Oakland: In effort to diversify tech, Kapor Center opens new hub By Annie Sciacca

Oakland: In effort to diversify tech, Kapor Center opens new hub By Annie Sciacca

As Uber prepares to open its new offices in the former Sears building in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, a different kind of technology hub is settling into its own new headquarters just a few blocks away.

The Kapor Center — part nonprofit, part community center and part investment firm — is settling into its newly renovated building at 2148 Broadway as part of its mission to help build diverse companies in the tech ecosystem. The move follows its initial decade in San Francisco’s SoMA neighborhood and the past few years in a rented space in Oakland as it built out its new headquarters.

Just miles away from the tech hubs in San Francisco and Silicon Valley that have oft been criticized for a lack gender and racial diversity, Oakland has increasingly spawned efforts to make tech more diverse, and the Kapor Center has been at the center of it.

The new building houses all three arms of the Kapor Center: the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which aims to increase access to tech and diverse entrepreneurship through its community programming and education; Kapor Capital, which is a seed stage investment firm with an emphasis on funding tech that helps increase opportunities or access for communities of color; and the Level Playing Field Institute, which provides resources to underrepresented students of color in science, tech, engineering and math fields.

Besides housing these programs, the new building, complete with an auditorium, meeting rooms and a rooftop area for events, will allow the Kapor Center to be a community gathering place. Companies in its portfolio can work out of its offices, and its auditorium and meeting space will be available to rent on a sliding scale to community organizations.

It will allow the Kapor Center to build on what has already been a successful track record in supporting diversity in tech. Mitch Kapor, founder of spreadsheet software firm Lotus 1-2-3, and his wife, Freada Kapor Klein, started the center roughly 15 years ago, following Kapor’s successful stint in software and Klein’s work in helping businesses make their work forces more diverse.

“Corporations kept implementing diversity efforts, but nothing ever changed,” Klein said of the reason she wanted to start the center. She founded the Level Playing Field Institute in 2001 to help underrepresented students of color access STEM fields. Part of that is the Summer Math and Science Honors Academy — SMASH — a free, STEM-intensive college preparatory program for middle and high school students.

While Wall Street and other business sectors have also struggled with diversity, Klein said, tech faces particular challenges.

“Tech — more than any other industry — is arrogant, congratulatory and believes it’s a perfect meritocracy,” she said.

The tech industry in recent years has faced heavy criticism for its mostly white, male work force. Google and Facebook released reports recently that show their work force demographics have shifted very little, with African-Americans and Latinos still only a small percentage of the companies’ employees.

Kapor Capital, the investment fund portion of the Kapor Center, hopes to change that across the tech industry.

Between 2015 and 2017, Kapor Capital says it will have invested $40 million into tech startups that aim to boost access to tech and business in minority communities, and most of the companies it has funded are run by people from underrepresented communities.

Leandrew Robinson, CEO and co-founder of retail tech startup Hingeto, said the Kapor Center has been crucial in connecting his company with funding, particularly with investors that see the value in a diverse entrepreneur community, like investment firm Cross Culture Ventures.

Hingeto, which helps apparel retailers sell products with no inventory risk (think Kickstarter for fashion), currently operates out of the Kapor Center offices.

The opening of the new Kapor Center comes as the Bay Area’s tech ecosystem continues to infiltrate Oakland. As tech grows, San Francisco- or Silicon Valley-based companies have launched outposts in the East Bay.

The question then becomes whether technology companies in Oakland can help promote equality in the city, rather than the inequity that has caused so much tension in San Francisco.

“In Oakland, we’re seeing a convergence of mission-driven companies that are using technology to solve real-world problems which can benefit Oakland residents,” said Erica Terry Derryck, director of communications for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.

Besides the Kapor Center, influential groups such as Hack the Hood and Black Girls Code, among others, have sprung up.

Hack the Hood, for example, helps prepare low-income youths of color for careers in tech by hiring and training them to build websites for real small businesses in their communities. While this type of work is happening all over the country, said Hack the Hood co-founder and director of education Zakiya Harris, the Bay Area’s position as a hub for innovation, combined with Oakland’s history of social justice, has helped make the East Bay city a leader in the effort to increase diversity in tech.

While tech emerged in San Francisco without heavy efforts to diversify it, Oakland has the opportunity “to do tech differently” — and more intentionally — than San Francisco or the South Bay, said Mitch Kapor. “When you look at San Francisco, it’s easy to imagine doing things differently here.”

It also helps that many of the young tech companies emerging in Oakland are focused on diversity and social justice. Clef, a data security startup, hosts monthly community dinners, where anyone in the community is invited to come and break bread.

“I believe diversity is a public good and a requisite for justice,” said Darrell Jones III, head of business development at Clef.

While many community groups have expressed concern over the arrival in Oakland of Uber, which has said little in regard to community outreach or diversity, Jones thinks the opening of the Kapor Center’s new community hub just a few blocks away should draw just as much attention.

“The community should be rallying around the opening of their champion,” he said.


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