When you think of Fresno, the first word that comes to mind probably isn’t “innovation.” Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin Jr. are part of a wave of Central Valley entrepreneurs hoping to change that. In 2013, they founded Bitwise Industries, and over the next 5 years went on to create a transformational 250,000 sq. ft. space: part school, part incubator, part auditorium, and 100% tech ecosystem.

Speaking with Peter Hirshberg as they toured the facilities – a bustling community of startups next to nonprofits next to classrooms, sharing access to workspaces, shops, a legal office, and a stadium-seating theater – Jake said that the reaction he gets most often is, “This feels nothing like Fresno.” But Jake and Irma both grew up here, and most of the talent and investors at Bitwise are local, too: “This is exactly Fresno.” Fresno’s at an inflection point: it’s rapidly revitalizing with a boom in development and downtown growth, but it still holds onto its self-image as “America’s most broken city,” and it has yet to really catch the attention of neighboring Silicon Valley, much less the national news cycle.

Jake and Irma, who spent time on the East Coast and have backgrounds in law and business, have identified at least 150 medium-to-large American cities like Fresno that are bursting at the seams with trapped potential. Often, these “underdog cities” are dominated by an older, entrenched industry – in Fresno, it’s agriculture. Bitwise is looking into how its learnings can be shared to help underdog cities embrace innovation, offering new opportunities to marginalized groups and workers who have seen their horizons narrowing over time. It’s not just about traditional job retraining, which has often failed in the past (most painfully as part of the pre-2016 progressive agenda). It’s about creating a space where people can dream, and providing a healthy ecosystem for those dreams to grow – and speeding up both the skills cycle and the rate of meeting employer needs. 

In just five years, Bitwise has trained 3,500 students for tech jobs, and incubated 200 companies. Jake doesn’t see anything miraculous in this. “There is a meaningful number of human beings for which a career in technology is an ambition, right? Just because you live in Fresno doesn’t mean that you didn’t have that ambition; the world has just told you that that’s not for you.” Nor does he see progress slowing any time soon – California adds new tech jobs at a rate of 45,000 per year, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor projects over 1 million coding jobs by 2024. Peter and Jake encountered a group of local high-schoolers, also on a tour of Bitwise, excitedly exploring and asking questions. Jake sees his work, in large part, as activating Fresno’s “latent ambition”: by all measures, it’s going very well.

Watch The Highlights

 


JAKE: Irma and I founded Bitwise in 2013, and the intention was to use the technology industry to fix our city, by building out what we viewed as missing pieces for the technology industry – in Fresno, specifically, and in cities like Fresno, what we call “underdog cities.” We wanted to tackle three things.

The first was education. How do you enter the technology industry? Specifically for the most left out among us we use the example commonly in Fresno of the son or daughter of a migrant farm worker how do we make it possible for them to become a computer programmer?

The second thing was how do we create quality place, such that folks feel as though they have an inspiring environment in which to build and grow their company, to attract and retain talent, and to enjoy community around the technology industry. We began buying blighted properties in our downtown area and developing them in the way that we’ll talk more about.

The third piece is that we wanted to change culture, such that folks felt licensed to try to build technology companies in Fresno, a market that’s not traditionally known for the technology industry, or entrepreneurship even.

We wanted to tackle those three things because we thought those, added to what was already going on in the technology industry, would have the effect of activating the industry, and people for it, in Fresno.

Education falls under the brand of “Geekwise Academy” for us. We teach people to code, from project-based learning, to apprenticeship, to career. We’ve trained 3,500 students in five years. 80% will leave our career program and earn employment. And the demographics of those earning employment match the demographics of our county: greater than 50% female, greater than 50% minority, and about 20% first-generation.

On the placemaking side, we’ve developed 250,000 square feet in downtown Fresno, with 200 technology companies. And on the changing culture side, we’ve built a portfolio of software companies that are comprised of the students we’ve trained. We’ve hired them onto our full-time teams, to model what it looks like to use locally-created talent to build world-class software companies.

