Alums’ new company blends art and tech under one roof

Step into Obra, a new company located in a warehouse just north of midtown Sacramento, and it’s quickly apparent you’re seeing something different. Workbenches and giant wood cutting tables sit next to a room full of computers and soldering irons. Beyond that, there’s a dance floor – built in-house – complete with mirrors and a barre.

Obra, founded by Sacramento State alumni Isela Perez ’12 (Journalism) and Brandon Ortiz ’15 (Computer Engineering), opened its doors in January and probably is best described through its name: The word means “work of art” in Spanish, and the warehouse is part maker’s space, part dance studio. The company is founded on the belief that through combining their talents – Perez is a dancer who studied journalism, Ortiz studied computer engineering and has a background in product design and development – they can create, and help others create, something stronger and more meaningful.

“We realized how much art has an impact on creativity,” Ortiz says. “Even if it’s programming, where you can get into this mindset of just grinding and doing strictly technical work, if you step back and think about the artistic or creative aspect of what you’re doing, you tend to find better solutions to the problem.”

Perez and Ortiz met three years ago at a sports bar in Sacramento, and even from their initial conversations knew they had a lot in common, including a desire to create something new and unique. They just didn’t know specifically what that was yet.

Both transferred to Sacramento State from community college – Perez transferred from Sacramento City College, Ortiz attended Sierra College in Rocklin before working to design control systems for an elevator company – and says both the perspective of being older than the traditional student as well as the accessibility of their professors helped them get the most out of their time on campus.

“We valued education a lot and I think that’s what motivated us to get close with our professors, to be able to talk with them,” Perez says. “You realize, ‘I could have been doing this with high school, I could have been really connecting with professors, with my peers, and taking advantage of more. Sac State was definitely welcoming for someone who wanted to go as far as they could.”

In 2015, a six-month trip to Nicaragua where, Ortiz says, “we just had each other,” taught them both how to respond to new challenges and live a minimalist life. “We found happiness from creating. We wanted to build a place where we can create and use our skills and the experience we picked up to help other people create.”

Obra’s revenue comes through dance classes Perez offers at the studio – she also works part time as a dancer for the Sacramento Kings – as well as various other projects and partnerships, such as creating stencils for a group that wanted to use street art to promote this year’s Sacramento Concerts in the Park lineup. The company also is set up to sell the products that are made in its work space. Its current partners include the maker of a large LED chandelier that can be used as an art display or centerpiece at special events, as well as Sacramento State’s own Hornet Hyperloop team, for which they are helping to develop control systems.

The art and the tech go hand-in-hand: Ortiz began dancing about a year ago, giving him a creative outlet when he needs a break from product development. Perez says the same about learning to program. They encourage their partners to utilize the dance space – even a couple of the Hyperloop team members have started to wander over to the studio side of the warehouse.

“It’s a group of engineering students, probably not the most likely to jump out on the dance floor, but we’ve got some of them moving,” Ortiz says.

The couple spend 12-14 hours a day in the studio, seven days a week. But they say the ability to spend each day creating something new continues to motivate them, as well as the belief that they have built something that isn’t just unique, but necessary.

“I think (something like Obra) was missing,” Perez says. “A place that you can create without a boundary. I don’t think there’s ever an idea that we’ll say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ or, ‘No, we don’t know about that.’ Bring us your idea, and we’ll try our best to make it happen.”

Ryan Coogler’s next film will examine Atlanta standardized test scandal

Award-winning filmmaker and Sacramento State alumnus Ryan Coogler ’07 (Business) has lined up his next project, and he’ll be working with a familiar face. Wrong Answer, the true story of an Atlanta high school standardized test cheating scandal, will feature frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan in a starring role and a screenplay written by acclaimed author Ta-Nehesi Coates, Deadline reported this week.

The film will be based off of a 2014 The New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv that detailed what has been called the largest academic cheating scandal in American history. Jordan will play Damany Lewis, one of several teachers who joined efforts to revise the standardized test scores of their underrepresented students upward in order to save the school from closure.

Wrong Answer will be the fourth collaboration between Coogler and Jordan. They previously worked together on Fruitvale Station, which examined the fatal shooting of Oakland resident Oscar Grant III by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer, and Creed, a Rocky franchise sequel focusing on the son of Apollo Creed. Jordan also will appear in Coogler’s upcoming superhero film Black Panther.

Coogler was a star on the football field before an injury led him to think about his life beyond athletics. That’s when he found his passion for film making, a passion that was nurtured by his Sac State professors.

