Johnathan Holifield, Senior Vice President at Bitwise Industries: Opening Economic Opportunities To The Underestimated￼
Van Ton-Quinlivan: Welcome to WorkforceRx with Futuro Health, where future-focused leaders in education, workforce development and healthcare explore new innovations and approaches. I’m your host Van Ton-Quinlivan, CEO of Futuro Health.
Today, we’re going to learn about an organization, Bitwise Industries, that has a lot in common with Futuro Health in removing barriers to education and careers faced by people from underestimated communities. In the case of Bitwise Industries, participants are heading for jobs in the tech sector as opposed to the healthcare sector.
Here to tell us more is Johnathan Holifield, the Senior Vice President of New Economies at Bitwise Industries. In that role, he leads the commercialization and expansion of the Bitwise program into “underdog cities” across the U.S. Prior to Bitwise, Johnathan served as an advisor to the White House Domestic Policy Council from 2017 to 2021, and co-founded Scale-Up Partners. He’s also the author of The Future Economy and Inclusive Competitiveness: How Demographic Trends and Innovation Can Create Shared Prosperity for All Americans.
Thanks so much for joining us today, Johnathan.
Johnathan Holifield: Oh, I’m excited to be here. Looking forward to the discussion, and thank you for having me and Bitwise Industries.
Van: Johnathan, I’m sure our audience would love you to give us a little bit of background about Bitwise’s story and approach. Please give us an overview.
Johnathan: Absolutely. Let me level-set, because I’m going to connect into the Bitwise story. As for my own background, I had been active in the customary kinds of things that someone who cares about community would be active in: neighborhood development; community development; civil rights; leader of the local NAACP for a number of years…all of that stuff. I was vexed by the question, as hard as we were working why weren’t we moving the needle? The only answer I had, Van, was we have to try harder.
So, we just kept doubling down and trying harder. As connected as I was — future leader coming on the scene, all the awards, all that stuff — I couldn’t see the innovation economy and it was right in front of me. It was invisible. Once I was introduced to it, then it was like an epiphany. “Oh, my. In order to move the needle, you’ve got to do needle-moving stuff.” The stuff we were doing was good work, but they were largely inelastic opportunities versus what you find in the tech sector and innovation economy — broadly defined — which were elastic career opportunities that really gave you social and economic mobility.
I’ve been on this trajectory for a generation. When I was introduced to Bitwise, the founders Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin already had a similar story. They saw what was happening in their own lives and career and how technology and the tech economy had so positively impacted their trajectories, yet, they were located in what can be described as flyover territory in the state of California in Fresno, one of the agriculture capitals of the world, if you will.
Bitwise was created to, in my words, reach up, grab hold, and pull down some of the best opportunities that exist in the economy. The point is to pull down, not trickle down, some of the best opportunities in the economy to serve underestimated, underdog populations and that’s what the company has been doing for the past eight years. Now we are expanding to underestimate cities across the U.S.
Van: Johnathan, I wonder if you could give us some examples of what those pull down opportunities are so that our audience can visualize them.
Johnathan: Absolutely. Currently, we have nine apprenticeship programs that are registered with the Department of Labor. They include Contact Center as a service, software development as a service, Salesforce, modernization, customization…the typical kind of broad-need tech stack. That’s the basis of our apprenticeship program, and we have several others in the pipeline for registration with the Department of Labor.
But that’s also supported by our technology consulting business. Keep in mind, we are anchored by workforce development — that’s the foundation of everything we do — but it’s not the only thing we do. Our apprenticeships are 2,000 hours, pay a living wage, have access to Bitwise health benefits, etc. They are fueled by a six-week pre-apprenticeship program for a modest cost of $250. Because of the diversity of our capital stack, we scholarship in about 90% of participants in the pre-apprenticeship program. So, cost is never a barrier and no one leaves with Bitwise debt to access our programs.
The second pillar is technology consulting. We compete for business all over the United States, Van, and the business we win is performed by our apprentices under the leadership of senior developers. So, apprentices have an opportunity to develop a portfolio demonstrating their ability to do a certain thing. It’s really like an athlete coming out of high school. What does your film say you look like? “Well, I might not have a certificate but I have film and this is proof of my ability to do a certain thing.”
Thirdly, we create extraordinary places, what our founder calls “castles to the underdog” and “castles to the underestimated.” In this innovation economy, we have the finger-popping, high-growth entrepreneurs, and we love them, too. But the places we create and the ecosystems we create to serve that population have been less than hospitable to underestimated populations. For the underestimated, we create sterile workforce and education kinds of places, social and human services kinds of places. The places that we create are extraordinary and they’re amplified by an ethos — both visually and in terms of our own spirit — that “no one belongs here more than you.”
