News from the Bush School

Bush School Former Student Creates Startup to Support Factory Workers in Tijuana

August 20, 2018

image of the mexican flag over a city

Five years ago, Bryce Watson, ’18, was living in China teaching English to factory workers’ children. Two weeks ago, he moved to Tijuana, Mexico, to work on his startup in preparation for the product’s full launch in August, the idea for which he had while living in China.

Vize, Watson’s company, is designed to give factory workers an anonymous digital forum to discuss wages, working conditions, and other issues in factories. The idea is that if workers report factory conditions, this will increase accountability among factory owners. Tijuana currently faces a labor shortage, so owners are incentivized to provide fair wages and safe work environments, said Watson.

Watson, who was “born in Odessa, Texas but grew up in northern California,” recently graduated from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University with his master’s in international affairs. He was inspired to develop his company after interacting with factory workers and their families in China.

Watson talked frequently with workers about conditions in factories, learning about long hours, low wages, and little regard for laws and regulations. He watched workers share stories about which factories were good ones and which ones were bad to get a sense of where they should seek employment. Because of the fluidity with which workers moved in and out of these industrial zones, much of this valuable data was lost in three to four months’ time.

While the workers and their stories are transient, Watson noticed one permanent commonality among factory workers—they all owned smart phones.

“So why can’t we just put this information online,” he thought.

And with that, an idea was born, but it would be a few years until the notion was fully formed.

Armed with ambition and an idea, Watson returned from China. He continued to work in international development for the next few years, honing his studies at the Bush School to help prepare him for a life working in the field. Back stateside, Watson had the time to devote to making his idea a reality. He began assembling a team in December 2017 to help develop Vize.

“I was thinking about my time in China and knew I wanted to actually pursue this,” said Watson. “That’s when I built the team at A&M.”

The team, diverse and made up entirely of Texas A&M students, is just as dedicated as Watson. Four of the five have experience in developing countries. Julian Alvarez, a lead product manager and co-founder, is from Colombia and has accompanied Watson on previous journeys to Tijuana.

As the newly formed team set out to turn this idea into a tangible product, they knew they needed the perfect place to launch Vize. China would not work because of the country’s authoritarian tendencies and aversion to open data that would allow a company, such as Vize, to operate within its borders.

“When we looked around at where it would be possible to do this, we knew China wouldn’t work,” said Watson. “But in Tijuana, everyone has a smartphone, there’s a labor shortage, and there’s a high literacy rate.”

In addition to these factors, Mexican federal laws are pro-labor, but the populace is highly mobile, making any kind of organization among factory workers difficult.

“Even if the labor laws are strong, many factory workers don’t have an in-depth knowledge of their rights under those laws,”  said Watson.

Like in China, workers in Tijuana move frequently between the maquiladoras—factories in Mexico run by a foreign company. Watson saw a similar trend of workers informally sharing information among themselves, but then as soon as a worker moved, this information was lost.

Many countries have maquiladoras in Mexico, and many more are moving there. Countries like the United States, China, Korea, and Japan are increasingly moving their manufacturing jobs to Mexico because of the rising cost of labor in China and growing lead times or the amount of time it takes for a product to be made and delivered back to its country of origin.

“It can take months to make a product in China and get it back to the United States,” said Watson. “But if it’s made in Mexico, it may only take a week.”

The confluence of these factors made Tijuana a logical place to launch Vize. Watson and members of his team started making sporadic trips to Tijuana to interview workers and factory owners. While Vize primarily seeks to provide a central location for workers’ information, it also wants to work with employers to help them find the talent they need.

Employers in Mexico face monthly turnover rates of eight to ten percent.

“If we can provide value to employees, we can also provide employers data to say ‘these are good workers, here’s what other factories pay, and these are the conditions in that factory,’” said Watson.

Initial conversations with workers and employers in Tijuana proved both parties interested in the service the Vize team members hope to provide. They launched a pilot version of the app in May to about thirty users; the full launch will be in August 2018. Two concerns arose before the initial launch. Would people be interested in using their phones for this purpose, and would workers be comfortable sharing information, even anonymously, about their workplace conditions?

The pilot launch went as well as they had hoped.

“Everyone was willing and excited to use it,” said Watson. “People were really willing to tell us all the grainy details of their job.”

With the pilot launch behind them, the team’s efforts have turned to making sure everything is ready for the full launch. They recognize that part of what will make this company successful is having people on the ground in Tijuana dedicated to ensuring everything goes smoothly. They have launched an Indiegogo campaign to hire a small Tijuana-based marketing team. Their fundraising goal is $5,000 by September 6, 2018. Ultimately, they hope having a team in Tijuana will attract more long-term investments.

If you would like to learn more about Vize, you can visit the website at http://www.incentivizinggood.com