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Oakland, Calif.’s Tech Boom Will Boost the Local Economy, But How?

The new Oakland Kapor Center for Social Impact opened amid the growing tech migration to the town, and aims to bridge the divide between tech companies and social justice advocates.

by Marissa Lang, San Francisco Chronicle / July 21, 2016
Uptown Oakland District Flickr/Jaegar Moore

(TNS) -- On the week of its grand opening, the Kapor Center for Social Impact’s headquarters in Oakland still hadn’t affixed a sign above its front door.

The entrance, a nondescript black archway in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, remained devoid of any reference to Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor, technology entrepreneurs and philanthropists who have pledged millions to support Oakland’s transformation into a technology hub and push for diversity in the tech industry.

But makeshift signs printed on white paper were taped to the glass bearing a message: “Black lives matter.”

For the Kapors, the signs are more than a show of solidarity with the nationwide protest movement, which has highlighted police shootings. They illustrate one of the center’s core tenets.

“The very big question is not whether (the Oakland tech boom) going to boost the economy, because it is. The question is, Where will the benefits of that boost go? And will we replicate in some fashion the kind of dramatic extreme of gentrification that’s taken place in San Francisco, or will there be an outcome of this revitalization that will be more broadly and inclusively distributed?” said Mitch Kapor, who founded spreadsheet firm Lotus. “That’s the question that’s on people’s minds now. We were thinking about this five years ago, because we saw this coming. And that’s what actually led to us buying the building here.”

The headquarters, a red brick building that curves to hug the corner of Broadway and 22nd Street, is as much a symbol as it is a functioning office space. By physically placing itself in the heart of Oakland, the center aims to bridge the divide between tech companies on one side and social justice advocates and Oakland residents apprehensive about big-name tech firms moving into the East Bay on the other.

Changing Tech

A billboard, erected to announce the center’s opening this month, riffs on the idea that tech companies may change Oakland, but Oakland, too, has the capacity to change tech.

Criticism of the tech industry has reached a crescendo as activists, politicians, educators and tech workers decry the industry’s lack of black, Latino and female workers. Recently released diversity reports from Google and Facebook — which both indicate about 6 percent of their workforces are black and Latino — show minimal progress in the past several years. The companies have also been criticized for the soaring housing prices both near their headquarters and where private shuttles stop to pick up and drop off employees.

The Kapors, who live in Oakland, have long championed social justice and spoken out about the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Kapor Capital has pledged to invest $40 million in “gap closing” tech startups that promote diversity, inclusion and access among people of color. It’s what Mitch Kapor calls “tech done right.”

“Tech done right is one in which the companies produce positive social impact and the companies themselves are diverse and inclusive,” he said. “This building is not just space for our offices, we want it to be somewhere we can bring people together. ... We think more face-to-face connection ... generally can lead to shared understandings — not always agreement — but understanding.”

Vacant Building

Heading up that effort is Cedric Brown, the Kapor Center’s chief of community engagement.

Brown, who lives in Oakland, was the first to spot the building that would become the center’s headquarters in 2010 while he was walking home. It had been vacant for some time, and looked it. The exterior had faded to an off-yellow hue with green paint peeling around the windows. But the unique curvature of the structure held Brown’s gaze.

Now he has an office inside.

The three-story building, which houses 55 employees, had been unoccupied for at least a decade before it was purchased by the Kapors. Now, there is a rooftop garden, an auditorium for events in the basement and a streetside cafe serving authentic Mexican fare.

Kapor Capital, a seed-stage venture firm that invests in startups with a social justice mission or that increase opportunities and access for communities of color, and the Level Playing Field Institute, an educational fund, will also operate out of the Uptown headquarters. The institute facilitates courses, programs and resources for learning science, technology, engineering and math to black and Latino students.

Ribbon Cutting

On Wednesday, Mayor Libby Schaaf was invited to cut the ribbon at the center, which opened its doors to a throng of politicians, industry leaders, activists and athletes who live and work in Oakland.

The Kapor Center, which was founded about 15 years ago, used to be in San Francisco’s South of Market area. It moved to an Oakland office building close to its new home in 2012 as part of a long-standing plan to move its operations across the bay.

“These patterns of underutilized cities with underutilized space becoming transformed through tech has been happening for years,” Kapor said. “There are real risks here, and things are changing, so we need to take seriously what’s going on. But there’s also opportunity.”

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.