Van: You’ve laid out a lot of components of workforce development coming together, and I’m sure at this moment in time it looks like, voila, it happened overnight. But as always, this is a process. I wonder if you are able to piece together for us which came first? Clearly, it was not the consulting business because you had to build up a base. What was started first versus added later?
Johnathan: At a very high level, if you’ll give me that latitude, what was originally Bitwise Academy evolved into an apprenticeship program and now, we are the largest tech apprenticeship provider in the United States. So, what was essentially a kind of training program — where our goal was not to screen people out, but to screen people in — evolved into our paid apprenticeship program. Then, to fuel that and, frankly, build revenue for the enterprise, the tech consulting was added to it as a pillar of our operation. Place was always central, but the combination of an apprenticeship program and our tech consulting has really created new opportunities to create extraordinary places.
Van: Johnathan, how does Bitwise play in the landscape with all the bootcamps that are out there, like the tech bootcamps?
Johnathan: We don’t really compete with them head-to-head. We certainly believe they have a role in communities and give them a thumbs-up, but we’re clear about our value proposition. Some of those camps are pretty darn expensive. That’s their model. For us, again, our threshold is how do we screen more people in? Often, it’s not the ability to learn. It’s all these other barriers that get in the way, and the cost is always chief among them. So, our goal is to make our pre-apprenticeship, and ultimately the paid apprenticeship program, accessible to the most vulnerable populations, underestimated populations.
In that model, once you complete our apprenticeship program you have no debt, but you’ve been earning money. You have benefits. Even if you take one apprenticeship course, chances are you’ve had a scholarship or we work with you to make some affordable accommodation. So, we have our own value proposition. We don’t detract from what they do. The world needs a lot of contributors, and we’re confident in our approach.
Van: The lack of debt is very attractive, I think, to investors and communities alike. Johnathan, can you lay out the student journey so that we have a better understanding of what the students experience?
Johnathan: Yes. Oftentimes, our students come — let’s say in the Fresno/Central Valley area — they come from the field, factory, and retail, disproportionately. They generally average about $21,000 in annual salary. They must take at least one pre-apprenticeship program. Let’s take the example of someone who came in on a scholarship. “Boy, I didn’t know that I was this attracted to the technology economy. I like this. I’d like to compete in the apprenticeship program.”
Then they migrate to the apprenticeship program. Within that program, it’s a full-time job and they are paid a living wage. We encourage our learners to not have another job, and discourage them from taking other classes in higher education. Certainly, it’s not a barrier, but we need them to be focused on executing on the apprenticeship program and building their portfolio of skills.
Let’s say I choose our Salesforce pathway. I’m doing work that has market applicability for a government or for-profit entity or a nonprofit entity or a small business, as well. I’m building my portfolio. Ninety-percent of completers in our apprenticeship program stay in the local market. One of the reasons why is equity — not just in terms of fairness, which is generally the discussion around equity — but ownership. I now own skills that are valued in my local economy and I’m able to earn now upwards of $60,000. After 3 years, it is upwards of $80,000, and that equity means ownership. I now have an underlying ownership interest in the destiny of my community.
Van: So, in essence, the pre-apprenticeship is doing a little bit of a career exploration and program-readiness so that they can pick one of the nine apprenticeship tracks?
Johnathan: Yes. Not your first rodeo, Van. Way to connect those dots.
Van: Well, I’m cheering you on as a big believer in apprenticeships. I would love to find out the structure of how the employers invest. Do they commit to having a certain number of hours or a certain number of days dedicated to the learning? Or, do students do the learning in the off-hours? How do you structure that part?
Johnathan: Remember, the apprentices are Bitwise employees. Their apprentices are our employees. To maintain that certification with the Department of Labor, we deliver on eight hours of learning on a normal working day– 2,000 hours over the course of a year.
In terms of potential employers, we have a couple of ways to benefit local economies. One: our process can be deployed in ways that meet local needs. There’s the general tech stack that is beneficial across the economy, but let’s say you’re in a community where healthcare is a huge economic driver. Well, we have the agility to deploy the Bitwise way into healthcare IT and meet underlying needs that drive this important industry in a local economy.
So, think of it as both content and process. Our process can be deployed into multiple kinds of content. That means we can customize programs to meet employer needs. We are able to meet local industry-sector needs more broadly in the economy as well. Our way has proven successful, and we have the agility to deploy that into multiple kinds of content.
Van: I can see how your approach — the Bitwise way — is effective in increasing diversity. I would love for you to share more about how you identify and reach prospective trainees, especially in those underserved communities.
