Pandora employee Adan Faudoa. Photo by Pendarvis Harshaw.

Pandora, Uber, And Beyond: Tech Comes To Oakland

Pendarvis Harshaw on Thursday, Dec. 3rd

A version of this story originally aired on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Adan Faudoa is 24 and grew up in the Bay Area. He didn’t always think he’d be a tech guy. His dad had other plans for him.“As a kid, my dad was a big gear head,” he said, “So, he was pushing me in the direction, like: ‘You have to be an auto mechanic, Adan, because that’s where the money is at.’”But over time, Adan began to see things a little differently. He noticed the people moving into his neighborhood were programmers and people working for tech companies. He decided he’d fight hard to become one of them, even though there aren’t too many people of color in the industry. In the end, he landed a job at Pandora, the music streaming service that set up shop in Oakland– –one of the first tech companies to do so.

Someone else who gambled on Oakland? Tech pioneer, Mitch Kapor. He says that, in the not-so-distant past, when he told people that tech would come to Oakland, they were skeptical. “Five years ago, people thought I’d grown a second head,” he said.

But Kapor and his wife, Freada Kapor Klein, saw Oakland as the perfect base to carry out their shared mission: to create diversity within tech.

“There’s all the platitudes that diversity is good for business,” Kapor Klein said, “but you look around tech, you look at how hugely profitable companies like Google and Facebook–all these behemoths–they’re staggeringly un-diverse, and they’re doing just fine. So we need to focus on different strategies.”

The Kapors invest in strategies that eliminate bias in the tech industry–whether it’s through new training programs or by re-designing the application process and performance reviews. Mitch Kapor says that sometimes, the culture of the workplace itself can be the problem.

“If a company is made up entirely of, let’s say, recent Stanford graduates, maybe  fraternity brothers, and there’s sort of a “bro culture, you’ll feel left out,” he said. “You can’t be who you are.”

At Clef, a data security start-up in Oakland, some of the founders did originally meet through networks in college. But now they’re trying to bring the local community in by opening up their offices every Wednesday night, for a free dinner.

“There’s a lot of new faces tonight, which is really exciting,” Darrell Jones III, one of the event organizers, said to a room full of people lining up for a recent Wednesday’s community meal. ” It’s my favorite thing! Thank you for being here, enjoy!”

The crowd skews mid-20s and early 30s, and there are plenty of tech and media types. But Jones tells me firefighters, public officials, even the bartender from down the street, sometimes will show up for a plate.

“I’m hoping that the culture of Oakland is just an overwhelming wave against any type of invading horde of ‘tech bros’ coming in,” Jones said. “Through this smaller, kind of community-centric local open event, we hope that we’re able to drive strong bridges between Oakland tech and just Oakland.”

Just Oakland. To me, as an Oaklander, that refers to the mix of people you find here – the blue-collar workers who settled here during World War II. The artists, the hippies, the entrepreneurs, the educators, the political activists. The people who’ve immigrated from East Africa, the Middle East, Central America and Southeast Asia. “Just Oakland” is this town’s history as one of the strongest communities for Blacks in America.

Oakland is already changing with the arrival of tech. But the question is: will the tech industry change too, and become more diverse, as more companies move in?

The latest newcomer to The Town is Uber.

During a press conference announcing that the tech giant Uber will expand into the former Sears department store in the heart of downtown, Oakland Councilmember Lynette McElhaney told the audience, “It’s going to be great when we see all of those Uber employees bringing their Uber enthusiasm.”

But while McElhaney sees Uber’s move as an opportunity, she wants more than just  enthusiasm from the company, saying that it’s critical Uber lets “Oakland in.”

That’s what’ll make the difference in terms of equity: Oaklanders having a real place at the table in tech companies, and not just for a weekly dinner.

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