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Maker Movement Rescues San Francisco Tech Entrepreneur

One man's story shows why cities are nurturing local innovation communities.

Our Nation is home to a long line of innovators who have fueled our economy and transformed our world. Through the generations, American inventors have lit our homes, propelled humanity into the skies, and helped people across the planet connect at the click of a button. American manufacturers have never stopped chasing the next big breakthrough. As a country, we respond to challenge with discovery, determined to meet our great tests while seeking out new frontiers.
— Presidential Proclamation, National Day of Making 2014

It’s Christmas season 2011, and Marc Roth has spent his last dollar. He is homeless and suffers from a debilitating nerve disorder. Far from family, he is without options. What hope remains is put into a $49 purchase — an investment that for Roth signifies everything.

It was opportunity discovered in a trash can: Two homeless shelter residents had chucked a flier advertising a $49 holiday special to TechShop — a one-month membership to the community studio’s world of CNC machining equipment, laser cutters and prototyping tools. It was hardware, he’d discover later, that also belonged to a new movement that puts advanced tech tools into the hands of product-providing citizens. Nationally, from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., the initiative has become known as the Maker Movement.

At the time, Roth saw the invitation as a possible opportunity. He was desperate, and so with little to lose, he dug the flier out of the trash.

In retrospect, Roth’s life had run itself unexpectedly. He was educated, a would-have-been millionaire, the former CEO of a Las Vegas tech startup and the father of two children. Years before, investors seeded his company with $2.4 million. When it failed, things deteriorated and he was devastated. The fallout left Roth on a foam mat in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, staying at a homeless shelter at the city’s northeastern edge.

“There was a fork in the road where I thought, ‘I could just end it or sleep in a homeless shelter,’” Roth recalled. “The logic in my head was, well, you could always do that the next day too — it’s not like that ever falls off the table.”

Instead, Roth cashed a welfare check to pay for the membership and bought a 15-cent banana to avoid the ATM fees. It was a turning point and a day Roth, now an ambassador for San Francisco’s Maker Movement, will remember for the rest of his life.

Bad Luck in Vegas

Inside TechShop, Roth sipped coffee at a wooden table not far from the studio’s line of bright-white windows. Laser printers hum, laptops purr, metallic vibrations emanate from machinery, alongside random jostling from a few herky-jerky 3-D printers.

Raising his pitch against the background noise, Roth said his descent began in Vegas, where he and his family lived. It was the height of the Great Recession in 2009 and his company, Interactive Advertising Systems Inc., was hemorrhaging. A near self-taught technologist, Roth had patented touchscreen technology to process taxi fares and created a company around it. Friends and family threw in $75,000 and a second round of investment fueled the company with $2.4 million in credit and cash. At its height, in 2008, the startup was valued at $25 million.

All that potential notwithstanding, in 2010 Roth found himself fighting, unsuccessfully, to rescue his company from a recession that had drained the travel industry — his primary source of revenue — and sucker-punched his hotel and real-estate based investors, the only other source of income keeping him solvent.

“After all of that, I finally just gave up on it,” Roth said. “I had gone from being a future billionaire to being severely broke and it took a toll on me.”

In the aftermath, he washed up writing code. Not a bad job, but one he wouldn’t keep. The loss was too much and the resulting career prospects were too few. Roth saw San Francisco’s tech community as his answer. He’d get a sales and engineering job and earn a six-figure salary — he told himself and his family “everything is going to be all right.”

Roth took essentials only on his trek to California: clothes for interviews, his computer and a 2008 Saturn Vue to be his office, taxi and living quarters. He departed expecting his time away to last a month or so, at most.

Hard Times in San Francisco

Those who know San Francisco recognize that it’s a city of worlds intertwined. Take a walk down Market Street, down Powell, down Geary and all the highs and lows mix in. Gold-cufflinked shirtsleeves sway past men pushing shopping carts, while street musicians squat by trolley-car tourists. CEOs and escalator beggars, high rollers and penny pinchers; San Francisco, like life, offers everything except promises.

It was to this world that Roth arrived in September 2011, determined to succeed. During the day, he’d send résumés from libraries and coffee shops. At night, he’d sleep discreetly in a quiet neighborhood, a parking lot on the coast or his usual fallback, a park in the city’s Mission Bay Neighborhood, just blocks from the San Francisco Giants’ stadium.

While he settled into a workday routine that involved time at the library to use the free Wi-Fi to distribute his résumé, the hardest part of living in his car was snagging a shower. Roth’s solution was to shower covertly at a public pool in the North Beach neighborhood.

“It’s funny, because I would always swim too,” he said, chuckling. “I didn’t want anybody to know my situation. I wanted to appear as normal as I possibly could while I was dealing with all of this.”

Expenses compelled Roth to work at a pizzeria on Treasure Island; his co-workers didn’t know he was homeless either. Time went by and though he’d been optimistic, Roth could guess the reasons why the job search was slow: It was success — not failure — that had marked him.

“Any smart person looking at my résumé wouldn’t think that I was going to stick around. They would think I was looking for a way to make money until I started my next business.”

Roth’s toils eventually bore fruit, and he secured the interest of three companies. He jumped at the first job offer, a decision he came to regret. After buying new clothes for the job, his phone rang. The news was bad.

“I was busy working on my wardrobe while they were busy deciding that maybe they didn’t have a job opening after all.”

The news took Roth back to zero.

Adding to his loss, his health was suffering. Hours of standing in front of pizza ovens had resulted in nerve damage in his legs, causing pain that prevented Roth from standing for more than two hours at a time, and prohibiting him from most manual jobs.