“They put me on the path and gave me the tools to be successful,” Coogler said in 2015 of his early mentors. “Business was helpful; they do call it the ‘film business.’ ”

You can learn more about Coogler’s time at Sacramento State and early career in our Made at Sac State profile.

Helping to power downtown Sacramento’s rebirth, one pedal at a time

Sacramento State alum Todd Sebastian, left, and Jason Blessinger are the co-founders of Off the Chain Bike Bus Tours in downtown Sacramento.

There are a lot of new things to see if you head to Sacramento’s downtown these days, from the Golden 1 Center to the Downtown Commons. But Sacramento State alum Todd Sebastian’s contribution may be the most unique – and the one that does the most to tie it all together.

Sebastian ’00 (Recreation) is the co-founder of Off the Chain Bike Bus Tours, which provides tours of downtown on a 15-passenger bus that is powered, via pedal, by riders. Equipped with lights, a sound system, and, yes, a cooler and on-board tap system, the vehicle allows visitors to experience Sacramento’s growing downtown in a slightly offbeat way.

OTC CapThe company’s core mission, according to Sebastian, is “fun” – his official title is “Foreman of Festivities” and his co-founder, Jason Blessinger, is the “Godfather of Good Times.” They rent out the bike for everything from food and beer tastings to corporate trainings to kids’ birthday parties. By offering the tours, and by partnering with dozens of downtown restaurants, bars and other venues, Off the Chain is introducing people to Sacramento’s reborn downtown district.

“I can’t tell you how many people come down here and they go, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t been down here in five years, I can’t believe all the changes,’” Sebastian says. “We hear that every single ride.”

A native of Elk Grove, Sebastian transferred to Sacramento State from Cosumnes River College in part because it was local and affordable, but also because he knew attending would allow him to network and make contacts that would be helpful when he set down roots in the region.

“(Sac State) made me focus, it made me quickly recognize what I loved,” he says. “It gave me a sense of pride with the campus and the community. I still hold Sac State very fondly in my heart.” He doesn’t have to look very far to be reminded of his time as a Hornet: Three of Off the Chain’s five employees are fellow alums.

After graduation, Sebastian worked for the Fair Oaks Parks and Recreation District, and even returned briefly to Sacramento State to work at The WELL and teach some recreation courses. Then, Blessinger approached him with one of his trademark crazy ideas that Sebastian was used to writing off. This time, however, he instantly fell in love with the concept.

The pair were able to pitch their idea as part of the Calling All Dreamers program, an entrepreneurship competition put on by the Sacramento Downtown Partnership, where they finished second. That didn’t net them prize money, but it did give them credibility around town – including with the Small Business Association and the City of Sacramento – and helped them secure a loan.

OTC Brown
Governor Jerry Brown signed the law permitting the bike buses to operate on city streets while riding in one of Off the Chain’s buses.

Even with start-up money and the support of local movers and shakers secured, however, a major obstacle remained: The bike wasn’t technically legal. Sebastian met with lawmakers and over the course of a year secured a change in state law that classified the bikes as “pedi-cabs” and allowed open alcohol containers so long as the vehicle remained under a certain speed and was staffed by both a dedicated driver and a “chauffer” with a bartending certification. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill while riding the bike with his staff.

“That was hands-down the coolest thing I have accomplished in my career,” Sebastian says.

Although bike buses sometimes come with a reputation of being “booze cruises,” Sebastian says they have worked hard to make sure that the bike, not alcohol, is the primary experience. While on the tour, riders can partake in activities such as on-board trivia or karaoke, or participate in Survivor– and Amazing Race-like challenges, which are popular with corporate team-building events.

The two also have worked hard to ensure their presence downtown is positive. The bikes have electric assist technology to make pedaling more enjoyable for passengers, but also to make sure the bikes can be moved quickly in the event of an emergency or the street needs to be cleared. They plot routes that are minimally disruptive to traffic. And they partner with 45 downtown venues, often reaching out proactively to make sure their riders won’t disrupt a restaurant or bar’s normal business. Sebastian often hears back from partners who say bike bus riders liked the venue so much that they came back.

“For us, it might be a long day, we have four tours, and we’re sweating, but at the end of the day, we went to 12 different venues, they all made money, but most importantly you have 65, 70 people leaving with great memories and laughing the whole time,” he says. “That’s the cool thing at the end of the day, when you know you gave those people a good time.”