Oakland tech hub fights for diversity

Oakland tech hub fights for diversity

Just miles yet a world away from Silicon Valley is a budding tech hub where talk of racial inequality is as common as talk of stock options.

This is by design. Entrepreneurs and community activists here are working to turn Oakland into a national model for re-engineering the tech industry to better reflect the demographics of the country.

Next month, this coalition led by Qeyno Labs and Rainbow PUSH will hold “Tech EQuity Week,” a first-of-its-kind event for Oakland featuring a “hacking housing” forum, a hackathon for young people, a start-up pitch session for local entrepreneurs and a career day for aspiring tech workers.

With the event, Oakland is sending a message that this working-class city, with its deep cultural roots in social justice, music and the arts, is not your typical tech community — and it has every intention of staying that way.

That message is taking on new urgency with the arrival in 2017 of ride-hailing giant Uber, which plans to bring thousands of employees to this 413,775-person city in an expansion of its San Francisco headquarters.

Start-ups here are hiring more women and underrepresented minorities than the industry norm. Those demographics are outliers in the tech industry, where white and Asian men hold most jobs in the fast-growing sector across the Bay that stretches along the high-tech corridor between San Francisco and San Jose.

Uber, which is restoring the historic Sears building in the heart of downtown Oakland, has said little publicly on the subject of diversity and is one of the few major tech companies that has yet to release demographic data on its workforce. That raised concerns Oakland could slip into a pattern followed by other cities: While tech has created thousands of high-paying jobs, those are rarely held by African Americans and Latinos, who make up more than half of Oakland residents.

Oakland is facing a “pivotal moment,” says Cedric Brown, chief of community engagement at the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which aims to close the racial gap in tech.

“With Uber’s imminent arrival in 2017, we want to say: This is what Oakland is. We want to be the hub for tech equity in the nation,” he said.

Uber told USA TODAY it has embarked on a “listening tour” of Oakland, sitting down with leaders from non-profits and advocacy organizations. The company is “working hard to be thoughtful about how we partner with local leaders to strengthen the neighborhood together,” said Uber spokeswoman Laura Zapata.

Some 200 tech firms are located in Oakland, including music streaming service Pandora and search engine Ask.com, occupying 1.7 million square feet, says Colin Yasukochi, director of research and analysis at CBRE.

Property managers are rehabbing historical properties to make them friendlier to tech companies and other creative professions fleeing San Francisco’s high rents. And tech companies are eyeing outposts here to recruit and keep top talent, many of whom make their homes in the East Bay.

And that, says Rainbow PUSH’s Rev. Jesse Jackson, puts Oakland at a crossroads: “Will people and communities of color be included in the tech revolution or left behind?”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf says she’s determined that the tech boom lift up, not push out, longtime residents and small businesses. She has coined the term “tech-quity” to define the “shared prosperity” the city expects of Uber and other newcomers.

“I look across the bay and I don’t want to follow in the footsteps of San Francisco,” Schaaf said. “Tech no longer needs to be a divide, it can be a bridge. We can absolutely use the power of technology to encourage equity rather than let it be something that continues to create inequity.”

But can Oakland succeed where San Francisco failed?

The influx of people and companies priced out of San Francisco is already pushing office and residential rents to near peaks and tightening vacancy rates, forcing out low-income and working-class families and threatening to sharpen income inequality. Oakland is the nation’s fourth most expensive rental market, with asking prices up 10.5% in 2015, reports apartment listing service Zumper.

Median household incomes for white families are already nearly twice that of African-American, Latino and Asian households. About 40% of Oakland Unified School District students do not have computers connected to high-speed Internet at home.

Those kinds of sobering statistics underscore a digital chasm: Too few African-American and Latino students from Oakland are studying math and science and entering the tech industry either to work for companies or launch start-ups.

A mix of non-profits and tech investments are stepping up to address that challenge.

• Oakland entrepreneurs and philanthropists Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein are spending tens of millions to bring greater diversity to the tech industry from their home base in Oakland.

• Influential organizations such as Qeyno Labs, Hack the Hood, Telegraph Academy, the Hidden Genius Project and Black Girls Code have sprung up here to build coding skills and confidence to ready youth for the tech industry.

Qeyno Labs CEO Kalimah Priforce says he’s tapping the brain power and hustle of this city’s youth with hackathons. He held his first group coding competition after neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting and killing an African-American teen who was walking home from a convenience store. His premise: Could an app have saved Trayvon Martin? “I knew that concept was not on the mind of the developer community in Silicon Valley and that needed to change,” he said.

• The Silicon Valley tech industry is beginning to play a larger role. Internet giant Google gave $750,000 to the Oakland Unified School District’s African American Male Achievement program with the goal of lifting graduation rates and admissions to four-year colleges. And Intel is investing $5 million over the next five years in a new pilot program to teach computer science to high school students in Oakland’s public schools.

• Young tech companies are settling here and are doing things differently.

The founders of 2-year-old start-up npm Inc., Isaac Schlueter, Rod Boothby and Laurie Voss, set out to build a team “made up of folks along every spectrum, from gender, sexuality, age, race, ethnicity, expertise, family size and type, and more,” said engineer Raquel Vélez, the open-source software company’s first hire.

Data security start-up Clef says it started baking inclusion into its DNA from the outset. One of its guiding principles: “Fight the default of exclusion.”

Clef hired a diversity consultant to help build inclusive policies such as non-negotiable compensation to eliminate pay disparities, instead of putting money toward the usual start-up perks such as “a keg or beer pong,” said Darrell Jones III, who heads business development at Oakland start-up Clef.

And Clef is burrowing into the community, breaking bread with weekly dinners that are open to anyone — they have held 120 so far. Jones spends 25% of his time on community organizing.

• Pandora is working to bring more people from underrepresented backgrounds to the industry and to its own ranks, says its diversity chief, Lisa Lee. Unlike many large tech companies, Pandora does not have a cafeteria to encourage employees to patronize local businesses and mix with the community.

“I see the momentum of the tech industry as a freight train,” Lee said. “It’s coming, and rather than standing on the train tracks trying to stop it, what we are trying to do is get on that freight train and bring along equity and parity.”


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