Phil Castle, The Business Times
A lawyer involved in efforts to grow the technology sector in a rural and agricultural area believes the approach that worked in the Central Valley of California also could work in the Grand Valley of Colorado.
“This can happen in Grand Junction, too,” said Jake Soberal, chief executive officer and co-founder of Bitwise Industries in Fresno.
Soberal recounted his experiences at a leadership summit organized by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.
Bitwise Industries offers low-cost work spaces for individuals and small teams, does contract tech projects for firms and provides instruction in coding and other skills.
In the five years since its founding, the organization has built out and leased more than 60,000 square feet of space in helping to revitalize downtown Fresno even as the tech sector in that city had added jobs at twice the pace of other sectors, Soberal said. “It shows you what’s possible.”
Fresno and Grand Junction share similarities, Soberal said, in that they’re both located in rural and agricultural areas about half way between large cities and have proven susceptible to economic booms and busts.
Soberal said he grew up in Fresno, what he initially considered a place that ambitious young people move away from. He attended universities in North Carolina and Los Angeles and earned a law degree.
Soberal said he returned to Fresno, though, to work for judges there and later practice intellectual property law.
He said he discovered what he called an “undercurrent” of a technology sector, but nothing that was connected enough to promote economic development or downtown revitalization. Soberal joined with Bitwise co-founder Irma Olguin in an effort to change that.
Soberal said three missing pieces were added to the puzzle: what he called education, place and execution.
Education was the most important piece, he said, in teaching people the skills they needed to become introductory employees in the tech sector and to expand the availability of talent for tech firms. What became the Geekwise Academy offers training in coding and programming as well as other skills as defined by specific employers. High school students are bused in to take courses and participate in internships, he said.
The second piece was to provide a place for individuals and small tech firms to work —an environment Soberal described as perhaps weird and scrappy with brightly colored walls, music and craft beer, but also one that fosters community and a sense of ownership. Bitwise met what was pent-up demand in filing first an 8,000 square-foot building and then a 50,000 square-foot building, he said.
Execution means modeling what successful companies look like, he said.
Soberal also shared what he said were three observations about his experiences.
It’s important, he said, not to be skeptical of new ideas. Instead, the default position should be one of support.
Failures will happen, he said, but offer opportunities to learn, gain valuable experience and do things differently in the next attempt.
There’s an assumption big cities “have it all figured out,” but that’s not the case, he said. “I want to push back on that some.”
Instead, big cities have become unlivable. Small towns and medium-sized cities could become more important.
If efforts to develop the technology sector can succeed in Fresno — what Soberal called the least likely of places to have that happen — they also could succeed in Grand Junction.