The worst came shortly after.

Roth returned to his SUV one afternoon to discover two windows shattered. His belongings, packaged in suitcases and Rubbermaid containers, had been worked over. His valuables were gone.

It was here that Roth was at one of the lowest points in his entire life. His vehicle and home was unlivable. He had no career. His legs ached. And beyond doubt, Roth was finally, indisputably, homeless.

“I went to spend a night in the homeless shelter. The first night I really didn’t know what to expect. Just getting through the trauma of going to the homeless shelter was all I could process,” Roth said.

“I remember walking into the shelter — I’m pretty sure I went downstairs and tried to eat — and then I went up, stuck my stuff in a drawer and I was out. The next day, I woke up and did the same thing over again.”

Marc Roth, founder, The Learning Shelter
A Second Chance

What’s the difference between the homeless and everyone else? For many Americans who live month to month, Roth said, it can be as little as a single paycheck. It’s a fact he’d observe during the coming months in shelters across San Francisco. It came to him during his first stay.

After three days in the shelter, Roth had recovered enough to think and take in his surroundings. It was the sense of normalcy that struck him most. The people acted like people: They ate breakfast, sat on couches, watched television, showered and slept. “There was nothing really remarkable about it.”

Months prior, he’d considered entering a shelter and declined. He even approached a shelter doorstep before hurrying off. Looking back now, he wonders at his fears.

“It was like the homeless people were going to see me and say, ‘Oh, you’re Marc Roth!’ I don’t know what was running through my head, but I was afraid to go anywhere near them,” Roth said.

With the temporary roof over his head, Roth set himself to planning. He applied for general assistance and got it a week later.

It was then that Roth discovered the flier for TechShop, a community machine studio, located downtown. The facility holds more than a million dollars in prototyping equipment and is a hub for San Francisco’s Maker Movement, an initiative supporting community-driven design and production.

San Francisco Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath said TechShop’s makerspace is an integral gauge of the city’s steadily growing manufacturing sector that channels more than $1 billion of indirect and direct revenue into the local economy. The city estimates that the sector employs more than 3,000 of its residents and another 1,000 outside of San Francisco.

“Makerspaces like TechShop are important places for collaboration and community-building that breed new ways products are designed, prototyped and manufactured and a new way of thinking that can benefit our communities and the city,” Nath said. “Chief innovation officers should watch for signals like TechShop and similar offerings because they’re an indication of the emerging needs of our residents and businesses.”

Today, college students, entrepreneurs, hobbyists, inventors and others gather daily to tinker with its tech equipment. It’s what drew Roth, who for the price of a membership, had access to 3-D printers, CNC milling machines, injection molding equipment, lathes, sand blasters, powder coaters and hundreds of prototyping tools.

Roth enrolled himself, took two free classes that came with the deal, and things developed. Worst case, said Roth, it was a day shelter with free popcorn and coffee. Best case, it was a ticket to a new trade. He would go on to master every machine in the shop. Soon, young entrepreneurs began hiring him for prototype projects. Next, TechShop offered Roth opportunities to teach.

Five months went by.

Then, in May 2012, a friend he’d met paid for Roth to live in a hacker hostel for tech entrepreneurs. At the same time, an anonymous investor supported Roth in launching SF Laser, his laser cutting and etching company housed inside of TechShop. SF Laser was a success, and in June 2012, Roth brought his family to the Bay Area. He’s never been homeless since.

A New Kind of Shelter

Roth grapples with the question of when he knew the struggles were over. The truth is there was never a finish line, he said.

“The idea that I’m never going to be in a homeless shelter again is just not a myth that I believe in,” Roth said. “I’m going to work hard. And I have a pretty good idea where my life is going … but I don’t believe in security the way I used to — nor do I feel like I need to.”

Roth distinguishes himself differently now too. In the past, he could never identify himself as homeless. Yet the experience altered his thinking, and these days, he can’t help but identify with the homeless. Roth sees parts of himself in them — both good and bad — but parts worth saving.

Today, Roth leads a grass-roots but tenacious organization called the Learning Shelter, which he created to provide those in need with the same tech tools he had — with the addition of mentors and coaching. The idea is to teach trades that empower the homeless to get themselves off the street.

On May 15, Roth’s first session began at TechShop with a pilot cohort of four members. The program lasts 90 days.

“Being able to make things of value is what makes human beings valuable to each other. And these are resourceful people,” Roth said. “They’re capable. They just need the tools and the blueprint.”

Despite the shelter’s recent birth, it’s received warm adulation from charitable nonprofits and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee who praised the shelter in his 2014 State of the City Address. In June, Roth and the shelter were recognized by President Barack Obama at the White House Maker Faire, a gathering to bolster the Maker Movement.

“We’re always asking ourselves, ‘How can innovation lead to jobs for the future? What kind of training and education do these jobs require and how do we ensure that our future workforce is trained for these jobs?’” said Nath. “The Learning Shelter is an inspiring new work skills training model that helps keep San Francisco a city for the 100 percent.”

Roth said his shelter will always be about people and there is much to be done. He’s seeking investors and talking with homeless shelters to identify candidates. The vision is to eventually create a full live-in program and offer aid in perpetuity. Yet whether he will realize this new dream remains unknown. If there is any confirmation for his aspirations, Roth said it doesn’t arrive in spreadsheets or endorsements. Mostly, it comes at night, when the lights are out and he’s asleep in his own bed, with his children down the hall.

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.