Oakland gains ground in emerging tech industry

Kapor Center

By Nate Gartrell For the Oakland Tribune

OAKLAND — Evidence of the city’s emerging influence in the East Bay’s technology landscape was on display Tuesday evening at a ceremony celebrating the new headquarters for an organization whose aim is to encourage more minorities to participate in the tech revolution.

The Kapor Center for Social Impact, a foundation that partners with local businesses to leverage technology in the pursuit of positive social change, is setting up a permanent home in Oakland.

The groundbreaking event Tuesday marks the start of remodeling of a three-story downtown building that will serve not only as home to the Kapor Center, but to some of the nonprofits they partner with as well.

“We’re not just going to be here physically, but we’re going to be an active part of the community, and this building is going to be a part of that,” said Mitchell Kapor, the center’s multi-millionaire founder who also launched Lotus Development Corporation and has invested in many tech startups.

The Kapor Center partners with local businesses and nonprofits with the objective of “leveling the playing field” for minorities and other underrepresented groups, said Derek Turner, communications director for the center.

Kapor said Tuesday that he prefers Oakland to Silicon Valley, and sees potential in the city to establish its own foothold by attracting other tech companies.

“We’re proud to make an investment in Oakland and its future,” he said. “I think if we go forward 10 years, we’re going to look back and see how Oakland has become a big part of not only the tech ecosystem in the Bay Area, but for the nation as a whole.”

The building chosen for the venture by Kapor and his wife, at 2148 Broadway, is identifiable by a large aerosol art mural depicting the phrase “Rise & Grind,” along with an elephant sporting an A’s cap. The building itself has been vacant for more than a decade, though, and Kapor’s wife, Freada Kapor Klein, said it was the only building the center ever looked at.

One of the keynote speakers Tuesday, former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, said foundations like the Kapor Center are important because a lot of tech companies are known to not “hire people who look like us.”

“When you look across that bridge (into San Francisco), you know that on the other side of that bridge, there are not one but typically 10 startups trying to solve the problems of the rich,” Jealous said. “We aim to make sure that Oakland becomes the place that is the center of solving the problems for the rest of us.”

The Kapor Center has been leasing an office in downtown Oakland, but its establishment here is significant. It exemplifies a shift in Oakland’s demographics, but also gives a tip of the cap to the impoverished communities that often aren’t given a voice.

The city has been able to attract businesses from the multi-billion dollar tech industry in recent years, and has brought in millions of dollars to redevelop its waterfront, but there are still hundreds of thousands of people in the area living in poverty, and the public school system remains underfunded.

Mayor Jean Quan said that is precisely why it is important for Oakland youth to be given an opportunity to get into the tech industry.

“Fifty years ago, on the march in Washington, (Martin Luther King Jr.) talked about islands of poverty in oceans of prosperity,” she said. “I think what the Kapors are doing here is making sure that we have a full onslaught on the remaining islands of poverty, and that the dream really becomes the dream for every child, that’s reachable and touchable.”