Digital NEST founder to serve as external adviser to chancellor

A leading voice in technology access and education, Jacob Martinez envisions UCSC as epicenter for social entrepreneurialism

Jacob Martinez
Martinez’s insights and perspective will be critical as the campus strives to build racial equity in higher education opportunities and attainment, while also disrupting existing institutional barriers to equity. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Jacob Martinez explains it almost as a revelation.

It was 2006, and the UC Santa Cruz alumnus and eventual Digital NEST founder was organizing field trips to bring young people from the Pajaro Valley to Silicon Valley. It’s just 30 miles by car, but it might as well have been a million miles away.

Federal programs were dumping millions of dollars into programs to help bridge the digital divide — to expose youth from low-income communities to technology and to the myriad opportunities it can provide — but Martinez just wasn’t seeing the needle move. Despite years of effort, too few Pajaro Valley youth had managed to bridge anything, securing neither the educational opportunities that could brighten their economic prospects nor actual jobs in the nearby global center of high-tech.

So what if he were to flip the model, Martinez thought. What if he were to stop bringing Watsonville youth to Silicon Valley and instead bring the valley to them. “All of a sudden it’s not this scary unknown thing,” he said. “Having top technology. Having coaches and mentors. Being in an office with this great free food. It’s all normal. It’s in their community. All the while we’re arming them with the skills they need to thrive.”

And so was born Digital NEST — the epiphany for Martinez that is now paying dividends for Watsonville and Salinas-area youth.

Martinez is bringing his insight on economic opportunity, community empowerment and digital innovation to UC Santa Cruz as an external special adviser to Chancellor Cindy Larive.

“What Jacob does and what we as a university aim to do are perfectly aligned,” Larive said. “We are focused on opportunity and access to higher education, and changing the life trajectories of our students. It’s the same thing Jacob does at the grassroots level, simply writ large. There are many areas where his ideas and expertise can boost our efforts.”

UC Santa Cruz is one of only four Hispanic Serving Institutions that is also a member of the esteemed Association of American Universities, a collection of the top research universities in North America, and one of just 22 HSIs in the U.S. also classified as a doctoral degree granting university with high levels of research activity (an R1 Carnegie classification for highly intensive research institutions).

UC Santa Cruz earned the HSI designation from the U.S. Department of Education in 2012, when it enrolled more than 25 percent Latinx students. The designation allows UCSC to apply for federal grants focused on advancing educational equity and strengthening support for Latinx students and other underrepresented and low-income students. Campus has numerous ongoing HSI initiatives. They are at the center of the university’s institutional commitment to student success.

Larive said Martinez’s insights and perspective will be critical as the campus strives to build racial equity in higher education opportunities and attainment, while also disrupting existing institutional barriers to equity.

“Achieving HSI status is one thing,” said Larive, “but we strive to live up to the values embodied in that designation and to serve our students effectively to ensure they thrive while at UCSC and beyond as alumni. Jacob will contribute greatly to those discussions.”

Martinez (Oakes ’04, evolutionary biology), a Southern California native who settled in Watsonville shortly after earning his degree, sees wide avenues of opportunity. “The university already has strong programs with community-based organizations. There are opportunities to add to those and to expand the ones already in place.”

Plus, community groups that are working to lift up young people, especially in communities that haven’t seen the economic benefits of the tech boom, need strong young talent with technical and social-justice skills, Martinez added. Businesses in general, meanwhile, are looking for more diverse, socially conscious employees.

“Well, here we are,” Martinez said. “The university has so much going for it. It’s an HSI, so we have the diversity. Its proximity to Silicon Valley. The fact that it’s a major university founded on social justice. UCSC should be the first place businesses think of when they go looking for employees. I don’t see why UCSC can’t become an epicenter for social entrepreneurialism.”

Digital NEST, which stands for Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology, has come a long way since Martinez’s epiphany 15 years ago. He secured grants from organizations like the Packard Foundation and got donations from local agriculture companies. Adobe offered free software, while a venture capitalist pledged $100,000 in matching funds. Digital NEST ultimately launched seven years ago.

The NEST has evolved into what Martinez envisioned: a technology workforce development hub with sleek desks, comfy couches, a big-screen TV, even free snacks to fuel creativity. New members are handed laptops loaded with the latest software. Students are given help writing resumes and creating their own projects, and can gain experience by hiring out to small businesses who might need technology help.

It’s all remote now, at least temporarily, but the vision remains strong. A more high-profile location in Salinas will open soon and a Gilroy spot is in the works. New sites in the Bay Area are also planned.

Martinez, meanwhile, sits on the boards of directors of Santa Cruz Works, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, and United Way Monterey County, among others. In 2020 he received The James Irvine Foundation “Leadership Award,” and in 2018 he was presented with the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership Community Impact Award.

“We can build an ecosystem — Digital NEST, community groups, the university, local businesses,” Martinez said. “I want to see young people get the skills they need to find a good job in their own communities or to create their own jobs if they choose. That allows them to stay. That strengthens the community. That’s my motivation.”

Larive agrees. “We often talk about the university’s positive economic impact on the region in dollars and cents kind of ways. But one of our true economic impacts is when we innovate a program or foster economic opportunities that allow the young people who grow up here to find jobs locally so they have the option of staying and contributing locally. That’s exactly where the university’s vision and Jacob’s passion meet.”