Bitwise co-CEO Irma Olguin Jr. describes ‘accidental’ journey to top of her profession
One of Fresno’s newest business CEOs describes her path from a rural farm-labor family through college and into a technology career as both “accidental” and “unlikely.”
And that is something Irma Olguin Jr. wants to change for others growing up in similar circumstances.
Olguin, 36, was named Tuesday as co-CEO of Bitwise Industries in downtown Fresno. Olguin co-founded Bitwise in 2013 and served as its chief technology officer. It’s the latest step in a journey she says she never could have imagined growing up in Caruthers, the unincorporated town among vineyards and orchards about 15 miles south of Fresno.
“My makeup is uncommon” in the technology industry, Olguin said. “I’m a female engineer. I’m a minority engineer. … I came from a small rural town, a family of field laborers. … All of these things, when you pile them on top of one another, you think, ‘How did that happen?’ ”
“But the crying shame is that it doesn’t happen that often,” she added.
We very much live in a pinball machine, and we are the pinball. Go and crash into your next opportunity and take advantage of it for as long as you can until it bounces you to the next opportunity. That’s what I would tell my 12-year-old self.
Irma Olguin Jr., co-founder and co-CEO of Bitwise Industries
For many children from farmworker families, “ ‘success’ looks more like getting a job down the street at Ace Hardware or Subway or Chevron and working there until you become a manager,” Olguin said. “And when you’re fortunate enough to do that, then you can pay all your bills in the same month and you might even finance a car.”
“When you think how unlikely it is for a rural kid from a labor background to end up as the CEO of a technology company, you just don’t see that,” she added.
“It doesn’t need to be an accident. We can be a lot more deliberate about creating and providing opportunities to families who want their children to succeed, or at least exposing young people to a different vision for their lives.”
Olguin oversees day-to-day operations for the company and two of its divisions: the Geekwise Academy tech education and training programs, and Shift3 Technologies, which matches up local businesses that need technology services with programmers and engineers to do the work. Bitwise co-founder and co-CEO Jake Soberal is focusing on the company’s real estate development and strategic initiatives.
“The things on the operations side are what I’m good at, and going out and changing the world in a more public way is what Jake is good at,” Olguin said. “The heart and the mouthpiece, that’s what we call ourselves in the nicest possible way,” she added with a burst of laughter.
Caruthers to Toledo to tech
After graduating from Caruthers High School, Olguin earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering from the University of Toledo in Ohio before returning to the Valley.
She worked for a year as a teacher at the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, before embarking on a career helping small startup firms get their footing with technology and organization. Later, she became a “serial entrepreneur” in her own right, founding or co-founding the hackathon competition 59 Days of Code, the collaborative tech workspace Hashtag Fresno, and software/web design startup Edit LLC before joining Bitwise.
But college wasn’t even part of Olguin’s life vision until after she earned high scores on the PSAT, a scholastic aptitude test, and landed on a merit scholar list.
“I was 16 years old and I started receiving mail from colleges, and it was the first time in my life that I thought, ‘I think they want me to go to school there,’ ” she said. She was skeptical, at first thinking the scholarship offers were marketing gimmicks. When she determined that the offers were legitimate, “it was a moment of tears for my family.”
Olguin took the best scholarship offered: the University of Toledo – where “culture shock” aptly represented her experience.
“One of the things I value most about being in the Valley is how the diversity is built in,” she said. “It’s not something you have to search for. If you want a decent taco or some pho, they’re across the street from one another. That’s not the case in Toledo.”
And because Olguin was not groomed as a youngster for college, even the process of picking a major was haphazard.
“I flipped through the college catalog and saw a really shiny, new building and thought, ‘I can picture myself studying in that building,” she said.
It happened to be the college of engineering. She learned the nuts and bolts of computer science there, and work experience during college taught her the ins and outs of working in large companies and in teams – elements that come in handy in her day-to-day work at Bitwise.
But it was her work after college that sparked her passion for small tech businesses.
“I was working with these people who are dedicating everything they have in their pockets, taking time away from their kids, putting all of their heart and soul to make their dream come alive,” Olguin said. “That grew into my thing, the beginning of building a technology community in Fresno.”
Bitwise stemmed in part from a desire to keep home-grown technology talent at home, battling the perception in Fresno that anyone interested in a tech career needs to head to the Bay Area to succeed.
“I was frustrated with our willingness to send our smart people somewhere else on purpose – not just that they wanted to go, but that they were being told they should go,” Olguin said.
That goal, coupled with creating opportunities for a diverse population, are two of the biggest drivers behind Olguin’s and Soberal’s efforts.
Olguin sees her top responsibility as expanding Bitwise’s gender, ethnic and economic diversity: “Actually reaching those rural communities, reaching marginalized populations, and not just saying we are,” she said. “We’re rolling out the welcome mat and saying, ‘We don’t care about your race, your sexual orientation, your gender or any of these things. This is where you come if you want to be good at this.’ ”
The technology companies and their workers that make their home at Bitwise’s South Stadium location are 38 percent female and 68 percent minority.
“It’s no accident that somebody who is both a minority and female should be at the helm,” Olguin said.
“And it doesn’t hurt that studies show when companies have a more diverse makeup to the board or senior levels, they earn significantly more,” Olguin said. “It’s having the data to back up the karma.”