By Tammerlin Drummond Oakland Tribune Columnist
Frederick Hutson was in prison on a drug charge when he came up with a novel idea. A low-cost telephone service that would enable prison inmates to dial loved ones — even in another state — using a local telephone number. The service would avoid the scandalously exorbitant costs that incarcerated people pay to make phone calls, employing a technology that is similar to Google Voice.
Today, Hutson is CEO of Pigeonly, a Las-Vegas based data company that helps incarcerated people stay connected to their families. With some 2.3 million people currently behind bars often at great distances from their families — there is a huge untapped market for Pigeonly’s “telepigeon” service.
From left, SMASH (summer math and science honors) Founder Mitch Kapor interacts with Breanna Thomas, 15, and other students during pre-calculus class at the SMASH Academy, for low-income kids at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. on Wednesday, July 27, 2011. (LiPo Ching/Mercury News) (LiPo Ching)
This isn’t your typical tech startup. Hutson came up with his idea not while attending an elite institution like Stanford or Harvard, but while doing time in a penal institution. There aren’t a lot of venture capitalists lining up to give money to African-American ex-cons.
Yet Pigeonly is exactly the sort of business that the Oakland-based Kapor Center for Social Impact goes out of its way to add to its investment portfolio. The Kapor Center invested “hundreds of thousands of dollars” — toward the $1 million in seed funding that Hutson raised.
“The telephone is a lifeline and if you break the link you are increasing recidivism, which is the opposite of what we should be doing,” says Kapor, co-chair of the Kapor Center, which he cofounded with his wife Freada Kapor Klein. “There have been battles in the FCC for decades to lower the cost, but in this way actually providing an alternative is a more effective way than trying to regulate price caps.”
Mitch Kapor is a tech icon who first made his name in Silicon Valley in the early days of personal computing. He cofounded Lotus Development Corp. and helped design the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, which made him a very wealthy man. Over the years, he has been one of Silicon Valley’s top angel investors.
But Kapor has always been troubled by the ever-widening gap between those who have access to — and knowledge of how to use information technology — and those who don’t. He looked around Silicon Valley and saw a tech sector where there were almost no minorities or women. He wasn’t buying into the libertarian notion that tends to run through the tech community that this glaring absence is due to a lack of talent. Kapor and his wife decided to start the Kapor Center for Social Impact. Its mission is to help close what the Kapors call “gaps” in education, achievement, income, health — those very real barriers to people from disadvantaged backgrounds to developing the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the tech field.
The Kapor Center recently began renovating a 45,000 square foot building on Broadway in downtown Oakland for its headquarters. When it opens in October 2015, the new headquarters will have a public cafe and auditorium. Kapor says it will serve as a gathering place for the many individuals and organizations in the Bay Area that are using technology to help solve social problems.
The Kapor center has a two-pronged approach to increasing the numbers of minorities in tech and helping to level the playing field.
Kapor Capital, the venture capital side provides seed-funding to promising entrepreneurs, who like Hutson have good ideas but don’t have traditional resumes. Though Kapor emphasizes they must have a prototype in hand. In addition to providing funding, the Kapors mentor entrepreneurs and provide invaluable feedback as they go from prototype to launch and beyond.
The nonprofit arm focuses on programs to prepare underrepresented youth for STEM careers.
SMASH (summer math and science honors), a five-week summer program, brings high achieving minority students to UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and USC for three summers straight. The students get intensive training in STEM courses and also get exposure to professionals working at tech companies such as Google and Facebook. Another program, the College Bound Brotherhood, helps prepare African-American male high school students in Antioch, Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco for college — both academically and emotionally. “We’re trying to find those interventions that make the most difference and then figure out how you scale them,” Kapor said.