That’s the high-level overview. Where we’re standing is, of course, a physical manifestation of what I’ve talked about. This is the first project that we built out. It’s a historic building that we adaptively reused as a technology hub. And there are 44 technology companies in here, a couple of collaborative working spaces, and some other supportive elements.

 

PETER: Is it local talent that runs these companies and knows how to deploy capital, or is it people moving here?

 

The first step was to catalyze what was here, because there was certainly quite a lot to be proud of, but it was dispersed, and there was no sense of community around that effort. After that was done, the growth has been bidirectional. The best outcome is that five years into this, we’ve been able to begin folks at a very low level, and then they gain experience that allows them to grow up into more senior roles. But the things that we’re doing also make it viable for somebody to enter the ecosystem now as a lateral. They might be a boomerang to this community, or they might be somebody who is reaching the stage in life where they’d like to be in a different community, or their preferences are just different. And now Fresno is a viable place to do the sorts of things they had wanted to do when they began in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

 

Where is Fresno on the spectrum of “beginning to develop” to “it’s blossomed and it’s happened”? Because it seems like there’s a lot of energy here.

 

When you look at downtown revitalization in Fresno, which I think is indicative of the movement of our city as a whole, we’re maybe at the end of the first quarter of the race, in that there’s a lot of work left to be done. The interesting and exciting thing is that the work beneath the surface the work of moving to a form-based code, of updating the general plan, of updating infrastructure in our downtown all of that work has been done, and now it’s this canvas that can be painted on. You’re seeing a lot of the early projects come to life, and there’s great hope and reason to be excited about what’s in the pipeline now.

 

Let’s take a look at Bitwise, and maybe you can describe the kinds of companies that are here, what’s developing, and the complexion of the community.

 

The place we’re standing is a mixed-use facility, which is meant to support the experience of being an entrepreneur. We have, to either side of us, a coffee shop, a UPS Store, and shared conference rooms. We have an intellectual property law firm here, which is a critical piece of growing a technology industry. And then as we walk down the corridor, on either side of us are going to be technology companies of all forms and fashions. Most of them are working on some sort of software product, but they could be working on marketing technology, they could be working on healthcare technology. And they range in size in this building from 200 square feet all the way up to 6,000 square feet, from two employees all the way up to 100 employees.

There are some neat communal elements. This building was built as an indoor car dealership, and one of the remnants was a 150 ft. long ramp that was designed to get cars upstairs. What we were able to do is reimagine that as a 200-seat stadium seating theater. This provided a venue for the pitch or talk or demo that might have been just chairs in the lobby now we can do it in a way that feels interesting and fun and inspiring, and is uniquely of this building and this community.

We’ve done everything: we’ve had mayoral and gubernatorial debates, we’ve had musical acts, we’ve had comedy shows. We average about 16 events a week in this building. It serves two very distinct purposes. The first is to provide a venue for the gatherings that members of this community might host. But secondarily, we provide a venue for cultural gatherings more generally, with the intention of bringing the broader community into the building to see what’s going on here, as a means of hope, and a means of excitement for the future of our regional economy.

 

It must be fascinating for members of the broader community who hadn’t been exposed to this culture, to see something like this thriving.

 

People walk in and, to a person, the reaction is, “This feels nothing like Fresno.” And then the response in my mind is: Irma and I are both of Fresno, Irma and I thought this up, Irma and I brought this to life with the help of a great many people. This is exactly Fresno. We just haven’t given ourselves permission to live out these dreams. For some reason, the world gave Irma and me that permission. And hopefully, this inspires others to do the same.

 

Fresno is such an agricultural center. How much are the startups here focused on that industry?

 

I think about 10% of our companies are focused on agricultural technology, and there certainly is a geographic advantage to that. One thing to keep in mind is the agricultural technology industry is still in its infancy. We have some really phenomenal companies that are mature in Fresno: Agrian, Famous Software. But they are the exception, and the norm are folks working on solutions that are really pre-adoption. What that means is that we can’t build a regional technology economy on agricultural technology alone.

