Although I spent a lot of my college education looking for the right direction, it was after I decided to apply for a PhD program in Biology that a chance encounter changed my career path permanently. This new direction is helping to create new, and more diverse data leaders in Silicon Valley’s backyard.

I was working as an administrative assistant for a program at UC Santa Cruz that was trying to drive up diversity in STEM. My local community outreach brought me to Watsonville, California, a farmworker community 45 minutes south of San Jose. I was walking in the downtown on a cold evening in 2013 and came across a young woman sitting near the street working on her laptop. 

I introduced myself and said I was involved in computer science education. She told me she was doing a research paper for her community college course. When I asked her what she was doing there she said she didn’t have internet access at home, couldn’t afford to go to Starbucks, and that the library was closed. So she was sitting outside tapping into a building’s Wi-Fi so she could work.

I went home to my wife and vented my frustration. This happened less than an hour from Silicon Valley. All this wealth and these cool environments and people wanting to go work for Google and Apple was literally right over the hill, but here was this brilliant young woman working outdoors in the cold at night on a research paper because she had no internet access.

That sparked a thought: what if I could bring the model of a Silicon Valley campus to our STEM diversity community and create a coworking space? What if I invested in our young people the way Silicon Valley invests in their employees – the best working environments and technology – and then layer on training and education? I pitched the idea to a retired executive friend and he told me he’d give me $100,000 of seed money to launch the idea if I could raise another $200,000 in six months. I raised $300,000 in 60 days, and Digital NEST (Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology) was born. 

Growing tomorrow’s data leaders
Silicon Valley likes to say that it needs diversity but can’t find that talent locally, so leading tech companies continue to recruit from big universities outside our region. In forming Digital NEST, I wanted to counter that argument with proof that there was rich talent right here in our region. Our business model is to open Digital NEST centers all around Silicon Valley and raise companies’ awareness of us. To date we’ve opened centers in Watsonville, Salinas, Gilroy, and Modesto, with a fifth center on the way, and served close to 4,000 students over the past decade. 

As any data leader knows, internet access and computers are just the beginning of what’s needed to thrive. That’s why Digital NEST also offers technical skills, professional skills, and career navigation skills, all free of charge. This includes career mentoring, coaching, job search skills, and how to navigate through change.

For everything we offer, though, I think the most valuable element is also the least tangible and the hardest to build – a social network and a safety net. Young tech workers from big universities who have alumni and family connections often don’t realize what a luxury these connections are. They often play out into membership in data communities and user groups once people join companies. If you are a first-generation student in the US and come from a world without these connections, you are likely to feel left out. You’re also unlikely to be able to field lot of questions on your own, such as one we just heard recently: “My company is being acquired and I have equity: what does that mean for me?” 

Finding talent to educate new talent
Unsurprisingly, if you’re a freshly minted technology worker on the cutting edge of AI, you have the luxury of choice when it comes to job offers. A tech non-profit, even a well-funded one, is unlikely to draw your attention. Assembling the brain power and knowledge we need to prepare young people for those future careers in data and analytics is an ongoing challenge. Our success rate is also higher when our students feel they can build relationships with their instructors. 

As hard as the work is, we have some great success stories. We placed one Digital NEST graduate at a San Francisco tech company as an entry-level software engineer and the CEO loved him. He asked us to send more talent his way, and we did. Now four of our graduates work at this company but still live in their communities. On a recent commute they discovered that among themselves they are pulling down $550,000 a year. This is money that is staying in our communities, empowering future homeowners here, and money that would have been lost if we didn’t have this employer’s trust and partnership.

The value of data companies stepping up
New, emerging, and diverse tech talent is going to come from places like Digital NEST, but success also will require investment from company employers. The onus will be on them to make investments in the professional development of the next generation that will become our new data leaders. Companies can’t rely on universities or colleges here, because technology is changing too rapidly. Systemic change will be required to ensure that America stays competitive.

What can data leaders do to help foster new talent and build data leadership diversity? Especially if you’re a midrange or smaller company, I would say you should look beyond the expected. The Berkeleys and Stanfords of the world will continue to produce talent for Google and Meta, but others will have to think outside the box. There is community college system talent that you need to look at. There is the state school system in nearly every state, and certainly here in California. Poaching talent from other companies is quickly becoming a zero-sum game, and as we move into a skills-based economy, thinking about data talent in innovative ways is a great way to generate competitive advantage for the long term.