Written by Giovanni Rodriguez on Forbes.com
@giorodriguez Kapor’s “Latin@s in Tech” was one of the best pre-events this year at SxSW Interactive. Here’s why.
History lesson for the young-un’s: Lotus 1-2-3 was the first “killer app” for the age of the PC, and Mitch Kapor was the founder. Since that time (the early 80s), he’s done a lot of other things. And I am old enough to have followed his progress and his projects. But it’s his latest project — the Kapor Center For Social Impact — that impresses me the most. It may be, in fact, his next killer app — and this one for the age of multicultural entrepreneurship.
Kapor’s new enterprise first caught my attention in 2013. The Latino tech marketplace is one of my beats, and I discovered that the Center had begun investing in Latino entrepreneurs. And investing in Latino entrepreneur events. The latest event happened yesterday, on the eve of SxSW Interactive. I was there this year just for pre-events, and took the opportunity to reflect on why Kapor’s support for Latinos and other ethnic groups is getting such a strong response. The event yesterday was sold out. And it drew people from the Latinosphere who had never traveled to Austin before.
First, as Kapor noted in a post-lunch discussion, there’s been a shocking lack of “empathy” for ethnic entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. It’s an interesting choice of words. What Kapor means when he says empathy is both and “care” and “understanding.” I’ve written about this before. Part of the problem is the Valley’s long-time libertarian every man for himself culture (the care problem). But another problem, says Kapor, is the myth that the Valley is a pure meritocracy, liberated whole from the sturm und drang of social dynamics (the understanding problem). Truth is that practically everyone who gets ahead here has learned to leverage social capital, and some groups either have less social capital or know less about how to use it.
I trust that Kapor is empathetic. And his biography helps to explain it. He grew up feeling like an outsider, and he was a geek at a time when it wasn’t cool. But he’s more than a sympathetic outsider. He’s a shrewd businessman. He is motivated in part by the opportunity to invest in budding entrepreneurs that can better peek around the “corners” (his word) of new marketplaces, not despite where they come from but because where they come from. It’s not a bleeding heart that drives the Kapor Center to invest in overlooked ventures, but an imaginative business mind, augmented by the Center’s co-chair, Freada Kapor Klein (a leader in organizational culture and diversity), Benjamin Jealous (former CEO of the NAACP who just recently joined Kapor Capital as a venture partner), and growing full-time staff.
And it’s that business mind, I suspect, that makes Kapor’s support stand out not just for the Latino community, but for the venture community, as well. As I said, the event pulled people from all corners. Kety Esquivel, an entrepreneur and co-producer of the event, wrote to me this morning: “After years of trying to move this issue forward, I was incredibly grateful to look out into the audience and see a standing room only group of Latino entrepreneurs, investors, CEOs, founders, coders and other Latinos in Tech inspired by each other and the impact we could have in the world.” It was inspiring, true. But just as important, it was impressive. In the end, the success of Kapor’s new app will depend on market supply and demand. Both were represented yesterday in Austin.