Mogul Seeks to Help Youths in Troubled Areas Embrace Technology

Kapor Center

Philanthropist Mitchell Kapor, who amassed a fortune in the software business, made a big move two years ago, shipping his foundation from tech-boom-fueled San Francisco across the Bay Bridge to hardscrabble Oakland, Calif., to be closer to the disadvantaged youths and poor neighborhoods he hoped to help.

The inventor of the Lotus 1-2-3 computer application saw an opportunity to encourage people in troubled communities to embrace computer technology and to groom young people for careers in high-tech.

“Genius is equally distributed in our society,” he says.

Last year, he took an even bolder step: using money from the Mitchell Kapor Foundation and his socially minded investment firm, Kapor Capital, to create a new entity, the Kapor Center for Social Impact. The center combines for-profit investment and traditional philanthropy, a model born of Silicon Valley’s approach to fostering innovation and change. “We wanted to make a fresh statement about serving areas of need,” says Mr. Kapor, whose wife, Freada Kapor Klein, serves as the center’s co-chair.

Since the foundation started in 1997, says Mr. Kapor, “what we’ve learned is that the intersection of informational technology and social impact is where we can make a big difference. We wanted to put ourselves in the best place and the best position to do that work.”

Money and Expertise

The $36-million Kapor foundation has contributed the bulk of the center’s support so far, shedding some of its previous giving programs to make room for the new focus. (Casualties include the fund’s longtime programs in civic engagement and fostering a green economy.) Though the foundation will remain a financial entity, all of the programs it supports will now be managed by the center.

The Kapor Center supports fewer grantees than the foundation did but gives out roughly the same amount annually, about $4.4-million. (The center’s managing partner, Cedric Brown, says it will spend more in the future.)

Kapor Capital bankrolls private companies, like one that makes it more affordable for prison inmates to make phone calls, and others aimed at people with needs that tend to be underserved by companies and governments.

The Center for Social Impact seeks not just to help support the 30-some groups that get its grants and investments, Mr. Kapor says, but to offer its own expertise and connections to strengthen the city’s tech infrastructure.

Tech companies and colleges haven’t done enough to reach young minorities and encourage them to study in tech fields, he says. “There is a pipeline problem in that we don’t get enough people into it. Plus, the pipeline itself is leaky: We lose too many people once they get them in.”

No Applications

Government statistics back him up. Only one in eight American technology workers is black or Hispanic, as are less than 10 percent of those earning science or engineering degrees. In California, those groups account for less than 2 percent of all high-school students who took advanced-placement courses in computer science last year.

The center doesn’t accept grant applications, a decision made in part to move the center away from the foundation’s practice of making large operating grants to new groups.

The organization, says Mr. Brown, feared that “we were entering risky situations by giving new organizations large sums of money. We’ve changed to reflect our belief in having strong partners who run strong projects.”

The center has yet to determine how to measure what it does. Mr. Brown says the center doesn’t trust the “numbers-served” metrics that some organizations use to show how far they have reached into neighborhoods. But it hasn’t yet come up with an alternative way to quantify the impact and value of its partnerships.

“Our first goal was to get our feet wet,” Mr. Brown says. “Now we’re coming to the point where we can narrow our goals down and have some conversations about our collaborations and whether they’re accomplishing enough. We’re not there yet, but we’re close.”

‘A Powerful Cocktail’

About half of the roughly $4-million the Kapor Center awards each year goes to the Level Playing Field Institute, an organization Ms. Kapor Klein formed several years ago that works to get minority youths into science and technology education programs.

Much of the rest goes to organizations that pop up on the center’s radar. When deciding whether to support a group, Kapor Center officials look at the organization’s web presence and how its leaders communicate its mission, and then they talk to people who are familiar with it. If Kapor leaders see a chance for collaboration, they’ll arrange a meeting with the organization’s chief.

“What we look for are groups that do work that could complement ours, that have well-developed networks and thoughtful, positive leadership,” says Mr. Brown. “For us, that’s a powerful cocktail.”

Early on, the center spent money and time helping to connect Oakland’s tech companies, meeting spaces, students, and workers together in one database. That resource, run by a local news operation’s website, went from a handful of listings a year ago to nearly 300 today, Mr. Brown says.

“We’ve become the evangelists of sorts for Oakland’s tech sector,” he says. “There’s so much energy and potential right now—strong nonprofits, social-justice groups, and tech companies. We’re trying to get all that to coalesce.”

Extra Support

The Kapor Center also offers its partners advice, some technological know-how, and some hands-on services, such as helping them put together meetings and tech systems.

For example, last fall, when the UNCF, formerly the United Negro College Fund, asked for help putting together a Silicon Valley leadership summit, the Kapor Center not only gave it $25,000 but sent some of its staff members and leaders to help set up the conference and give some seminars of their own.

Kapor’s willingness to offer more than cash to groups makes its support more valuable to them, Mr. Brown believes, and reflects a desire of many new foundation donors to find new ways of solving problems.

“Philanthropists in high tech are looking to disrupt philanthropy a bit, in a respectful way,” he says. “I’m glad we can be part of that.”

Some grant makers in northern California say that the center’s approach makes it stand out.
“The center champions an important model of change,” says Emmett Carson, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, adding that it helps businesses see inclusion and diversity as “key economic drivers of success.”

Still, others wonder whether the Kapor way of supporting social change is really all that new.

Grant makers have always provided both financial and nonfinancial support to charities, notes Michael Edwards, a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a policy and research think tank. Though he says he isn’t deeply familiar with the Kapor Center’s work, he hears a worrisome echo between its strategy and that of other philanthropy efforts driven by tech entrepreneurs.

“The kind of support being offered by the Kapors of this world might come closer to interference, direction, or even control,” says Mr. Edwards.

Close Collaboration

Yet some of its grantees say the Kapor Center’s partnership model does represent a welcome departure from traditional grant making.

“It’s clear to me that the center has its own ideas of how things should be done,” says Alicia Dixon, executive director of the Marcus Foster Education Fund, an Oakland group that provides college scholarships.

For instance, says Ms. Dixon, a former program officer at the California Endowment, “there’s no make-the-goal, file-a-report process. We meet with them very frequently.”

But, she says, the Kapor Center’s hands-on approach isn’t all that intrusive: “There’s so much strategic work that we have to do to penetrate these school districts that that level of collaboration is appropriate.”

Her experience with Kapor is echoed by Kilimanjaro Robbs, co-founder of the Hidden Genius Project, an Oakland nonprofit that helps C-average black male high-school students prepare to study science or technical subjects in college.

The Kapor Center gave the tiny, two-year-old group $30,000 to run a summer project for tech-minded teenagers and then coupled it with Kapor’s summer fellows program. That linkage helped the money go further and the youths learn more than they normally would have, Mr. Robbs says.

“They took our guys along with theirs, many of whom are in college, some even seeking advanced degrees,” he says. “They took them on tours of tech-company headquarters, the Computer History Museum, and other places that show young people the possibilities of innovation. Just having our students travel with the fellows, who look like them and sometimes come from the same places and who are succeeding in college, was invaluable.”

Joining one summer program to another serves as an example of what he sees as the Kapor Center’s resourcefulness, he adds, and its desire to help organizations set up programs sets it apart from other grant makers.

“I’m not a traditional nonprofit person,” says Mr. Robbs, who works as a product