And just because you grow up in the Central Valley, it doesn’t mean that you dream about building agricultural technology. There’s no reason you can’t dream about building an autonomous car. So our technology companies range really wildly. Most of them are SaaS-focused, but not exclusively, and they range from B-to-B solutions in healthcare and insurance, to B-to-C solutions in hospitality and consumer goods. It really is a broad, broad range.

We’re less focused on the industry niche being served, and more focused on creating community around technology. Our tenants fall into one of four categories. The first is “technology,” which is obvious. Then, “tech-enabled.” The third is “mission-aligned.” We leased an entire area of one of our buildings to mission-aligned nonprofits. That’s important because when we talk about bringing immigrants and women and people of color into the technology industry, we implicitly run into a lot of the issues that these organizations are working on. So we want to be supportive of them and they of us. And then the last category is “supportive services,” like the coffee shop, the gym, and so on.

 

This brings so much diverse talent together. It creates an environment where everybody’s learning from each other: the nonprofits are getting to understand what the companies are doing, and the companies are getting closer to the issues. These are the classic kinds of “collisions” we want in innovation culture, but in a way accentuated by the great dynamic range of people you touch in Fresno. 

What about capital? Are the investors local, or from the Bay Area?

 

Two years ago, 90% of the companies in our building were bootstrapped. I think today that number has dramatically changed because of the visibility of what we’re doing and the growth of the technology industry.

But there is a disconnect between the type of company that is started by an entrepreneur who is very much of Fresno, versus an entrepreneur from Silicon Valley. What will happen as a result is the type of early stage entrepreneur that’s in Fresno will run into the venture capitalists and they will not be speaking the same language.

We have a pretty rich ecosystem today of seed-stage angel investing happening in Fresno. There is still the challenge of the person who does not come from a background of privilege knowing how and where to ask for that money, but there is availability of capital in that space. Once you get beyond that, into a series A or any level of growth capital, it’s about jumping the gap are you going to either stall your growth, or are you going to go build relationships in Silicon Valley and beyond?

There is still not a rich flow back and forth, which I think is a great detriment to Silicon Valley and to Fresno. Silicon Valley misses out on a diverse set of ideas and people, and we miss out on capital. One of the things that at scale needs to change is the connectivity between capital markets and secondary cities.

 

Well, that sounds like a great opportunity, especially as someone who’s been working on this from the Silicon Valley arena. You fly out to Ohio, you go out to Missouri but just in our backyard is the whole Central Valley that’s so different and yet so palpably developing. That connectivity seems like a wonderful California project.

 

Sometimes it feels as though Silicon Valley will fly to Africa before they’ll come to the Central Valley. And that’s not to say that Africa doesn’t have needs. But on the commercial side, we are so frothy in venture capital today that you would think we’d be eagerly looking for new ponds to fish in. And then on the social side, the stuff that we talk about caring about, immigration and poverty and water and food and crime and land use and on and on and on there isn’t any dot on a map where those things collide more acutely than they do in the Central Valley of California. It would seem to be the logical place to apply force, yet none is being applied.

[Continuing the tour into the shared entryway]

 

There’s a group of about 25 young people coming toward us, taking a tour of Bitwise. Who are they?

 

Those are the students we are aggressively inviting onsite, in the hopes of just communicating to them that this can be a part of your story; you have permission to dream in this space. Invariably, that will turn on and excite interest among some of them to become part of this community and part of the future of the technology industry in Fresno.

This group is high school. We focus pretty tightly on Fresno and neighboring counties: Madera to the north and Tulare and Kings to the south. We bring a lot of students through, normally about two or three groups a day.

 

What does student engagement look like in general?

