21 for ’21: Jacob Martinez and the fine art of nest-building

Jacob Martinez and Joanne Sanchez, leaders of the Santinez family.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

If you build a solid nest at home, it’s a pretty good jumping-off point for building community nests far and wide. At least that’s how it’s played out for the innovator behind DigitalNEST, the organization seeking to establish Silicon Valley equity for underserved Latinx communities across the Bay Area.

Before there could be a NEST, there had to be a nest.

The first one, an acronym for Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology is Jacob Martinez’s passion: DigitalNEST. The not-for-profit youth workforce development center is one of the fastest-growing, most well-regarded organizations of its kind.

Based in Watsonville, it takes Latinx kids who haven’t been handed the best lot in life and redirects them, teases out their talents, teaches them how to apply those skills and then implores them to dream big.

“We’ve got more crises to come, and we need to build our communities in ways that absorb the shocks — and maybe even...

“Instead of ‘What am I gonna do with my life?’ or ‘‘How am I gonna get out of here?’ I want to shift their thinking to ‘What company am I gonna choose to go work for?’” Martinez says. “What position do I want? What kind of company do I want to start?’”

While it gets far less publicity, this is the kind of thinking that plays out at the nest as well.

At a modest home on the rural outskirts of Watsonville that has a bountiful vegetable garden with seven hens and one annoying rooster, Jacob and his wife, Joanne Sanchez, have built the foundation for their life’s work.

It’s the place where Domingo, Frankie and Maribel — their three adopted children — are thriving under the guidance of parents whose love for their flock at home models what they’re doing for so many other kids via DigitalNEST.

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

Joanne says Jacob already had adopting children in his mind when they first began dating back in 1999. And when the man she would marry four years later has a vision, it’s not to be taken lightly.

“I get worried when he has an idea because it usually comes to fruition,” she said. “And fast.”

Even 2020 couldn’t slow Jacob Martinez down. It may have limited what his six-year-old organization could do physically, but it’s metaphysical reach continued unabated.

There are big plans afoot for expanding the NEST around the Bay Area in 2021 and beyond — a move to a more visible site in Salinas, a grand opening of a Gilroy operation, new sites eventually in other largely Latinx communities in the East Bay and North Bay.

Jacob Martinez at his home office.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s about, as Martinez explains it, “Putting more pressure on these Silicon Valley companies to hire the resources right in their own backyard.”

According to Martinez, NEST alumni earn $25,000 more in annual income than their peers. And there now are real-life success stories to cite with alums like UCSC gaming design grad Juan Morales-Rocha and Martin Vargas-Vega, a 2010 Pajaro Valley High grad who has forged a nice career as a Silicon Valley software engineer.

It’s been difficult to maintain connectivity with many of the kids who were used to dropping into NEST headquarters on Union St. before the pandemic hit and getting their hands directly on the digital tools they lack at home.

Martinez admits he’s concerned about those who have tapered off on their virtual program attendance.

“We’re starting to see a little bit of a dip. I don’t know if they’re just over it — they just want to vegetate,” he said. “We’re going to see how we come back in the spring. I’m curious and a little nervous. We’re going to try some other strategies like smaller groups to see if we can get them better engaged.”

Maribel, 9, Domingo, 18, and Frankie, 16.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

At the Martinez-Sanchez house — “Santinez,” Joanne calls it — Domingo, 18, Frankie, 16, and Mari, 9, have been busy keeping up with their distance learning while Jacob has had to settle for far more Zooming than he’d like.

The boys were 4 and 5 when they were adopted. They had been separated from each other too many times to count. Domingo had been in 13 different foster homes. Frankie “only nine,” Joanne says. “We said, ‘Let’s get these guys back together.’”

It wasn’t an easy task working through some of the trauma, but building a garden that got the boys outside and into nature was one big healer. Adding a baby sister was another.

Maribel was only nine weeks old when they adopted her and her presence helped show the boys the importance of being protectors and caretakers.

In the years since, their parents have made part of their mission exposing the kids to the world around them, trying to connect them to their community.

Maribel (right) marches this summer.
(Courtesy Joanne Sanchez)

In 2020, there has been no shortage of opportunities: Rallying for Black Lives Matter in downtown Watsonville, helping bring food, water, masks and awareness to the nearby fieldworkers via the Campesino Appreciation Caravan.

But there is ample hope that in 2021 both of the Santinez nests get back to a more traditional form of normal.

Though running his organization largely from home has had its benefits — rooster calls during Zoom meetings notwithstanding — Jacob thinks about getting the necessary face time with his NESTers that really need it.

He wants to get them to a point of thinking beyond their immediate surroundings, which are often less than ideal. If he can just get them to a place of power that allows for thoughts like What type of business do I want to own?

“If we can get a massive number of youth to do that,” he says, “communities will shift.”

Frankie, Maribel and Joanne in May.
(Courtesy Joanne Sanchez)