BY TERESA RUIZ DECKER
Digital NEST is an impressive space. As you walk through the double doors of The NEST’s new two story location in downtown Watsonville, you immediately sense you’re stepping into something modern, smart and totally trendy. On my recent visit one Thursday evening, two young men in branded NEST hoodies greet me at the front desk with warm smiles. They kindly chat me up and direct me on how to use the sleek, extra large touch screen in front of me to check in. Within a few minutes I’m handed a lanyard badge and begin feeling pretty official sporting the Digital NEST logo around my neck.
As I wait for Executive Director Jacob Martinez to make his way toward me from across the room, I start to take things in around me. Behind the front desk small groups of young men and women are chatting and laughing. Some are huddled around laptops or phones while others are relaxing in lounge furniture. Everyone seems happy to be here at The NEST. Their positive energy is as palpable as the beat of the rock music floating through the air. Why wouldn’t they love hanging at The NEST? The co-working space that provides youth ages 12-24 years old with access to computers, software, and WiFi all for FREE is quickly establishing itself as a tech incubator teaching local talent to code with the best of them. Let’s just say if Google had a cool teen cousin, The NEST would be it.
Digital NEST’s two story location in downtown Watsonville opened last month. A new location is also slated to open in Salinas, CA.
At the most basic programmatic level, The NEST is about workforce development. But anyone who visits the space can tell you it’s much, much more. It supplies a hip, creative environment with access to tech, opportunity to meet like-minded peers, mentoring, crazy cool exposure to Silicon Valley (field trip to Twitter anyone?) and the critical component of tech ed – complete with open co-working spaces, a conference room, a classroom, and soon a full recording studio. By providing access to space and tech while layering in education and training The NEST is helping local, underserved youth up their tech game and hone valuable skills in demand locally and globally. It’s literally a dream come true. Jacob’s dream come true.
As Jacob and I settle into a tall sleek booth for our interview, I quickly learn he not only wants to build The NEST as the best co-working space for youth, Jacob also has a vision to make The NEST one of the best places to work too. In his calm, pensive manner Jacob explains how The NEST is where nonprofit meets tech. As he slides between the two worlds, Jacob is taking the best of each sector to build a work culture at The NEST that reflects tech and for good organizations in meaningful ways. Less hierarchy, flex schedules, team building outings and a steady supply of snacks are all nods to the tech industry. Yet The NEST has its nonprofit soul focused on social outcomes and true impact. You can be sure Jacob and his team are breaking the mold when you think of nonprofit work. Particularly the concept of nonprofit employee pay – a subject that sparks passion in his voice.
“If we are trying to build this place where youth can go and get better careers so they can live in this county, we need to hold that true to our employees,” says Martinez. “Often times organizations don’t pay people as well as they should – or even employees take a lower pay because we are doing it for the cause. We care, but that burns people out.”
It’s easy to see why Jacob and the Digital NEST have been propelled into the local spotlight and then the national stage,which included a trip to The White House. Jacob is great at communicating vision with conviction, and I can tell he has big vision on how to reshape what it means to work at a nonprofit.
“It’s about paying people well, it’s about compensating well, it’s about giving people benefits and perks and just making them happy. We’re not in it to become rich, we’re in it for the cause but we need to take care of ourselves and our families.” (See minute 3:28 of the video for details on what this looks like at The NEST).
So how do we start to get there? That’s one big, question we all need to answer. We can’t change things overnight but there are some small changes we can make NOW to move the needle.
THINK LIKE A START UP
My conversation with Jacob reminded me a lot of the concepts in Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk “The way we think about charity is dead wrong”. Only Jacob is a real life case study here in Santa Cruz County. He’s having challenging conversations with board members and pushing The NEST to think more like a start up within the context of their nonprofit framework.
Want to bring a little tech innovation into your office? I’m always inspired after a visit to NextSpace, one of the best co-working spaces in town. The vibe is cool, welcoming and just plain fun. You’ll see lots of details throughout the office that can be integrated into many of our own work spaces with a little time, creativity and some office supplies.
If you need more “big ideas” pick up “Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead” by Laszlo Bock. It’s one of my favorite books on building culture.
LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE: RAISE THE BAR FOR NONPROFIT PAY IN THIS TOWN
I know this is going to be controversial, but I am just going to say it. If you’re an Executive Director or part of HR one of the easiest and most equitable things you can do when posting a job is to include the salary range. I can’t tell you how many young, nonprofit professionals I talk to who are frustrated by the mysterious postings requiring a master’s, 10+ years experience and your first born child, only to find the job is less than $15 an hour.
We get it, we all work with small budgets and that’s OK but at least be upfront about it. And please, make the qualifications match the pay you are able to offer. Can you live off less than $15 an hour? Yeah, neither can we so maybe it’s time to have some serious conversations with the board about investing in talent. I know it’s complicated but the drain on nonprofit talent isn’t getting any better. Just sayin. I know YNPNCC (Young Nonprofit Professional Network Central Coast) is with me on this!
Looking for more good stuff?
Find out what The NEST is up to and how you can support this next gen nonprofit at digitalnest.org. Lead a workshop, teach a class, mentor a NESTer, there are at TON of ways to get involved and show The NEST some love.
P.S. There’s a rumor somewhere (OK I am starting it) that Jacob just might be sharing his nonprofit wisdom more regularly. If you’d like to hear from him more, send him some fan mail.