San Leandro, Calif., Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta is leaving local government this month to lead a for-profit women’s entrepreneurship incubator aimed at evening the gender gap in Silicon Valley.
Acosta’s last day with the city will be April 20, and she said San Leandro will begin a search for her replacement within six months. She became San Leandro’s first innovation officer in February 2013, bringing with her a background in economic development honed in nearby Oakland.
In the position, Acosta oversaw government tech work with a focus on smart cities, as well as on helping the city transition from being a deeply rooted manufacturing center into a competitive economic hub for innovation.
Acosta said the city’s fiber-optic loop infrastructure, lower cost relative to nearby San Francisco and status as a somewhat unknown locale helped her and other civil servants attract a burgeoning wave of tech businesses, families and young professionals to town.
“Where San Leandro had an edge was that it was undiscovered,” she said, “and millennials love to discover cool new places. What I did in the beginning was simply bring people into San Leandro and allow them to experience it.”
In the next phase of her career, Acosta will be working on a new private-sector project called Women Entrepreneurs Accelerate, or WE Accelerate. Based in San Leandro, the company will work closely with a local nonprofit called the Community Impact Lab, which seeks to empower women entrepreneurs with family support. Essentially, Acosta said, Community Impact Lab provides local women who are interested in business with the support system, guidance and mentoring they need to get started. Once participants in that group have a viable and developing business, they graduate to working with WE Accelerate, which will help with higher-level progress such as finding venture capitalist backing.
She points to the well-documented gender gap in tech and Silicon Valley, a gap that is even more stark at the executive level. Acosta has much to offer as an adviser to women seeking to start businesses in the area, having spent her career working in the region. She’s also a trailblazer, standing as one of the first in municipal government to hold the title of innovation officer, and, to this day, one of few women to do the job for an American city.
When discussing the progress she oversaw in San Leandro, Acosta points to a local sculpture as a physical manifestation of her accomplishments. Located between a busy train stop and a recently built tech campus, the sculpture is called Truth is Beauty, and she is a 55-foot-tall abstraction of the female form, made from 13,000 pounds of stainless steel mesh and 20,000 steel connecting rods. At night, she is lit by 2,500 programmable lights, complete with colorful patterns that evoke fire, water and wind.
“For a city like San Leandro, she’s an amazing icon of our transformation,” Acosta said. “We are a traditional industrial manufacturing city that has ... transformed into a city where advanced manufacturing — 3-D printing, remote machine processing — are possible now because we have a 10-gigabit-per-second fiber-optic loop. We’re still manufacturing, but here’s this beautiful statue that celebrates the world of making things and at the same time is very much a symbol of the transformation of her computerized systems and the lighting inside her.”
The statue is also perhaps indicative of the next phase of Acosta’s life as well. Truth is Beauty stands on her toes, extending her face and arms fully toward the sky, as if looking up at the symbolic glass ceiling often used as a metaphor to describe a cap on the heights to which women in business and other arenas can climb. The meaning behind Truth is Beauty is a question: What would the world be like if women were safe?
Acosta said for women seeking to thrive in Silicon Valley while also balancing a family, glass ceiling is a misnomer because it’s more of a steel ceiling, in that women can do everything expected of them to get ahead and not even be able to see the final steps they would need to take to reach the top because the territory is obscured and uncharted for them.
That, however, is what WE Accelerate seeks to change, in part by collaborating with the aforementioned nonprofit group as well as other partners in the private sector. She also emphasized that such progress for women is long overdue.
“It’s become clear to me that if it was not now, when?” Acosta said. “If it was not San Leandro, where? And if it was not me, who?”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.