 

This is the tip of the spear—coming through for a tour to understand more about what’s here. That has the ability to evolve with every school district: we have partner programs that could range from summer programs to school-year programs in which they are learning some level of computer programming skill.

 

And you’re raising money to scale that educational programming?

 

Yes. To date, we’ve built Geekwise Academy, which trains 3,500 students a year at all different age levels to code. We had to build it profitably from the start. But that approach gates growth. As we’ve seen success out of that, we’ve said, “We’ve got to lean into this, train heavier, because they’re landing jobs in the industry.” So we’re raising money around the notion of scaling the work that we’re doing at Geekwise Academy.

 

As you train, you’re creating new capacity – how does that affect the job market here?

 

It’s something that we think aboutbut importantly, I don’t think we have to worry. And here’s why.

First, I think that we get so caught up in the idea of, “Well, a technologist works at a company that looks like Facebook or Google.” But most technologists in the world will work jobs that a Silicon Valley engineer would turn their nose up at as boring and uninteresting. Those same jobs are fundamentally transformative for the people of Fresno County. A great many of the people that leave Geekwise Academy will work in a technical role for the city, for the county, for the school district, for a manufacturer. There are technology jobs in places where people don’t expect them.

Second, we aren’t doing anything as a state to put a dent in the 1 million unfilled tech jobs projected by 2020. There is no chance of us, at a clip of 3,500 students over the course of five years, running out of space. We have not run into capacity issues in terms of job and student fit in Fresno. Also, increasingly, students whose ambitions take them outside of Fresno are using the education at Geekwise Academy to go and land a job in San Francisco, Chicago, New York wherever it is that their journey takes them.

[Continuing the tour downstairs]

 

How many people work in the building?

 

We have about 1,200 daily users of the building, and about 800 of those are employees or their clients. We have coworking intermixed with office suites. The membership costs $39 a month.

 

That’s pretty startling, compared to what I pay for WeWork in San Francisco. 

 

The markets are dramatically different. But that cost advantage is not interesting to the technology industry until a market becomes viableso what Bitwise is after is creating that viability.

[Continuing the tour into the basement]

We have six full-size classrooms here; this is the classroom learning space of Geekwise Academy.

The core of our offering is our six-week modules that teach a single building block towards becoming a computer programmer. They cost $250 per module. That is intended then to track into our apprenticeship program, which is a paid program that lasts between 6 and 18 months where you’re working on real world scopes of work under more senior developer talent. And then that flows into a job through our career program.

For a module that qualifies as a career program, you are 60% likely to earn a job immediately. If you stick around for our apprenticeship program, which is invitation-only, 100% of students have earned jobs. So, blended, 80% of students have earned employment leaving Geekwise Academy.

 

How many of the six-week modules, the $250 investments, do people need before they can get hired as an apprentice?

 

We say that if you are a rockstar, you should plan on being here for six months, or four courses, to get to an entry-level spot. More likely, plan on spending 18 months. To become an entry-level web developer, if you’re here for 18 months, you’ve spent a total of $3,000 on your education.

The minority of the students earning employment are making it to the apprenticeship. The majority of them are leaving the career program and going directly into employment with a third-party company.

 

Because they’ve accumulated enough skills in that 18 months that they’ve passed the threshold and they’re ready to go to work?

 

That’s right. You might imagine the apprenticeship program as a graduate fellowship of sorts, in that you’re sticking around and going deeper, but not everybody needs or wants that.

We also have partnerships with almost every college and university in the county Fresno State, Fresno City College, West Hills Community College where we offer joint programs here out of the facility. We work with almost every level of traditional educator, but most closely with community colleges, because we really are a vocational educator at our core, and the students of community colleges are the biggest group of students seeking jobs.

 

You’ve been at this for five years, and there was a lot of road to cover. You and your partner are extraordinary leaders, but there’s something that went on here that accelerated things. How do you explain the speed?

 

I think that a lot people underestimate the energy that existed and had been pent up before there ever was a Bitwise in Fresno. Our hypothesis would certainly be that there is a similar truth in cities like Fresno around the country.

