital NESTs in underserved towns across the country.

2015-02-16-DigitalNEST8of29.jpgJacob Martinez, Executive Director of the center.