The Tech Community Must Invest More In San Francisco

Several years ago, when Square was just eight people, I was invited by Jack Dorsey to his loft in SOMA to meet the team and get a sneak peek at the Square device. After I interviewed Dorsey, he took me up to his roof and showed me his neighborhood. He specifically pointed out the outdoor tables and chairs, which he helped get placed in his neighborhood. It was just phase one of a bigger plan he had to help his neighborhood. You see, Dorsey’s always been active in his community, whether it’s his neighborhood or San Francisco at large. Dorsey and other Square employees picking up trash in San Francisco on Fridays is an extension of his values and his long-held sense of civic duty. Unfortunately, Dorsey’s the minority here. The stereotype — and the tension — has been, for as long as I have lived here, that the techies who fill the ranks of Facebook, Google and the startup community’s rosters jump on their air-conditioned shuttles, drive up housing prices and don’t respect San Francisco’s unique, quirky and downright amazing culture. A blog post by a tech founder and recent SF transplant only helped to confirm this stereotype in the eyes of many. And who can blame long-time San Franciscans for thinking that techies are ruining their city, with unfortunate blog posts like these? It’s clear that the city is changing and that unlike the tech bubble of the late 1990s the techies are likely here to stay, along with the higher rents that come with it. In some ways, this is a good thing — it means that San Francisco and the bay area are economically booming in an era of stagnant job growth, although it’s also clear that not everybody is sharing in the wealth or the benefits. From the LA Times:
“Unlike in previous booms, the tech industry isn’t creating as many middle-class jobs or as much goodwill. The gap between Silicon Valley’s high and low earners is widening, with average per-capita incomes going up while median household incomes have fallen for the third consecutive year, according to Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a private group that publishes an annual report card on the region. In a region that lays claim to some of the world’s wealthiest companies, food stamp participation has hit a 10-year high, and homelessness has increased 20% in the last two years, the group found.”
We can do better than this. This is not a (complete) indictment of SF’s tech community. There are some that have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help San Francisco (Dorsey, Conway), and others who volunteer with a favorite charity or keep active with their neighborhood. I suspect, though, that the vast majority of us techies aren’t doing the things that we, as civic-minded individuals, should be doing. Simple things like volunteering, attending neighborhood meetings, manning the polling booths, meeting our neighbors. Oh, and did I mention volunteering? But we need to do more. No matter if you’ve been here for three months or thirty years, this place is now your home. Our home. And while you may be overwhelmed by your startup, it isn’t an excuse to ignore the state of your home and the plight of others. Make it a company activity if you have to. Every little bit helps. I love this city. I love being able to walk from my apartment in Russian Hill and dance away at a blues and jazz street fair. I love being able to hike through Lands End to the beach and relaxing with friends. I love the city’s secret pop-up art gatherings. I don’t want these things to go away. I also love the tech community, and its idealism and its innovation. I don’t think that the tech industry and San Francisco are incompatible in any way. I simply think we, as a tech community, need to make a greater individual effort to be part of the community at large. So if you haven’t been very civic thanks to your startup or your long-ass ride on the Google bus, ok, I understand. But let’s start something now. I’m committing to volunteering in San Francisco — something I haven’t done enough of since my Eagle Scout days — and I hope you’ll join me in embracing San Francisco as well. Go to the Opera and donate if you love music. Go check out VolunteerMatch or the Bay Area’s volunteer information center. Even just going to a local show does a lot to support the community. Grab some friends while you’re at it. Start small to get started and you’ll find that it’s incredibly rewarding and fun. I’m also calling on the startups and tech companies of San Francisco to do more as well. Give your employees opportunities to give back to the community. San Franciscans — if you have a great cause or charity, tell me about it by posting in the comments or tweeting at me. I will add it to this post and to a new post I’ll write with more ways people can get involved in their city. And if your company is already giving back, I want to hear about it so we have more examples of how companies and startups can be more involved. Start with one small act, and others will follow. Let’s be good citizens to our neighbors and our community. Badass image by Ubeam’s Meredith Perry. Seriously, she’s amazing.
  • Mark Birch

    I may have to borrow that photo someday…about the closest thing I have seen that sums up all that is SF.

  • John Earnhardt

    Although, most of us on on the peninsula and south bay, volunteering and giving back is part of Cisco’s (San FranCisco is our namesake) culture. Our communities are important to us, because, ummm, this is where we live too! More info here:

  • Sabrina

    Saying “Please/thank you/you’re welcome” are beyond underrated. People have no idea… Holding doors open for people. Temporarily stepping off the MUNI/BART when it’s uber crowded so that people can de-board. Using your turn signals in traffic so prevent accidents during rush hour. These are all TINY efforts that WE ALL can make every day that have a surprisingly positive impact on the city. People don’t have to necessarily set aside a whole day for or give $$$$ to charity work to make a difference here (though that would be awesome *and* some companies [Gap Inc.] have company charity work days and will x2 match your charitable contributions!) Simply put, none of us have any excuse for not contributing in some way, shape, or form to this city that gives us so damn much. Period.

    A Bay Area Native

  • Chloe Bregman

    Ben, As someone who grew up in San Francisco and has volunteered in our communities one of the biggest things I would suggest for people who work in tech is for them to leave their communities of the Mission, SOMA etc and wander to parts of San Francisco they never venture to. Go to the Sunset, the Richmond, Hunters Point. Don’t bike or Uber take public transit for a day and feel what it is like to be a someone outside of the tech microcosm living in this city. I have volunteered and been a mentor at City of Dreams in Hunters Point and it is amazing the digital divide we face even in SF. If more of our community was aware of this perhaps they would get slightly less excited that wifi will be free in Dolo and wake up and notice it will not be in available in the parks in our poorest neighborhoods. City College and SFSU has the most antiquated technology. Not everyone is drinking $4 drip blue bottle, using postmates and uber to get around faster. Most of the people who live here or were born here feel like there are multiple San Francisco’s. We need innovation for real people not just the 1%. I agree there is much more we can do. It takes a greater awareness before action will take hold. Step one is that the tech community become more aware of life outside the shuttle bubble.

  • John Kneeland

    Wait, you mean we can’t just vote for Democrats and assume that the state took care of problems for us?

  • albeit

    How about making the people who drop the trash pick it up?

    No, its the job of other people, people who are busy changing the world and who pay a lot of taxes for the privilege.

    One set of rules and messages for the productive and responsible. Another for those creating most of the problems and of whom not much is expected.

    • Kevin Lyda

      “people who are busy changing the world”

      Hubris. That’s what I love about the tech community in California.

      One might almost forget most of you code for an OS developed in Finland, based on one made in New Jersey, supplied via a license made in Massachusetts and generally using an application level protocol invented in Switzerland.

      Most of you are not “changing the world.” You’re rent seeking. You’re doing it with neat technology and you get well-paid for it and maybe you’re seeking a slightly lower rent than others, but generally you’re not producing anything.

      Enjoy what you do, but you’re all way too full of yourselves.

      • albeit

        You make a lot of assumptions, huh?

    • chris duranti

      I’m sure your web app changed the world. I’m sure of it.

  • Rose Broome

    Hey Ben, yes! I had the same thoughts about 6-months ago – with all this awesome technology we should be able to do more to fix our social problems, right? That idea lead to my new startup called HandUp – it’s a crowdfunding system for homeless people and neighbors in need. We just launched on Wednesday! Please check it out: I also started a homeless innovation meetup group to help connect the tech and homeless services communities. Hope you guys can join us for a future meetup!