Well, before I went, I thought it was going to be fun. An invite to a Tech Stars-sponsored book party, specifically for Tech Stars alums and friends of the author, in Emeryville right on the Oakland border, at a loft that an Oakland start-up founder lived in. As a Tech Stars alum (co-founder, People’s Software, class of 2008), who recently launched a local tech site, the event seemed perfect: go reconnect with other Tech Stars alums, learn more about this new book, which was a thriller set in the Boulder, CO tech start-up community, and meet the author, who’d returned to Oakland after a spin at Tech Stars Boulder and time as an Entrepreneur in Residence at a venture fund. Dude invited me to come, I accepted, and the plan was to swing by the loft, grub some Arizmendi pizza and Linden Street Brewery beer, say hi, and then head out out to the rest of my Friday.
The first fifteen minutes at the invite-only party were good: I eyeballed the lavishly casual loft with the amazing bathroom and the vintage fruit crates in the kitchen holding piles of linen napkins, introduced myself to the smiling young author/guest of honor, and laughed when I saw the immense stacks of pizza boxes, all holding Arizmendi pies and the dudes shovelling pizza in–at Techstars Boulder, I’d eaten so much pizza during evening programs I later quit for a couple years.
I took a slice of pizza from a man passing a box around, surveyed the crowd, and thought about how to plunge in.
“Hey, do you know the folks who live here?” I said to the late-twenties-ish guy next to me in an rakish pork-pie hat.
“No, not really,” he replied, and turned away to get a beer.
“You have a web site? Do you hire photographers?” another young man standing near me said, and then we chatted for a bit about photography, San Francisco and how he now came to Oakland all the time before we exchanged contact info.
By the time photog guy and I were done, the room was full of people: guys in t-shirts that said Box and Stack Overflow, many with well-trimmed beards and nifty leather shoes, young women with shiny hair and excellent designer glasses. There were even two dogs, one a black poodle, the other a pitbull-ish mutt, that waited respectfully for bits of the pizza to drop before diving for them. I thought that the folks at this party were spiffier than the guys photographed waiting to ride the Google buses south from San Fran to Silicon Valley every day; their nice shoulder bags suggested they wanted people to know they’d been successful at making things happen.
“Great, I want to meet some company founders,” I thought as I circled the crowded room a bit, looking for folks to connect with, but it didn’t go well.
I have strong social skills, but in this crowd no eyes were met, no conversations broadened, no greetings proffered, no smiles given. These young men were busy talking to each other, and they had no side eyes for me.
And the few women in the group, chic dresses and nice sweaters, were no better. I might be a person with good social skills, I might be a Tech Stars co-founder, a media entrepreneur, etc. but I was being looked past, made invisible. For these folks, most of whom looked to be white and 26-35 ish, I pretty much seemed to be a person of no interest to anyone there, something I hadn’t experienced in a while.
And that was the moment I decided to make my way across the room to try to find someone to talk to one more time.
There was a woman in the far corner I thought looked interesting, one of the few people (like me) past 50 in attendance at this gathering. She had wise eyes and a cool smile, and I thought she might turn out to be the CEO of a neat tech company, maybe one operating right here in Oakland.
So I made my way across the room, through the bustling crowd, to this mature lady who looked friendly. “So what brings you here?” I said when I got to her, after we exchanged greetings.
“Oh I’m Eliot’s mother,” she replied. “The author.”
And then I got it. The Mom thing.
I was at a book party for Tech Stars founders and friends in Emeryville and because I was over 50 and didn’t look like the young ones, I’d been profiled by them as a Mom, a Mom just like their Moms.
It was the “Mom wouldn’t possibly get it “ thing young male founders do when they talk about making their products easy to understand, but they were applying it to me while I was right in the room –based on how I looked to them I was seen as a person who was not cool and would not get what they were talking about.
