Silicon Valley comes to Oakland

The recently reopened San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

First there was Silicon Valley. Then, the tech industry surged up into San Francisco. Now, it has hopped across the bay into Oakland.

Kisha Richardson runs her start-up out of the Impact Hub, a new co-working space near downtown Oakland. Her app is called CleanME. It helps people manage home cleaning services. In a lot of ways, Richardson is a typical tech entrepreneur: she played with Legos as a kid, loves to build things, and geeks out over code.

But in a lot of ways she doesn't fit the profile -- She's a woman, she's African American, and her start-up is in Oakland.

“This is where it is at,” Richardson says. "When you have artists and creatives and engineers all clustering into one area, magic happens.”

Richardson says she came to Oakland because it feels like Brooklyn. It's close to the big city, cheaper, and has a different vibe.

Mitchell Kapor is trying to grow that vibe. He has a venture capital fund in Oakland, and part of its mission is to support minority and female entrepreneurs. He thinks Oakland could be a hub for that diversity.

“Oakland is the next cool place,” he says. "It has a certain gritty and resilient character that I think are going to be a positive influence on the tech community that is formed here.”

The tech industry is being criticized for its lack of diversity. Google just released data showing that about ninety-one percent of its employees are either Asian or White, and seventy percent are men. The company is working to improve its image in Oakland. It has donated $500,000 to a charity that teaches low-income youth tech and business skills.

But not everyone is impressed. 

“It's tokenism. It's marketing. It's public relations," says Olis Simmons, the chief executive officer of Youth Uprising, a community center in Oakland.

Simmons says what the city really needs is serious investments in schools and social services. Unemployment hovers around twenty percent in her neighborhood, and the school next door still doesn't have reliable high-speed internet.

“The truth is,” she says, “if you don't invest, then over the long haul, what you do is you transfer ownership of your city to a group of people that are new.”

And new people are pouring into Oakland. The last census shows there are now more white residents than black for the first time since the 1970s.

About the author

Sam Harnett is a reporter and contributor to Marketplace.

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