Build With, Not For Communities

By Jacob Martinez, Founder & CEO and Corinne Kappeler, Chief Growth Officer, Digital NEST

If  you missed our recent announcement, we are opening our fourth Digital NEST in Stockton, CA. From our beginning, the “NEST” has been rooted in community, starting at home in Watsonville. We exist to provide underserved Latino youth with the same skills, resources, and networks as their more affluent counterparts. Even so, we are charting a new path forward—doing something that we have never done before.

Our growth plans are aggressive—we have big plans to open NESTs in nine cities across California, to surround Silicon Valley with an irresistible and diverse talent force tech companies currently overlook. And while we have the great fortune to receive continuous generous support in the form of guidance, mentorship and funding, we are learning as we go what it means to scale in a respectful, inclusive and sustainable way.

Our biggest lessons when entering a new community have forced us to think about our expansion into communities that already have their own cultures, leaders and nonprofits creating educational equity. As an outsider, the most valuable thing we can do is to understand the local culture—who is already doing the work, how decisions are made, what career-creating services youth need and the best way to deliver those services.  Our goal is to complement local efforts, not overshadow them. 

When we first opened our second location in Salinas, we believed we were taking the right approach at the time. We convened nonprofit leaders and funders. The city was on board and gave us a space. Even with all the support, we received blowback from existing nonprofits that had been overlooked. They wanted to know why an unknown, outside entity was getting the support they needed to advance their own missions.

The experience forced us to articulate a process for entering communities. The result is a five-step approach we created and use for every new community we enter. It is a process that should work for any organization, or for-profit for that matter, looking to scale to individual communities in a responsible way. The approach looks like this:

  1. Establish criteria and do the research: Create a set of criteria to measure whether a community will benefit from your services. Ours includes data such as population size, household income, size of Latino youth population and education attainment. We use the criteria to research and evaluate whether a community would benefit from having a NEST.
  2. Engage stakeholders: Connect with leaders across sectors in the community, from business to education, philanthropy to local government, and youth and families to nonprofits. We have met with mayors, chambers of commerce, youth councils, local businesses, local community colleges, faith groups and community leaders. We also conduct focus groups. Each conversation is invaluable to understand existing local efforts and how the NEST can best supplement what is already happening.
  3. Secure funding: Securing funding is the next logical step to bringing the NEST to the community. Our funding streams for each community are intentionally diversified so that we achieve the dual goals of bringing funding into each community and leveraging local funding opportunities. Some comes from statewide funders, some from local businesses and family foundations, and from city governments.
  4. Identify a local champion: There are long-standing leaders in each community who have been lifting their communities well before Digital NEST existed. We find and build a relationship with a well-respected local leader who knows the community and someone whom the community trusts. That person is our local point of contact—an ambassador of sorts—who introduces us to other leaders and organizations, and helps us connect with funders.
  5. Scout locations: We learn from our stakeholder conversations about the best locations for the NEST—ones that are central to the community and easily accessible to youth. Salinas had an unoccupied old firehouse in the center of town. It was an ideal location—in a safe neighborhood and near public transportation, making it easy for youth to get to from school, work or home.

The key take-away in all of this for us has been to understand the local culture. Building this understanding does not happen overnight. Our conversations with communities can take 1-2 years before we open a new location. Our motivation is to learn from and augment the amazing energy communities are already investing in their youth, and that takes time.

We have seen the benefits of our 5-step approach in securing new NESTs in Gilroy and now Stockton. For us, it is an honor to be welcomed into these communities—knowing our presence will contribute to existing efforts and growth.

Our philosophy to build with communities and not for them has trickled throughout our organization. Our entire staff is intentional in how they talk about our scaling efforts—scaling takes time, connection, thoughtfulness and respect for work already being done. 

Make no mistake, we are eager to reach as many youth as we can, but we temper our excitement with strategy and patience knowing the payoffs are long-lasting career and life opportunities for NEST youth.

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