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The Kapor Center: Community-centric tech

on September 11, 2016

The Kapor Center for Social Impact’s new headquarters in Oakland checks off the typical technology company hallmarks of a nap nook, a smorgasbord of snacks and a treadmill at the phone. But by the front door, there are old switchboards reimagined as art and an electronic screen with a message to those who enter: “#BlackLivesMatter.”

All exemplify the center’s mission.

The building was an old Pacbell switching station that sat vacant for 10 years until Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, tech entrepreneurs and philanthropists, gave it new life. They turned it into a home for their venture capital firm, educational nonprofit and community center, all of which work to diversify and support the tech industry, especially in the East Bay.

The couple want to see Oakland as the epicenter for what they call “tech done right,” and they’ve pledged $40 million over the next three years to see it through.

“We believe diversity and inclusiveness in the tech industry will lead to better things coming out of the industry,” said Cedric Brown, the center’s chief of community engagement.

With a more skilled and diverse workforce, he said that the industry would be better poised to produce solutions to real-world problems, compared to leisure services. And he said that people from all backgrounds would benefit more from an accessible and inclusive tech economy.

“There’s a lot of fear about tech company growth and displacing folks who’ve lived here for many generations, and we see it happening,” Brown said. “How do we retain Oakland’s character and talent while we’re also growing the tech sector?”

The Kapors live in Oakland, and a few years ago, they started seeing tech companies move to the East Bay. They saw a chance to build the industry differently in the East Bay compared with Silicon Valley and San Francisco, where companies have been criticized for contributing to gentrification and rising housing prices.

Brown said that’s what led the center over the Bay Bridge from its original location in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood. Now it’s located in the heart of Oakland, where it’s an office space for 50 employees and a place where the tech and social justice advocates can come together.

The three-story brick building has meeting spaces, an auditorium and a rooftop patio with views of the lively Uptown neighborhood at Broadway and 22nd Street. Pandora is a towering neighbor up above, and Uber will move into its new headquarters down the street.

The center was designed to be a community hub that hosts meetups, hackathons, lectures and events at the intersection of tech and social impact.

“People don’t think of Oakland when they think of tech yet,” said Antoinette Reyes, the center’s events manager. “But there’s a big pool of people out here, too.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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