There is a meaningful number of human beings for which a career in technology is an ambition, right? Just because you live in Fresno doesn’t mean that you didn’t have that ambition. The world has just told you that that’s not for you. When someone says, “No, no, no, this canbe for you,” all of a sudden they activate that latent ambition. Not to mention the number of technology companies that were being built in silos out here in the wilderness.

 

So, there were people who aspired to this but didn’t know it was a possibility, and there was a whole bunch of need in terms of unfilled jobs. And you connected those two, which lit a fire.

 

Right. And I think that if we look broadly, the conservative estimates are that maybe 40% of all jobs in the United States should be in tech, but something like 1% currently are.

 

What’s the connectivity like between Bitwise and the employer community in the Central Valley?

 

Pretty strong. Everything we teach at Geekwise Academy is informed by what we know to be the hiring needs in the Central Valley today. We have relationships with local companies that are hiring technology positions, both technical companies and non-technical companies, that are telling us, “Hey, we need .NET, we need Ruby on Rails, we need Python, we need”whatever it may be. And then we teach to that need, if we are able to observe sufficient demand. In that way, it’s just-in-time talent for these companies.

The skills that we teach, we know have broader application, in that if we teach somebody Ruby on Rails, they now have information literacy such that they might be able to acquire Python and Django on their own or level up for a job in a different area. And we know that there is sufficient Ruby on Rails demand out there in the world, here in Fresno and elsewhere, that they might not land the job that we were teeing them up for, but there are plenty others out there for them.

 

What were you doing before this?

 

I was an intellectual property attorney. And Irma was an engineer and entrepreneur. We were both from Fresno, but lived the story of leaving in pursuit of big dreams.

In law school, I took an externship at the Court of Appeal here, fell in love with the city anew as an adult, and felt a sense of calling to be back here. I decided that I wanted to move back and build an intellectual property practice. I did that, and a year and a half into building that practice, Irma and I dreamt up Bitwise and here we are.

Irma, for her part, grew up here. The daughter of migrant farm workers, rolling raisins, went away to school on a full academic scholarship, bounced around the country working for mostly international companies as a technologist, and then decided also, very intentionally, to come back. It was in that context that we met. She had started a bunch of companies and initiatives that were catalyzing the technology industry and doing really exciting things. And I wanted to ride her coattails, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

 

You and Irma have written a lot about Fresno, the history of sprawl, and urban planning gone awry.

There’s this notion of Fresno as America’s most broken city what we mean by that is that it’s hard to imagine a single place where more of the seemingly intractable issues facing our country converge. Issues of poverty, issues of land use, issues of water, issues of education, issues of immigration, and on and on and on. Either that breeds just a defeating weight of challenge, orwe can think of Fresno asa laboratory for how we fix the American city, and a really good one at that.

From a political standpoint, we talk about, “Oh my goodness, how does the 2016 presidential election happen? How does the electorate wind up voting in such a surprising way that we weren’t anticipating?” That’s not surprising in a city like Fresno. We’ve designed for this.

If we want to alter that, if we want to feel as though we’ve got an informed electorate voting in a way that is predictable, at least, and understandable, and rational around the country, we’ve got to think about how we include the middle of our country in the most exciting segments of the economy. And we’ve got to pay attention to whether the prosperity at the edges of our country is being shared at the middle of our country. And it’s patently not.

 

One of the most encouraging things in the last few years is the phenomenon you pointed out, which is this latent demand and capacity for tech, and the opportunity to do it not in the three most expensive places. The fact that that’s going on is completely encouraging. The annoying part is that it’s under the radar and gets edged out of the national news.

 

The noise of negative and hollow storytelling is really loud. A lot of really positive things are missedbut it’s not just, “this would be encouraging to know about.” A lot of positive things are missed and as a result, those things don’t get resourced. When you don’t tell a story about something unexpected and exciting going on in the middle of America or in the middle of California, the result of that is that there’s no way for the resource to meet the need, the investment dollar to find the company, the customer to find the product. And so the impacts are really, really significant. Bitwise is an example, but there are efforts all around the country going on that are not getting the attention they deserve.

