Hometown Hero - A conversation with Santa Cruz Works’ founder Bob Cagle

By Eric Johnson

Bob Cagle, founder of Santa Cruz Works, reaches back a full year before the organization’s launch to tell its story.

It involves a man named Erik Schmidt (not Google Eric … tall Erik). Schmidt had been a co-founder of productOps, the company Bob still heads. About a year before this story begins, Erik had left and been hired on at Yahoo! One day Bob decided out of the blue to give him a call.

“So I said ‘how are you doing?’ And he says, ‘well, I’m walking my box to the parking lot. I just got laid off.’ And I said, ‘then why don’t you report to work tomorrow morning? Just bring the box up. You don’t even have to unpack it.’

For the next 12 months, Schmidt worked on a variety of projects with the productOps team. “Then one Monday morning at our management meeting, he walks in and says ‘I’ve got it! I know where they’re hiding! All those engineers we’re trying to get. They’re trapped in their cars going over the hill!”

ProductOps was having trouble hiring engineers, and because Bob knows everyone in town, he knew that practically every tech company in Santa Cruz was struggling to find people. When his tall colleague recommended founding a nonprofit member organization, and pooling money to promote Santa Cruz as a place to “start, sustain and grow science and technology companies” (to use the wording later coined by then-executive director Jeremy Neuner), Bob said “let’s do it.”

Fast forward two or three months. Margaret Rosas, then project manager at productOps, was in a meeting with Bud Colligan, who had recently launched a venture fund in Santa Cruz called South Swell Ventures. As it happened, Colligan had recognized the same need, and was thinking about putting together an organization that sounded to Margaret very much like the one Cagle was already working on.

The three got together to discuss. “Thirty minutes into the presentation,” Bob says, “Bud looked over and said ‘I’m throwing in with you.’” A few months later, at an Event Santa Cruz gathering at the Museum of Art and History, Bob announced the launch from the stage.

“I love my town,” he began, and then told the story of the two episodes in his life when he took jobs that required him to commute to the valley. He described getting on the road before his son awoke and returning after his bedtime. “I think my wife felt like a single mom,” he said. “I want other people who live here to have the opportunity that I have. I love my town, I love my job, and I want them to have the opportunity to work where they live.”

SCWorks Meant Jobs

The original iteration of SCW was built around a website designed to match job seekers and local tech companies. Thirty companies had profile pages where they told their stories and listed job openings. There were jobs for engineers, industrial designers, database people, Ruby developers, and also marketing directors, project managers and bookkeepers.  

Explaining the original mission, Bob can’t help but slip into the elevator pitch, and it sounds just as good as it did five years ago: 

“The idea was ‘come to santacruzworks.com and find your dream job in your community. You can find a very good job here, and regardless of any delta in salary from the valley to here, nothing can replace the quality of time that you spend with your family versus a commute.’”

The coolest functionality, in Bob’s view, was an API that he worked up with the help of a coder at LinkedIn. When anyone with a LinkedIn account showed up on an SCW company page, the API would show them the profiles of anyone they knew who worked at that company. It even showed second level connections. 

(Bob had learned that the LinkedIn guy loved craft beers. As soon as the API launched, Bob rounded up a case of local 22-ouncers, packed them into a wooden beer crate he’d gotten from Germany, and took it to Mountain View. The LinkedIn guy was, of course, floored.)

Cagle and Colligan put together a superstar board: Scott Brandt, Vice Chancellor for Research at UCSC; Carolyn Hughes, VP of Talent and Culture at Looker; Bonnie Lipscomb; Director of Economic Development for the City of Santa Cruz; Jeremy Neuner, co-founder of NextSpace; Charlie Vaske, co-founder of what was then Five3 Genomics, and Keri Waters, co-founder of Bouy.

Almost immediately, the mission of the organization shifted significantly.

“It went from the sole focus of one person—me—and expanded to what the rest of the board wanted. Bud wanted to bring in more science and not just tech. Other folks weren’t needing to hire people. And so now it’s really about building community.

“I think we succeeded in the original mission. My goal was to get at least 1,000 jobs off the hill. Help the whole community thrive, so they’re spending their money here rather than Santana Row. And I think that worked. And I’m thrilled at the new direction SCW is headed.”

Victories Big and Small

Many of Santa Cruz Works’ wins accumulated one at a time, day by day, as companies and tech workers found each other, people made connections, and a community was forged.

In addition to the small victories, SCW helped facilitate some pretty big public displays of the growing power of the local tech community. Bob points to the Titans of Tech events, organized by Event Santa Cruz, the popular gatherings run by Matthew Swinnerton (now SCW’s Programs Director). The event, which had a bit of a Ted Talks vibe, featured local superstars of the geek world. Everyone involved was thrilled to see them sell out three times.

Bob also points to an issue of Instant magazine, which beautifully told the local tech story a couple years ago. (That was a project whipped up by Matthew, Ted Holladay and yours truly, and we hope to making another one soon ;-)

The biggest victory, so far, from Bob’s POV, is a business accelerator that was launched in 2016, just as Heather Putnam was hired as executive director. UCSC’s Scott Brandt had just received a $2.2 million grant from the state of California, and funneled some of that money to SCW. The accelerator was designed in the model of YCombinator—offering founders some seed money, mentorship and coaching, and a chance to go after Series A funding. It has yielded a number of big successes, including the recent funding of Jane Technologies.

Anybody who has ever known Bob Cagle knows that he can be sentimental in the best, big-hearted way. He’s perfectly content to turn the reins of Santa Cruz Works over to his old friend Margaret Rosas, who was anointed board chair last week, and is thrilled that Doug Erickson has come on board as executive director, merging his Santa Cruz New Tech Meetup with Santa Cruz Works. But there’s a touch of melancholy in Bob’s voice as he passes the torch.

“I am extraordinarily grateful to all the people that have lent a hand, and so many of them did so very selflessly. And to every single person that’s ever been on the board. People just kind of showed up in the community to help out. I think that’s a testament to what this community is—and that’s what we’re all about.”


City of Santa Cruz Mayor Martine Watkins will present Bob Cagle with the Santa Cruz Works - 2019 Hometown Hero Award at the October 2nd Santa Cruz New Tech Meetup.

Photos by Ted Holladay

Photos by Ted Holladay