Johnathan: You know, Van, we don’t do magic. I want to be clear as a bell. I’m passionate about the work. I love the work. I love being a part of the company. But, we don’t do finger-popping magic when we enter a community. This is hard work. One of our principles is we don’t import talent. A Bitwise location is staffed by folks from that community. We look for people who have, at the very least, empathy for the target population and if not, they come from that population. So, the kinds of folks that lead our work on the ground are from those communities.
Secondly, we partner extensively. Our model is hugely dependent upon partnerships. We work with local workforce investment boards, with community colleges, with social and human services organizations. Sometimes our folks go on to higher education. Many times, that second job from the social and human services sector is hard to achieve, so we become a back-end of that pipeline as well. So, we make and fit multiple connections in a local ecosystem and those reciprocal relationships really create no wrong doors for a potential learner.
Van: You mentioned having someone local who can navigate and pull together the partners. What are the conditions that must exist for you to be invited into a community…to make the community ready for you?
Johnathan: You used the keyword: “ready.” We actually call it readiness. Relational readiness and commercial readiness. Relational readiness is probably exactly what you think it is. We’re a head-and-heart company, right? We have empirical data such as median household income, absence of a top 50-research institution, the presence of some tech growth strategy and ecosystem walkability, livability, etc. Those are all empirical data points. They inform, but they don’t control our expansion decisions.
That’s the head, and here’s the heart. We have to feel what we call gravitational pull…that this community wants Bitwise to be a part of its story. We need to be sure we can get a critical mass of stakeholders across government, underestimated communities, philanthropy, business, and private investors to make that expression. Then, we not only meet, but we exceed their enthusiasm with our exploration. Can we aggregate enough commercial opportunities where we can fully deploy the model lockstep with a community? That’s our commercial readiness.
Van: Now, you have a personal interest in “inclusive competitiveness” which is a part of your book title. Tell us more about what you mean by that, and I’d love to hear some real-world examples of where you see it working well.
Johnathan: Thank you for the question. That early epiphany that I shared early in our conversation really led to that framework of inclusive competitiveness. I was hired to lead the creation of a regional technology and innovation leadership organization in Cincinnati — probably the only black person in the U.S to do that. “CincyTech” is still an ongoing venture development organization. I brought a lens to that work informed by all the work that I had been doing prior to that. That’s also unique. Guys like me don’t get those opportunities. It came to me, and I took it. (laughs) And the ultimate point is when I realized that the stuff we were doing was good stuff, but it wasn’t the stuff that would move the needle, it completely changed the trajectory of my career.
I began the hard work of building out a framework, a pathway, to connect what I would call disconnected — what Bitwise calls underestimated — humans to the top opportunities in our economy. Not just the customary opportunities that they’ve been relegated to, but the competitiveness levers of the regional, state, and national economy…those sectors of the economy that disproportionately determine our economic future. Inclusive competitiveness is a framework to facilitate that work.
Van: I’m glad I’m speaking with you now. I’m involved in the upcoming gathering of the National Council on Competitiveness to reform their workforce agenda for the following year…
Van: I want to hear from you and get your recommendations on how to connect these communities with these top opportunities, as you’ve mentioned. From what I’m hearing, it sounds like identifying key economic drivers — whatever sectors that drive that local economy — then developing a strategy that begins to connect the dots between the community and those sectors, how however hard it is, will be an essential ingredient.
So, compare and contrast for me what the Johnathan was like before he had these insights, and what he would have done, versus the Johnathan now — the smarter Johnathan…
Van: …and how he would have approached the inclusive competitiveness strategies?
Johnathan: That’s pretty easy. I was a caring person who cared a lot about his community and wanted to make contributions, but had no idea that this economy and these opportunities even existed. I was a young lawyer, connected, one of the comers on the scene, doing all the civic work. I enjoyed that work, right? Right in front of my face was an invisible economy. So, I would have stayed in the coffin corner — to borrow a football phrase — of opportunity versus playing the entire field of opportunity. Frankly, the competitiveness levers — you mentioned Council on Competitiveness, they’ve done some great work — we still have not yet as a matter of policy connected populations to these opportunities.
Policy is the great enabler — both public policy and private policy. Policy is influential actors who express important public objectives. If you’re influential and you’re an actor and you express an important public objective, where is policy change needed? Connecting these populations to these opportunities as part of local or national policy doesn’t really exist.
Van: And it’s more than just career exploration, right? It’s more than just giving Johnathan a preview or an overview of “Hey, there’s the tech sector, this is the healthcare sector, there’s the biotech sector, there’s the venture sector.” It’s more than that, isn’t it, Johnathan?
Johnathan: It’s so much more. One of the challenges is the absence of connecting narrative. We don’t even talk this language in community organizations. We don’t even use the language in our leadership entities around the competitiveness levers of the economy. Anyone can drop a term like innovation or innovation ecosystem or inclusive economy. Yeah…but when you look at your work, it’s the same work you’ve been doing for thirty or forty years since the Great Society in 1965.
