2014-01-17

Co.Labs

How This Tone-Deaf Startup Redeemed Itself After Founder's Comments About Bay Area Homeless

Last month Greg Gopman incited a lot of Internet antipathy for calling the homeless people of San Francisco "hyenas." Now his former company is taking the city's defining social issue head-on.



One of the things that perpetually ignites anger among longtime San Franciscans about the tech-infused change sweeping the city, isn't just that tech entrepreneurs dislike the city's homelessness problem or biking culture, but that the techies in question usually don't engage in helping to fix it.

An example is AngelHack, the two year-old hackathon company founded by Greg Gopman, who became infamous for his Facebook screed calling San Francisco's homeless "hyenas." He since apologized and has left the company, but his comments are still a lightning rod for those critical of tech culture:

In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the center of the city. Like it's their place of leisure... In actuality it's the business district for one of the wealthiest cities in the USA. It a disgrace. I don't even feel safe walking down the sidewalk without planning out my walking path.

The growing backlash against gentrification in the city isn't just about the public transit system. The heart of the issue may be just how tone-deaf those companies actions appear to have been in response. For example, while Mayor Ed Lee unveiled a plan asking tech companies to pay for their shuttle buses to use public bus stops, Google was busy starting a luxury commuter yacht pilot program for workers. That kind of thing makes you look more like Marie Antoinette than Mother Teresa.

Former Mayor Willie Brown said it succinctly:

What the tech world needs to do is nip this thorny plant in the bud. They need to come off their high cloud efforts to save Africa or wherever they take adventure vacations and start making things better for folks right here.

AngelHack has been left to salvage its good name, an exercise in crisis management that no two-year-old company wishes for. So the new CEO, Sabeen Ali, started a non-profit called "Code for a Cause," which is now holding monthly meetups to discuss homelessness and other issues that the community is facing in order to put solutions into effect. The first one was held this week. But Ali says it's not damage control, but simply a way to help improve one of the city's most salient social problems.

"The reason for this is that we're all part of the community here and that the words of our former employee, although unfortunate, were a fortunate mishap. Sometimes that's kind of what you need and what the universe needs to do to you in order to get you to get up (and make change). This is not related to AngelHack and is something we had a deep desire to do since long before (Gopman's) comments."

A large crowd came to AngelHack's event, including tech workers, a member of Mayor Lee's Office of Civic Innovation, as well as folks who work with the homeless community at various shelters.

"Hosting this event here, especially in light of all the circumstances, was nerve-wracking to say the least," says Ali, "but I have experience facilitating large groups, so I brought those guns prepared. Honestly I'm humbled and I'm delighted by the kind of people that showed up and the responses and really them opening themselves up."

For much of the meeting, those who came talked "roundtable" style about a range of issues and discussed ideas. Some of the folks were hackers who had worked on previous projects that had not come to fruition yet, such as mobile apps that tabulate the current number of beds available at local shelters. Some other ideas included:

  • Maintaining a repository of past projects that have been started at similar meetings
  • Creating a "tech for good" fund to help support projects that stall
  • Setting up better Wi-Fi access at three of the largest shelters in the city, which also need a more consistent volunteer presence
  • Creating a Facebook group to connect everyone in attendance, and keep them appraised of future meetings
  • Provide technical assistance to students, young entrepreneurs, and local community members
  • Teaching local residents how to become content creators, not just coders
  • It's too early to tell just how many these ideas will be sustained, but then again, one purpose of the group is accountability. "I hope that everyone else holds me up to [this] as well," says Ali.

Code for a Cause came with an agenda of its own as well. Ali told the crowd that the non-profit had three main goals.

  1. Partner with organizations already helping and connect them to people in the tech industry.
  2. Explore projects that have been created already and identify a dozen where Code for a Cause can consult and help with any needs, whether they be technical assistance, press, or others.
  3. Use their core expertise--putting on hackathons--to help non-profits. The idea here is that non-profits could be guaranteed a place at the hackathons and present their needs to AngelHack's 20,000-strong community of developers all over the world. Developers would then work on coding solutions for the non-profits. Winning projects might make it to an accelerator that AngelHack runs.

While it's heartening to see San Francisco startups giving back to their community, the Gopman debacle shows that the gap between the Bay Area's rich and poor will be the city's defining issue. Can the Bay Area ride this "golden age" without forcing thousands of residents to flee the city due to higher rents and housing prices?

[Image: Flickr user Faruk Ateş]