 

Not only does it not resource something, but it gives energy to protectionism, because it cuts off the possibility that there’s something new and vibrant. A lot of populism is a defensive reaction to nostalgically keeping something the way it was. I would contrast that with localism and what you’re doing, which is about, “Here’s this great new thing, and it’s accessible to everybody.”

 

That’s exactly right. And the Fresno story relates to the national narrative in some really interesting and complicated ways. For example, the agricultural industry is overwhelmingly comprised of folks that are conservative, but it’s fundamentally dependent upon illegal immigration, and that doesn’t jive with conservative populism.

And then let’s consider the agricultural industry’s relationship to technology. The agricultural industry’s future is fundamentally dependent upon employing and using less humans, while the technology industry is fundamentally dependent upon repurposing those humans for a higher and better use at a higher and better wage.

For the moment the agriculture and technology industries would appear to be at odds, but our future has the same goal. They need not to use that human, we need to use that human in a way that creates greater prosperity. So, the argument is actually a loop, and that’s a complicated story, it’s an important story, but we’re not getting that deep into the story. We’re not telling it at all.

 

Is there curiosity from the agriculture industry that Bitwise could represent a path for the future of their community?

 

There’s absolutely a curiosity. I think that, in a vacuum, the agricultural industry wants a different and better future for our city in much the same way as Bitwise does. And we have many friends in that industry. Many of us come from that industry.

I think that one of the challenges in a place like Fresno is that the culture and economy has been built to sustain itself in scarcity. And when you’re sustaining yourself in scarcity and you’ve got a billion-dollar industry and we all know it’s rife with problems: water, immigration, labor, pesticides, the environmentbut it’s what feeds the city by way of its net economic product. It’s very, very difficult in scarcity where you can drink from that hoseit might be trickling, but it’s a billion-dollar hoseor we can place a long bet on growing a technology industry that could be a trillion-dollar hose flowing freely, but you’re not gonna feel that for a decade.

Irma says it all the time: “How are you gonna have space in your head to focus on a new and exciting career if you can’t put gas in the tank to get here?” And that’s Fresno as a whole. We are a city that for our history has had trouble putting gas in the tank, and Bitwise is standing up and asking it to dream. You experience all of the emotional hurdles that you would expect in clearing that gap.

 

This must be true both on the individual level and on the institutional level. For a person who’s struggling, that $39 a month is a lot, or that $250 a credit is a lot. That’s a leap of faith for someone to take in their career. And I guess for corporate or city resources, it’s also a leap of faith, because they have to keep feeding an existing mechanism, while there’s this future mechanism that’s a little bit more on the come.

 

That’s exactly right and the leap of faith is also about just a fundamental community belief in what’s happening. Cities like Fresno have been trained to believe that new and exciting things fail. So they might want desperately to believe in something like Bitwise, but that’s not how things work.

 

The narrative in a city or the core belief is a really big thing. And when a place starts talking about itself as America’s most broken city, hanging onto that is almost like a belief system.

 

I’ll give a really interesting example. Fresno is unequivocally at its most hopeful moment in decades, just if you look at objective fact. We’re one of the fastest growing population centers in the state of California. We have a downtown that is objectively revitalizing. It has a Triple-A baseball team, we have a Major League Soccer team that just came here, we have private and public sector investment, huge federal government investment, huge state investment coming into downtown. We have a university that’s performing at heights that they have never seen before, both academically and with a top-20 football team, it’s a huge deal. We have energy in and around the public school system. We have a greater level of economic prosperity in our region than ever before. We are 40 minutes from the gate of Yosemite, we are 30 minutes from the gate of Kings Canyon, and 45 minutes from the gate of Sequoia National Park. We have more lakes in this county than any other county in the United States. So, all of that: reason for extraordinary hope. Home prices are up, people are building again. All really, really good.

