Mitch Kapor: ‘My Shaping Experience Was That Of Exclusion’
Written by Dana Sanchez
Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein are not business as usual.
Before these tech entrepreneurs invest in a startup, that startup’s founders must sign a commitment to diversity. That’s something of an anomaly in the Silicon Valley area, where much lip service gets paid to diversity in tech, but little progress has been made in the last few years towards diversifying the tech workforce.
Mitch’s preoccupation with inclusion stems back to his childhood.
“As a kid, my shaping experience was that of exclusion — not racial, not gender, not class, but exclusion is exclusion,” he said during a talk at the Black Enterprise TechConneXt Summit 2017 in San Francisco.
Mitch became successful in business in the 1980s, founding Lotus, one of the earliest tech companies to create business software.
The Kapors own the Oakland, California-based Kapor Center, which houses three entities: Kapor Capital, the Kapor Center for Social Impact, and the Level Playing Field Institute. They invest in tech startups that seek to narrow gaps in opportunity and access for underrepresented communities and eliminate barriers to full participation across the tech ecosystem.
The Kapors signed on to President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK Alliance) in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s 2012 death. The 17-year-old African American from Miami Gardens, Florida, was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida, by a neighborhood watch volunteer.
My Brother’s Keeper addresses opportunity gaps facing boys and young men of color and ensures all youth can reach their full potential. The alliance was launched as an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit in 2015 to scale and sustain this mission.
It was a mobilizing force, Mitch said.
In 2015, the Kapors promised to invest $40 million over three years in a set of initiatives designed to give women and underrepresented minorities a better chance to become tech entrepreneurs.
$6 million to expand the SMASH (Summer Math and Science Honors) Academy, a five-week summer program in California for underrepresented students.
$25 million-plus in investments in tech startups working to narrow achievement gaps. At least half of the companies will have founders from underrepresented groups.
$3 million a year to promote a more diverse tech ecosystem in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Kapors spoke about their progress in investing in diversity at TechConnext. Here’s an excerpt from that talk:
Mitch Kapor: As a kid, my shaping experience was that of exclusion — not racial, not gender, not class, but exclusion is exclusion. When I became successful in business at an early age and hired Freada to build the most progressive culture of any company in the U.S. back at Lotus in the ’80s, it was my way of trying to build a company where even a misfit like me would fit in. I want to do what I can as an entrepreneur and investor to ensure that everyone gets the opportunity to show what they can do. It’s just a felt passion coming out of my experience.
Tech ConneXt: Is that part of what inspired the $40 million pledge in Oakland to support underrepresented minorities and women?
Freada Kapor Klein: That was part of us stepping up and wanting to support Obama’s initiative to make a real difference, to make a commitment about social and racial injustice. Everything we do in the three organizations housed in our building in Oakland is at the intersection of racial and social justice and technology.
If a third of the engineering talent is black and brown instead of 5 percent, the culture will change.
Mitch Kapor: At the point at which there is one or more huge successes with a founder of color — something that makes national, global headlines — that is going to be transformative. That hasn’t exactly happened yet but it will be a symbol and beacon of possibility. The investments that we’re making — and that other people are making — the hope and expectation is there’s going to be an enormous mega-success.