Among the most well attended sessions at Vator Splash Oakland was its last “Envisioning a Vibrant and Inclusive Oakland Tech Ecosystem.”
It’s clearly an issue on the minds of a lot of Oakland people these days, given that eight leaders from business, government and nonprofits came to participate on the panel and nearly 100 people to listen
“This is a great chance for us to start this conversation we’ve been really interested in,” said moderator Cedric Brown, managing partner of the Kapor Center for Social Impact which moved to Oakland to work on that very issue. “We want to make sure that folks in Oakland – and I mean folks from San Leandro all the way up to the Berkeley border – are included in and benefit from the tech sector” that is burgeoning in Oakland.
The good news is so do Oakland’s major tech businesses. They spoke with unabashed devotion to Oakland, almost mirroring the conviction of city officials.
“Pandora is incredibly proud to be in Oakland and we don’t intend to leave anytime soon or ever at all,” said Marta Riggins, Director of Talent Brand and Events at Pandora. “This city is rich and diverse and vibrant and has this energy that’s kind of similar to Pandora’s music genome.”
Riggins said that Pandora hopes to become intertwined with Oakland the way Cal is with the City of Berkeley, with local kids aspiring to become part of the institution when they grow up and lots of Oakland residents working at Pandora. “We are committed to Oakland’s current and future workforce,” she said, adding that includes a diverse workforce and she introduced colleague Lisa Lee, in charge of diversity recruiting, who came to Pandora from Facebook.
Similarly, Mike Ghielmetti, president of Signature Development Group, one of Oakland’s largest commercial and residential developers, which currently is planning development of the Brooklyn Basin waterfront section of Oakland for mixed residential, retail and commercial use and wide green parks, said the company is drawn to the character of Oakland.
“We moved our headquarters here four years ago because we love Oakland and the reason we do is because Oaklanders love Oakland – more than I’ve seen other people love their cities.” Ghielmetti said. He noted that companies choose to settle in Oakland for its mission driven ambiance. “People are here for a purpose. They don’t have to be here; there were other places that are safer or more developed…a lot of companies locating here are tech oriented but they also have a social mission.” Signature has to respect that by being socially mission driven itself. One of its projects was Impact HUB Oakland, an incubator co-working space whose goal is to facilitate innovation and community.
But it will take more than luck and good wishes to make sure the evolving tech ecosystem here is both vibrant and inclusive said Ashara Ekundayo, chief creative officer at Impact HUB Oakland.
Ekundayo, who also was a founder of Impact HUB Oakland, said it takes intentionality and action, purposeful action to look out for and then include those who are now on the other side of the digital divide and income gap.
“For Oakland to come into its place as a vibrant center we are going to have to mind the gap, be diligent and creative about closing the gap,” she said. She said the Impact HUB crew does that “by being engaged with people and sharing space,” with them and from that flows the sharing of ideas.
Ekundayo told a story about when she first learned the power of choosing to creatively solve problems, to bring others up, to close the gap.
When she was 7-years-old, she and her cousins discovered their grandfather could not read. Rather than let that be his fate, they set about teaching him to read so that 12 or 13 years later he read books every day.
According to Oakland City government Special Projects Director Kelly Kahn, technology firms now employ 2.5 percent of Oakland’s workforce. While that is small, it is growing. “Oakland is ripe for growth in the tech sector,” she said.
The reasons are both economic – the rent here for commercial space is about half what it costs in San Francisco – as well as social and cultural. “Today’s workforce, the millennials, are urbanists. They are choosing cities over the slightly ore sterile landscapes where the tech industry traditionally headquartered,” Kahn said, elaborating that she meant corporate campuses in Silicon Valley. Instead they are seeking cities where art and entertainment and a non-profit or social responsibility sector can be found. “That kind of mix of creativity creates innovation,” and leads to a cycle of more business growth and more cultural growth, she said. Urban planning research also is finding that that tech workers want to work where they can live rather than take on big commutes. “There’s a real movement of rejecting this auto-dominated lifestyle,” she said.
Oakland is seeing “a high number of mission-driven workers,” Kahn said, “and a maker and art scene.” As a city government, Oakland city staff have to work to “make sure there are spaces for these people,” both in housing and jobs. “The City needs to be a real leader in connecting people to the infrastructure that is out there, like linking students to internships and teachers to externships,” she said.
“Secondly the City needs to put forth a progressive housing policy to make sure that people who live here are protected in having high quality housing,” she said. “There is real pressure here,” because booming demand for housing is pushing up the prices of apartment rentals and home prices. “We need to be aggressive in finding funding for housing and, fourthly, taking up those rent control laws,” which in fact the Oakland City Council just approved this week.
Lastly, Kahn said, “I’d love to see a regional collaboration around getting rid of Proposition 13 so cities are not so strapped” she said, referring to the California proposition passed three decades ago that prevents property taxes from rising more than 2 percent a year unless a property changes ownership. Critics say Prop 13 has not only strapped cities but also school districts, all while creating vast inequities in taxes paid. New entrants to the housing market tend to pay a lot more in taxes than people who have owned a home a long time. In fact, next door neighbors in nearly identical houses can have property tax bills that differ by $10,000 or more because of Prop. 13.
Causa Justa Executive Director Marin Poblet said that housing shortage and rising rents are at the center of their work and the nexus of where inequality is setting in as the tech economy booms here. “Average rents have increased 18 percent here,” in the past year she said, causing some of poorer families to pick up and leave Oakland. “Many people have just moved to Antioch, Concord…” that were long time city residents. This rent increase comes on the heels of the foreclosure crisis which, she said, caused a 50 percent drop in African American home ownership in Oakland.
So Causa Justa wants some legal protections put into city law to protect vulnerable populations from displacement and a regional effort to do the same.
Jose Corona, chief executive officer of Inner City Advisors, a non-profit financial and business advisory group, said that in welcoming and planning around a growing tech ecosystem, city residents and officials should consider that the tech ecosystem is not just engineers and web designers hold up in private tech companies.
“What if we defined tech differently and took a tech cluster approach,” so it includes companies and mom and pop shops serving tech employees and providing supplies to tech companies, everything from restaurants to schools, clothing stores, carpet cleaners and taqueria trucks. “the Otaez Taqueria in my neighborhood,” he said is part of the tech ecosystem. “What if we think about the kids, our future, as part of it?’’ he asked, giving a shout-out to Revolution Foods which makes wholesome meals for school kids.
In this scenario, envisioning and creating an inclusive tech ecosystem would compel city officials and private individuals to watch out for all sectors and all populations.
Karen Engel, Peralta Community College District’s interim development director, said the local community colleges are trying to do just that, building career pathway curriculums that connect high schools with community colleges with an aim to include local youth in tech careers here.
Lastly, Code for America’s local organizer, Catherine Bracy, said her organization is offering people a very direct connection to technology by making it easy for citizens to get involved with coding and city data to make improvements to city services. Oakland is where Code for America’s founders live and was one of the first cities to see coding collaboration between residents and the city. Last year it was one of its fellowship cities.
“We work with hundreds of communities across the country and I think Oakland is the strongest civic tech community of all of them,” Bracy said.