The Kapor Commitment to Leveling the Tech Playing Field

Freada Kapor Klein and Mitchell Kapor signal a welcome movement in the VC focus, namely opportunity for the underserved.


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Work is underway on the future home of the Kapor Center for Social Impact

Rendering courtesy of the Kapor Center

Walking into a conference room at Kapor Capital is nothing like walking into a Sand Hill Road venture capital office. Metal sculptures evoking robots and clockwork compete for space with baskets of stuffed toys, and colorful works of art cover the walls. Packets of Berkeley-based Annie’s Homegrown snacks are available on a coffee table with a two-headed tortoise for a base. The office’s homey and whimsical warmth makes it seem more like a child psychologist’s office or a creative agency than a place for making or breaking the futures of startups.

The toys turn out to be not for kids but for Dudley, the 104-pound labradoodlish rescue dog, who hauls himself off the conference room floor to greet visitors despite being worn out from a weekend of playing with kids in a Healdsburg swimming pool.

“He slept in till after noon yesterday,” Freada Kapor Klein said fondly. “He’s probably both tired and depressed that he’s not in the swimming pool anymore.”

Kapor Capital partners Klein and her husband, Mitchell Kapor, are nothing you would find on Sand Hill Road. Kapor (pronounced kay-por) is all old-school engineer, sporting heavy black glasses and carrying pens in the breast pocket of his plaid pink-and-blue shirt. His beard and longish hair are white, appropriate because Kapor is no newcomer to tech. He helped kick-start the age of personal computing by creating Lotus 1-2-3 in the 1980s and later cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation to champion online rights. Klein, the collector who has packed the place with art, looks every bit the artist herself, with periwinkle fingernails that match her printed aluminum earrings. She has a long history of working for gender equality and diversity in the workplace, both as a consultant and as founder of the Level Playing Field Institute, which provides pathways for disadvantaged minority kids to get into tech workplaces.

Kapor Capital, which the couple run with partner Benjamin Todd Jealous (formerly president and CEO of the NAACP), doesn’t act like a normal VC firm, either. It’s the investment arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, an organization that strives to include underrepresented communities in the tech boom and to diversify the industry.

“We’re working at the intersection of technology and social impact,” Kapor explained. “That applies not just to the nonprofit work, but the for-profit Kapor Capital investing work. All of the work is centered around that intersection, and the mission of how tech can make a positive impact in society and how we can take the great amount of talent that’s right here in Oakland, and cities like Oakland, and have it be part of the innovation economy.”

Getting a more diverse population into the tech industry isn’t just about providing opportunity to those who have little, Kapor explained. It’s also about creating tech products that serve a wider audience. Entrepreneurs tend to create products that solve problems they experience, which is why there are so many on-demand services for young urbanites with disposable income. Of Kapor Capital’s 50 investments, 22 were founded by a woman or a “person of color from an underrepresented background.”

“If you draw from a more diverse population of entrepreneurs who have lived different kinds of experiences, the problems that they’ve faced turn into opportunities to create a business to solve those problems,” Kapor said.

One company in the portfolio is Oakland’s Schoolzilla, founded by Lynzi Ziegenhagen. It is a business intelligence platform for education that provides a free automated college counseling for high school students and is a boon to kids in schools with no counselor.

The Kapor Center moved three years ago from San Francisco to Oakland, a home base that made sense since they were already funding local social change organizations such as the Hidden Genius Project and Impact Hub Oakland. Many staff members lived here, too.

With its offices tucked away in several suites at 2201 Broadway, the Kapor Center’s arrival in the East Bay may have gone unnoticed by some. But that won’t be the case when they finish renovating their future headquarters at 2148 Broadway, scheduled to open in early 2016. The project, designed by Bay Area architect Anne Fougeron, broke ground in September 2014, and promises to take a starring role in Uptown’s real estate renaissance.

Kapor and Klein are so excited when showing off the rendering of the completed 45,000-square-foot space that they can’t describe it without finishing one another’s sentences:

Kapor: “We’ll be on offices on the second and third floors that will actually include about 4,000 square feet of space that will be some kind of co-working space, where we can incubate things that we’re investing in or supporting. And then the top floor—”

Klein: “—the top half floor.”

Kapor: “We’re building one—”

Klein: “—half floor, up there, which will be conference rooms and a kitchen area for us. And the rest is open for Dudley.”

The ground floor will be occupied by a restaurant, which the couple have chosen but not yet announced. Below ground will be a 120-seat auditorium. Kapor and Klein look forward to being able to host large gatherings and events, something the organization did during its 10 years in San Francisco.

“We will run events here that will be workshops where we will bring together volunteers from the Ubers and Twitters and Pandoras with our kids, to help the kids make their first LinkedIn profile,” Kapor said. “It’s transformative for the kids, but it’s also transformative—”

“—for tech,” Klein broke in.

“—yeah, for tech, because they begin to see and understand at a very visceral level that these kids want the same things that they want for their kids, which is an opportunity,” Kapor concluded.

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