Kapor Center works to close technology “gap”
on October 8, 2014
On the busy corner of Franklin and Broadway, surrounded by restaurants and lounges, stands the new headquarters of the Kapor Center for Social Impact. Remodeling began in mid-September and should be finished in the fall of 2015.
The Kapor Center is an organization that tries to close what staffers like to call “the gap” between those who can access information, education and technology and those who can’t. They attempt to do so by supporting non-profit organizations that provide technological and science skills training to African American, Latino and Native American communities and by investing in promising start-up ideas from those same minority communities.
Jennifer Argüello, a senior tech advisor at the center, said that their mission is to support the local community. “We want to keep that same Oakland entrepreneurial and community spirit, but now infuse it with technology,” Argüello said.
The center’s new 45,000 square foot headquarters will be located at 2148 Broadway, in what is currently a three-story building built in 1923. It once belonged to the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company and was vacant for more than a decade. The groundbreaking ceremony took place on September 16 and the restoration is already underway. Center staffers plan to preserve the facade but renovate the inside. Right now the outside looks intact, while the inside is full of stacks of construction wood, old steel columns marked with fluorescent orange spray paint, orange road cones everywhere and old mottled windows ready to be replaced by new ones.
The Kapor Center has been running in the East Bay since 2012, when the center relocated from San Francisco to Oakland to be closer to the community staffers wanted to help. Right now they are located right across the street from the new center. Staffers estimate the new building has cost $2.1 million to purchase and will cost more that $15 million to renovate.
Mitch Kapor, the center’s founder, was also the founder of Lotus Development Corporation and the designer of Lotus 1-2-3, a spreadsheet program that was popular in the business world in the 1980s, a program he eventually sold to IBM. “He is one of those veterans in technology and in Silicon Valley along with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs—those were his peers,” said Argüello. He’s been an entrepreneur and software designer for 30 years and an angel investor through Kapor Capital, his venture capital firm, since 1999.
The office building will also house Kapor Capital, which invests in early stage start-ups that are focused on social good. Among the tech companies that received seed funding from the firm this year is Pigeonly. Frederick Hutson, its CEO, had his start-up idea while he was incarcerated. He wanted to create a company to help inmates stay connected with their loved ones in two ways: by letting them place cheap long-distance phone calls using Internet pricing models and by providing them with a simple way to receive hard copy photographs. Since March of 2012, the company has been doing just that.
Hutson believes that having a center like this in Oakland will help those who traditionally wouldn’t get access to the tech industry, as well as give them the resources and training to convert an unrefined idea into a viable business model. “I’m so excited about the new Kapor Center, because things like that didn’t exist before,” said Hutson. “Now that you have that done, especially with a name that is respected in technology behind it, it really opens up doors.”
The center will also house the Level Playing Field Institute, a non-profit organization founded in 2001 by Freada Kapor, Mitch Kapor’s wife. The group runs student programs focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics for minorities from elementary through high school. “We have the same DNA, I guess you would say,” said Jarvis Sulcer, the institute’s president and chief education officer, of the relationship between the two organizations.
At this moment, the two groups are located in the same building, but while the institute is on the ground floor, the Kapor Center is seven stories up. They will share a common space in the new center. “Being physically in the same space will foster more momentum and more collaboration and more innovating solutions to some challenges we are facing here in Oakland,” said Sulcer.
The institute has been focusing on three areas to narrow the digital divide, a term often used to describe the uneven access to technology and skills between individuals in a community. The first area includes transformation programs for students, including SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors Academy) and a prep academy program for low-income middle school students, comprised mainly of African-Americans and Latinos. This is a three-year 5-week intensive program students start the summer after 10th grade. The students take classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics on one of four college campuses: UC Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and USC. “It truly transform students’ perspectives. They come back every year and we see them transition into college,” said Sulcer.
The second area is through computer science initiatives, which includes hackathons, events where people with different technical backgrounds try to code together to solve real-world problems. The institute’s version is a two-day event aimed at low-income kids from the Bay Area.“We have the youth figure out problems in their communities and they use their experiences and technology to design solutions,” Argüello said. “In that way, we are enabling the community to help themselves, which is different from a tech organization coming in and giving you the product.”
The third area is through researching inequities and opportunities for students of color in K12 and higher education. For instance, their staff has made reports on how the U.S compares to other countries in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and what educational and professional challenges the unrepresented students in STEM face.
The center also aims to bring in Oaklanders to discuss technology. “It will have a community space so that we can engage with the community, bring them in for entrepreneurial type of acts and technology type of events,” said Argüello. They still haven’t decided exactly how this community space will be used.
The diversification of the players in Bay Area technology has been a lifelong-mission for Mitch Kapor, said Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who welcomed the new center and attended its groundbreaking ceremony. “He has been a champion for Oakland and for minorities in technology,” Quan said. “Tech is very white and is very middle class right now, and if you are only looking at it from a certain point of view or looking at a certain set of problems you are limited.”
“We are very happy that the Kapor Center has chosen to come to Oakland,” said Bruce Buckelew, director of Oakland Technology Exchange West, a non-profit that has been advocating for closing the digital divide in Oakland for the past 20 years. The group has provided more than 36,000 computers to low-income members of the community enabling them to access the digital world. “We invite them to join us and others in addressing the many important issues that result from the digital divide,” said Buckelew. “There is plenty to do.”
Kapor is also acknowledged by many in the tech industry for his ability to see up-and-coming trends and jump on them before others jump on them. “He not only finds new technologies and business models that are unconventional, but he is also one of those folks that looks to populations that haven’t had accessibility in the past,” said Argüello.
According to a study released by the National Venture Association in 2011, 87 percent of the startup founders of 2010 were white. Kapor has been helping support a more diverse landscape in terms of entrepreneurs and companies that are being built. Argüello said that if most entrepreneurs belong to one demographic group, they are likely to come up with ideas and solutions that will only be beneficial to that community or group. “It’s a little hard for an older white male to create a product that will be attractive to a young Latina. It’s better to teach that Latina how to code and she can build her own product and sell it,” Argüello said.
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