A QUALITY ABOUT A PERSON THAT CATCHES MY ATTENTION: Their teeth. WHAT DO I DO WHEN I'M STRESSED: Stare at the sky. PEOPLE DON'T KNOW: I don’t like to take naps. A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION: My mom, of course.
Igniting a tech tidal wave
FINDING ONE'S PATH BY COMPLETE MISTAKE. Irma Olguin Jr. never saw herself as an influential entrepreneur—even after she became the Co-Founder and CEO of Bitwise Industries, a company creating the bridge between humans from marginalized communities and systemic poverty to the skills and resources necessary to access opportunities in the tech industry.
“I often mention that I accidentally went to college, but it’s not a joke,” she laughs. As a third-generation Mexican-American in a family of farm laborers, Irma expected she might do the same, as her parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters and brothers had from very young ages. “To be fair—when that is the environment that you grow up in—that is what you see for yourself, right?”
One day, in her sophomore year, she heard she could get out of classes if she took the PSAT. “I didn’t know what the PSAT was because I wasn’t college-bound. While I was a good student, I also liked the idea of getting out of class—so I took the test. At that very moment, the trajectory of my life would be forever changed.”
She did well on that test—very well. Irma received a variety of glossy, heavy, full-color marketing booklets from colleges, but she also received a letter from the University of Toledo, which offered her a full scholarship. “This was amazing and, frankly, unbelievable—and unfortunately it put my parents in a terrible situation. They were so proud, but we didn’t have money to get me across the country to Ohio. But my family is scrappy, so my family and I collected cans and bottles all summer long to recycle them to get me a one-way Greyhound ticket to Ohio.”
One long trip and about six years later, Irma received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and computer engineering, with a minor in business—but not without a bumps in the road. “As you can imagine, on day one I was asked for my email address—but I didn’t have an email address. I never needed one before. So while it seemed like I was at the starting line, I was constantly sprinting to stay anywhere near there the entire time, while also working to absorb as much as I could.”
Irma was also working full-time during her schooling, something most schools don’t recommend with an engineering program. Further, she was one of the only women in the program, one of the only women of color, and one of the only openly LGBTQ people, to boot. Even with the challenges, Irma was experiencing life beyond her wildest dreams.
REVOLUTIONS ARE BUILT BETTER BY EXPERIENCE VS. VISION. Irma likes to point out that Bitwise is not just some company that highlights the value of learning coding or the value of math and technology. “The world would have you believe the technology industry is about knowing it’s value, but it’s not. It’s actually about whether or not you have enough space in your life to practice, or how many hours you’re giving away studying instead of working, or if you have child care or transportation—these are the roadblocks that need to be overcome.”
These days, Irma has learned how to help others fight their daily battles, but it’s not without a few struggles for herself and Bitwise: “Building something this powerful but also this specific can be hard. I’m focused on being deeply authentic, but while also having an understanding of the rooms I walk into. I’m a queer, Latinx woman who runs an important company building jobs and leveraging public-private partnerships, but it’s not lost on me that sometimes all they see is the woman or Latinx or queerness in me.”