So, there hasn’t been a connection of those who infrastructure to the competitiveness levers of the economy. Van, I’m a former lawyer. I’ve never seen a great offer without a great demand. I have heard over my career, “Well, Johnathan, we hear you, but the community is not asking for these opportunities.” And they’re right. But we, who know better, have not offered these opportunities either. So, sometimes those trying to do good might want to make themselves feel good and say, “We’re going to listen to the community.” Yes, of course. Listen. But if you know better and know more, we should offer more.
These opportunities have not been full-throatedly offered to underestimated humans. Bitwise is an example of a thrust that makes the offer that actually can ignite new demand.
Van: I agree with you that the education journey has to be laid out, and especially if Bitwise is able to do it debt free, that is such a value to families and individuals. Even in the healthcare area, most people would know about doctors and nurses but they don’t know what a Radiology Technician is, they don’t know Medical Sonographer, and they don’t know Medical Assistant. There are so many occupations that are invisible — just like they’re invisible over on the IT side — that pay good wages and family sustaining wages.
Johnathan: You know, Van, the U.S. is not like other countries in the sense that if you show promise on STEM testing as an eight-year-old, you’re going to be a scientist. We generally don’t do that. We have to encourage, incent, invite, recruit, and all of those kinds of things. We may be at a point in our national and ultimately global history when the need for more players on the field has never been as great as it is right now. Since World War II, we’ve won the economic global economic game with one hand tied behind our backs.
Well, the world was a far different place then. Since that time, billions of people are freer to express their genius, and they’re smart, too. (laughs) So, to maintain quality of life, we need to include these underestimated populations and bring more people into the contributing column. I believe in the moral imperative of that, but even if you don’t believe in the moral imperative, believe in the economic imperative.
Van: Those underserved populations are in ten cities that you’re serving across seven states. What are your expansion plans, and how can the audience help Bitwise move into other locations?
Johnathan: We just recently announced our second round of expansion. Our first city outside of California was Toledo, Ohio. We’re in Fresno, Merced, Bakersfield, East Oakland, and Toledo. And we announced Las Cruces, Cheyenne, El Paso, Buffalo, and Greeley, Colorado. A great fit for us is an underestimated place with a lot of grit and a lot of heart. If you’re able to help assemble this diverse collection of sources and stakeholders to engage with us — to determine if we’re a good fit for you and you’re a good fit for us — I’m your man to reach out to at Bitwise.
And really, that’s the thing. Do you have the desire? Do you want us? Do you think we can be a contributing force within your community? That excites us. Now, we’ll move heaven and earth to help you, but we’ve got to feel that gravitational pull. That is so important. It’s a non-empirical measure, but it means the world to a head and heart company.
Van: I have a feeling you’re going to get a few calls from this podcast.
Johnathan: All right. We’ve taken all comers. I’m telling you we believe in the work. People think tech companies mean tech economy. No. Tech companies are one part of the tech economy. At this point in our national and global history, the entire economy is tech-enabled. So, we’re talking about tech roles in manufacturing, tech roles in healthcare, and tech roles across the economy. It’s not just working for a tech company. There’s almost an insatiable appetite for talent in this space to meet so many growing needs. It’s a promising future.
Van: I’m glad you framed that for the audience. Even in retail, one of the indicators of mobility is if you have the tech talent to move up.
Johnathan: There you go. You got it.
Van: Why don’t we wrap up now, Johnathan, by having you share with us what makes you optimistic about the future of work?
Johnathan: What makes me optimistic is an early — yet I sense from my own work and my work with Bitwise — a growing momentum to get more players on the field. Our nation needs more contributors across the board. We certainly have our challenges. It’s not to minimize that. But we do enjoy a relatively good standard of living and that is only enabled by a workforce that’s productive, innovative, and problem-solving for our companies and entrepreneurs as well. It seems to be a growing realization that without these large swaths of under-tapped and untapped talent it will be hard, if not impossible, to maintain our quality of life and standard of living.
Van: I love your call to action to get more players on the field.
Johnathan: Boom, boom.
Van: As I say about this area, it’s a team sport. It’s not an individual sport.
Johnathan: That’s right. It’s an ecosystem sport. How about that?
Van: That’s right. That’s right. Thank you so much, Johnathan, for joining us today.
Johnathan: My pleasure. I enjoyed the conversation. Thank you for having me.
Van: I’m Van Ton-Quinlivan with Futuro Health. Thanks for checking out this episode of WorkforceRx. I hope you will join us again as we continue to explore how to create a future-focused workforce in America.