Irma and I are on a flight back to Fresno on Monday. And the wonderful, outgoing plane steward gets on the mic and says, “Who’s excited to get back to Fresno?” Boos and laughter. It was embarrassing. And he said, “The jewel of California.” Boos and laughter. And Irma and I just sat there thinking, “How could this still be the case?”

We have baked into our DNA as a city and culture that Fresno sucks. And removing that from the fabric of who we are is a long and painful process. And it requires, I think, two things. First, a patient invitation to people that believe that, to believe something different. And second, a very sort of indignant and punky attitudeif you believe something different about Fresno, I think you desperately need to stop caring about what people of the last 50 years have thought about this place, in the negative sense. And I think that there’s a culture rising up around that. The question isand I suspect that something similar is true in cities like Fresno around the United States“Do the forces of good or evil win?”

 

You might argue that while certain political leaders exploit this, the forces of evil are the forces of not believing, which just leads to declinebecause nobody’s actually willing to look at the alternative story.

 

I think that much of it is unintentional, but all of it has just damning consequences for our city and region. It is the voice that says we can’t enjoy broad prosperity in this place, and we can’t do better in the future. The future of our city is young, and it is people of color, and it’s people of a broad set of sexual orientations. And then when the political narrative nationally becomes that these people are the enemy to prosperity, it gets in the way and becomes insidious.

 

Which is why leadership matters in this. You can look at Trump and see a narrative of carnage that’s self-fulfilling, but on the other hand, you can look at the Democratic party’s 2016 message and see where it didn’t convince people the future included them. When Hillary Clinton went to Coal Country and talked about retraining, to an awful lot of people in America, that was an empty promise; they heard that and thought, “We’ve been here, done that. We got ‘training’ but we didn’t get the jobs.  It didn’t work out for us.” But in Fresno, you’re onto something profoundly different. You’ve plugged into a different set of economics and different truths.

 

Certainly, if you look nationally at folks who have tackled retraining, they tend to take a piece of the three pieces, if you will, that are Bitwise. Economic development, education, place and industry are invariably part of the equation – but they’re usually tackled in siloes. When we think about cities like Fresno, we think that the ecosystem solution is really, really critical and here’s why.

If we do retrain, even if it’s super high quality, with no obvious connectivity to the industry, what good is that? If we have industry with an objectively inferior venue and physical environment, what good is that? It’s not stable. You need all three to survive, and that’s true in every place on the map– but we ask a different and harder truth to somehow magically become the case in scarcity, in places like Fresno, like El Paso, like Milwaukee. We’ll try one thing that we know needs a companion, but we don’t give it the companion; that one thing will fail, and we’ll say, “Well, that place couldn’t work.” It makes no rational sense.

 

Let’s wrap up with the future. What’s the roadmap for underdog cities, and your own business?

 

One of the things that we are now actively thinking about is to what degree can our learnings here in Fresno be applied and have a similar impact in other cities.

We’ve become really intensely interested in a band of cities that we call underdog cities. Broadly, we’re talking about cities with fewer than three industries propping up the economy, industries that have the effect of being wealth-attracting, in that they take dollars in a lot of hands and put them in fewer hands; that tend to be decaying; that are not high wage, high growth industries. Cities that have one or more obviously marginalized people-groups, cities with decaying urban cores, cities that have been victims of sprawl– and on the upside, cities that have the presence of a community college or a university that’s not really topflight and probably should be; a regional airport; a certain population size.

They create a band of about 150 cities in the United States. Those that we’re focused on even more closely are cities that have a per-capita income of between $15,000 and $30,000 and have a population size of between 250,000 and 1.2 million people. We’re in the very early stages of exploring what sort of information sharing can we do, what sort of contribution can we make to those places and to people that care about those places in the same way that Irma and I care about this place.