I also realized that now that I’d moved into the Mom corner of the party and was chatting with the real mom of the author/Tech Stars alum, my chances of talking to anyone there about their company, their experience at Tech Stars, or any of the other things I’d gone there thinking I’d talk about (like finding founders to profile for Live Work Oakland) had likely dropped to zero.
If these folks were judging me–and classifying me–by my age and how I looked, chatting with Eliot’s Mom had just confirmed all their impressions and I would be ignored even further, so I slipped out.
And when I got outside the nice loft, and stood for a sec watching the guys play soccer after work in the park across the street, I thought about what it felt like to be so invisible in a crowd I’d thought I’d belong in.
And I thought about how in Silicon Valley, as Catherine Bracy so brilliantly pointed out, women make 49 cents on the dollar to what men make, and almost no investment goes to founders who are African-American.
And I thought about the growing network of Google and Yahoo buses picking up their workers in West Oakland and on Market Street, and I started to feel like I had to say something to these mostly white, mostly male, clearly privileged start-up folks who were now starting to show up in Oakland.
I wanted to tell them–Dudes, are you really so young that you really you think everyone with access to capital is a white guy who looks like you, only maybe ten years older?
And do you think your insular thing is going to fly in the Oakland scene? You’re now in a place where entrepreneurs and founders of all ages, races, sizes, genders, sexual preferences, and yes, economic classes, are seen and supported as part of a growing tech ecosystem. So, WTF?
When tech folks from other places–Silicon Valley and San Francisco in particular–come into my city and join me and my friends and colleagues already working here–I’d like them to have the good sense to chill out and become more open like us and less closed like where they came from.
I’d like them to be committed to providing return on investment and profitable exits to their investors, since money is what motivates so many people today in tech, but I’d also like them to care about providing jobs to people in Oakland, not just their buddies from elsewhere.
I’d like them to start companies that build products that solve problems and create value, not just be a bunch of men with incredibly expensive degrees building tools to fix their own problems, or the 100th version of something someone else has already patented (and funded.)
And yes, I’d like them to see me, over 50, needing to loose a few pounds, and female.
And most importantly, I’d like these young dudes coming to my town to actually see ALL the people coming up in tech in Oakland around me–the many Black, Latino, queer, female, and trans folks who, like all of us, show up in so many different ages, styles, and sizes, but who have a place, just like the white bros do.
And if these new folks coming into Oakland can’t see the folks who are already here, can’t change, I’d like them to just get the F* out of the way and take one of those corporate buses right back to where they came from .
What we want to build in Oakland isn’t just another corridor for tech, easing the shortages and expense in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, it’s a more inclusive tech ecosystem, one that lacks the clueless hauteur and insularity of bro culture.
Yes, the Oakland tech scene is starting to take off, but that doesn’t mean we want to swap out what we have begun to create for the bad behaviors of bigger tech communities. Rockbot co-founder Garrett Dodge–whose company is expanding in Oakland- recently told a reporter, ”the sense of place here isn’t about tech–it’s a sense of community with our friends,” and that’s the way I hope the growing Oakland tech ecosystem rolls.
As a city with a history of supporting labor, strong African-American leadership, an amazingly diverse workforce (170 different languages spoken here!), and one of the largest queer women’s communities in the Bay, Oakland can meet the need for accessible real estate and offer a talent pool for growing software and advanced manufacturing companies without becoming as insular as Silicon Valley or as arrogant as parts of San Francisco.
And we can do it by including everyone who has the skills to participate and wants to work in this new economy, not just the people that a bunch of young white men expect to be talking to–because, in Oakland, we’ve got a wide variety of people doing the work-and we’re not leaving.
Image from book launch party, March 28, from @JamiLiM, https://twitter.com/JamiLiM/status/449749547602821120/photo/1
Editor’s update, March 31, 12 noon: Brad Thorson and the Techstars team asked us to point out that this party wasn’t really officially a Techstars event, and that, actually, part of the disconnect was that most of the folks in attendance at the party were friends of the author (which suggests they were there to celebrate, not to network).