Understand This: Tech Does Give Back

Feb 27 at 11am

Editor’s note: this editorial is part of The Bold Italic’s ongoing mission to publish opinions that help move the current tech and culture debate in San Francisco forward. If you have strong opinions on the topic, email your pitch to info@thebolditalic.com.

By Melissa Eisenberg

I am a startup girl. A techie, a hacker, and a proud member of the vast technology culture in San Francisco. After being inundated with angry remarks and overgeneralizations about the lack of community involvement and charity within my industry, I felt the need to respond.


We need to stop allowing people to perpetuate myths about the tech community and instead speak louder about what we are doing in San Francisco, besides paying high rents.

I was raised in a family that placed a high value on giving. Hell, I work 50 hours a week and somehow find the time to serve as the event chair for the SF Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Here’s the problem: I sound like an asshole when I say that. But you won’t know about what I do to give back unless I publicly broadcast it. The same goes for the tech community at large.

Maybe we don’t know about the breadth of techie involvement because people don’t openly talk about it. To be able to effect change on a larger level, we need people to speak up and lead by example within our organizations. Salesforce.com’s CEO Marc Benioff’s benevolence always stands out, as he constantly emphasizes charity in a company culture.

This type of civic engagement is happening throughout San Francisco from the tech community. On a smaller scale, anytime I go over to a networking party at Crowdtilt, I am required to donate money (on its platform) to a community cause chosen by its CEO. On a bigger scale, Twitter sends out a weekly email with specific days and times staff can volunteer in the SF community, and Square employees clean the streets around their office every Friday. On a wildly generous scale, Zynga just raised around 800K to build the UCSF Children’s Hospital.

Once we shift the conversation away from assertions that the tech community invests nothing in San Francisco to looking at all of the socially based startups, you begin to see a pattern in civic-minded companies. There are many entrepreneurs out there basing their businesses on social good, people who are building technologies to make our city a better place to live and to help those who are less fortunate.

Don’t think we care about our community? Tell that to Code for America, Highground Hackers, Reallocate, Neighbor.ly, TechSoup Global, Caravan Studios, One Percent Foundation, Prizeo, Feeding Forward, Fundly, Change.org, Greenstart.

I even got the chance to grill Matt Mahan, CEO of Causes.com, about what he’s doing to give back to SF. His company mentors young female engineers and had just made its first hire from that exact program. “We also have a mandatory volunteer time-off policy every quarter,” he said. “Not all tech companies are building get-rich-quick apps.”

Just because some organizations can and do give, doesn’t mean everyone in the tech community is able to make a huge financial contribution to San Francisco. A big majority of us are still bootstrapping. Let us not forget that aspiring creative types and aspiring entrepreneurs have a great deal in common. In most cases, we’re both trying to make big things happen on shoestring budgets.

The assumption that we all have money is perpetuated by the ass clowns of our industry. I have many friends who are living off their personal savings, with no investors, and trying to make their ideas happen. At this stage, the expectation that they should immediately give back is bit misguided.

Rose Broome, founder of HandUp, a startup that allows people to help out the homeless in their community, tells me that she struggles to buy groceries and pay rent. “I was living off of free pizza and top ramen while bootstrapping HandUp and reading about us being ‘rich and uncaring,’” she says. “Not all of us have money.”

Broome’s scenario is one you may not often hear about because the press doesn’t focus on it. There are lots of tech entrepreneurs out there barely making rent, who don’t take Google salaries because they are passionate about helping their community. We’re committed to our ideas and are willing to do what it takes to make them a reality.

San Francisco’s tech industry is working on ways to preserve, promote, improve, and keep money flowing into the communities we care about. The majority of these products created by the tech community are free to the public to use however they see fit. For instance, how do we hear about an art show or a volunteer opportunity? Most often, through the tools built by the tech industry.

We shouldn’t be looked at as the enemy, but rather as an ally in creating instruments of social good. The second we become the enemy, this city becomes polarized and we accomplish nothing. This debate about tech’s impact on San Francisco culture has become an oversimplified catfight. We need to elevate this conversation to a practical level, where we can nail down realistic action items and determine what people can do to help those who need us the most.

I call upon all the haters, all the condescending “culturalists,” to cut the bullshit and get real. Send us a list of things that need to be done instead of just assuming we don’t care.

Editor's note: The Bold Italic is hosting a panel on tech and social responsibility on Monday, March 24 at Public Works. Grab your tickets here

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