What I’ve Learned About Starting a Nonprofit

By Jacob Martinez, CEO and Founder, Digital NEST

As I look at 2021 in the rearview mirror, I’m reflecting on what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown as the founder of a nonprofit that’s helping Latino youth transform into tech professionals. 

When I recently reported to staff that we’re shy of reaching our growth goal, my realization about what it means to start and run a nonprofit crystallized. 

A journey of learning

I founded Digital NEST eight years ago. At the time, I knew nothing about running an organization. Human resources, legal, finance, payroll or creating a career ladder so people want to grow with the organization were outside my purview. I had one goal: to guarantee that no kid had to sit outside on a cold night to get online to do their homework (a vision that’s since morphed into transforming communities into hotbeds of young tech talent). At the time though, I didn’t realize what that kind of change would involve. Perhaps that was a positive because if I sketched out the long climb ahead, I might never have begun. 

It’s been a personal journey of learning and lessons to understand that there’s much to consider in building and running an organization. The most significant one being that I had to trust my gut and continue to believe in others. Surrounding myself with many brilliant like-minded people helped me to stop doubting every step I took and to further shape the trajectory of my vision. It’s going to take all of us to reach millions of underserved youth across the state with the career opportunities they deserve. 

Handing on the Baton

I recently transitioned from executive director to CEO. That means passing the baton and trusting that others will be good stewards of our mission. It means hiring good leaders – people smarter than I am who can navigate challenges like the pandemic – who have power and influence beyond Digital NEST to affect broader social and economic change. I’m proud to report that we’ve taken significant steps in that direction.

In 2021, we hired our first chief operations officer to institute processes and systems we need to scale, and we’re now hiring for two more executive roles. We invested in systems to become more efficient. And, we changed our compensation packages, making Digital NEST one of the highest paying nonprofits in the Bay Area. With these new changes, we’ve also set more realistic growth goals. While I hold the overall vision, our leadership team is, and will be, stronger in 2022 than it’s ever been. 

From the very beginning of sharing my initial idea of Digital NEST with my wife, I’ve had to open myself to learning, self reflection and putting full faith in others. It hasn’t been easy, but I’m better for it. I couldn’t have done it without the tremendous support of mentors, funders, peers and staff.

Despite pandemics, economics and politics, we have millions more youth to reach across California. The NEST team continues to press on regardless of the challenges. My job is to empower them, and to get out of their way so they can wield their knowledge, dedication and commitment which is the same as mine: to create economic equality for low-income and rural communities by teaching youth the technical and soft skills needed to compete for high-paying careers.

2022? Bring it on.

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