Pride 2017: Brown works to address tech equity
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Cedric Brown, a gay man of color, has found his calling innovatively addressing issues of equity in tech.
He works at the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland, a different kind of technological organization that places marginalized groups at its center.
"At Kapor's core, we're a racial justice organization," said Brown, the chief of community engagement. "We're pushing inclusion with race as the central lens, which necessitates talking about all inclusion. So all things get put on the table. We weave intersectionality into that, including women, people of color, and LGBT."
Brown said that there is much work to do in the tech industry.
"While we've made enormous progress with LGBT visibility, there are still ways we're marginalized in corporate environments â€" and tech is no exception. Queer tech workers can sometimes express themselves, but so much of tech is bro culture," Brown said. "We work to make tech fully inclusive.
"It's the same with race, especially people of African descent and Latinx," he added. "Unfortunately, if you have a more inclusive policy, there's a perception that you're lowering the bar. Hate to mention it â€" it's disempowering â€" but we have to look at barriers that still exist. We need to move from prioritizing a certain type of hoodied young 20-something, white male, assumed straight, as the type who's in tech. This is one of the pillars of Kapor."
Brown, 49, has had many stops on the path to Kapor. He grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and moved to the Bay Area for grad school.
"I thought, this is it! The sociopolitical environment was going to allow me to grow. There were fewer anti-gay and limiting views on race," he said.
Originally working as a counselor with San Francisco United School District, Brown stumbled onto the San Francisco Education Fund and got his first job in philanthropy. Brown then worked for the San Francisco Foundation, where he met Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor, who were looking to launch a black leadership panel at UC Berkeley. Kapor had started a development corporation in the 1980s and was an early tech guru, developing the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. His wife, Kapor Klein, focused on making the company the most inclusive work environment in the nation.
After a stint with the Level Playing Field Institute, Brown wanted to return to philanthropy and, with Kapor Klein's enthusiastic support, began working for the Kapor Family Foundation.
"I launched program areas in 2007-13, working on civil engagement, green access with low-income communities of color, and black college access," he said.
Brown noticed that fewer black men were applying, and founded the College Bound Brotherhood, one of 15 organizations specializing in college readiness for African-American young men.
The Kapors then pivoted to tech inclusion.
"We want tech ecosystems and entrepreneurs to look more like the makeup of the U.S. to benefit people of color and marginalized communities â€" for people who have the passion for tech but need the pathways to break in and succeed," Brown said.
The organization was based in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood, but it felt removed from the communities it was serving.
Brown passed by a building at 2148 Broadway in Oakland on his way to and from work, and started thinking.
"I thought it would be a cool place with interesting activity in the neighborhood," he said. "The Kapors wanted to jump on it right away and bought the building. I asked to have an auditorium space, so we could convene people to have conversations for action, an open, inclusive, stimulating space. This is a huge asset. We have events on the roof and in the Lotus Theater. We want people to see it as a destination: come here, learn, and understand social justice as part of tech-oriented work."
The Kapor Center opened in 2016 and hosts multiple events per week, most of which are open to the public. The center has assets of about $44 million, according to its Form 990.
Kapor Klein, co-chair of the center, praised Brown's work.
"Cedric's passion and energy have been the driving force of our work for more than 15 years," Kapor Klein said in an email. "He's the one who convinced us to move the Kapor Center to Oakland in the first place, and now I can't imagine doing our work anywhere else. He's so deeply rooted in this community as a mentor, an activist, and a local leader in his own right, and his commitment to narrowing the gaps of opportunity and access for all underpins everything we do. I'll forever be grateful to Cedric for infusing our work with a uniquely Oakland spirit."
The center does a lot of organizing with partnerships and roundtables. Some of Kapor's programs include the Oakland Startup Network, with the city of Oakland; Tech Talent Pathways Partnership, which aligns different parties to get Oakland tech jobs; and the Tech Equity Collaborative, part community dialogue and manifesto, with tech workers mobilizing to resolve issues.
"The needs are so much greater than the resources," Brown said. "I wish I could bring resources here from San Francisco and Silicon Valley. We are also trying not to displace people. We want to put resources in play to increase the people here who want to work in the sector. There are not enough people in Oakland to make capital investments to benefit Oakland."
Brown said he's glad the center relocated to the East Bay.
"I am bullish on Oakland," he said. "There's great energy and a confluence of people, ideas, and resources to create a tech ecosystem here that's the antithesis of the bad behavior in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. We're super excited and determined to make something that will work for people here, all with great Oakland flair."
He said that he was referring to the tech sector's "reputation of being self-absorbed and indifferent to larger social dynamics, particularly where inequity is concerned, in addition to the unwelcoming work environments that are too often endemic to startup culture."
For example, he pointed to a widely reported story from February 2016 where San Francisco startup entrepreneur Justin Keller wrote an open letter to Mayor Ed Lee and then-police Chief Greg Suhr bemoaning the homeless "riff raff" ruining the city.
And he noted that women are leaving the tech field due to diversity and harassment issues, like at Twitter and Uber.
Both Kapor and Kapor Klein were early investors in Uber, but publicly called on the company to change its culture in an open letter in February.
Brown, who married his husband, Ray Pifferrer, in 2008, feels deeply at home at the Kapor Center.
"I have terrific colleagues. I can always be my full self here," he said. "People know I'm an artist and I wrote a book, 'Tar Heel Born.' I focus on being a black gay male, it's my lens for how I view the world. There's a good number of LGBT and a representation of people of color here.
"We're trying to develop an inclusive environment," he added. "We note biases and break down barriers, but are not off-putting like 'I can't make a mistake.' That's a pitfall of the left when people try to make inclusive events."
Brown said the center allows employees the ability to be "visible."
"With the freedom to be ourselves at work, we lead by being who we are, out and visible, representing where the voice needs to be heard," Brown said. "I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had here. I hope I've been a positive force."
For more information on the Kapor Center for Social Impact, visit http://www.kaporcenter.org/.