San Francisco’s tech elite has experienced a disastrous PR crisis as of late. With its steady encroachment visible everywhere - from Google buses to skyrocketing rents - there’s a perception that the tech elite have stomped on the very soul of the city on the bay, forcing the closure of iconic landmarks, pushing out longtime residents, and bringing a sense of exclusivity to a once-modest community that always took pride in its inclusiveness. The economic divide created by the dominance of the city’s tech sector is a very real and thorny issue with no easy answers.
As I wrote about recently, several arrogant CEO’s have poured gasoline on the problem with tone deaf comments about the city’s hoi polloi, lighting up all sorts of fiery reactions and resentments. What I noted then was that the blowback was unfortunate, as the tech community is largely civic minded and generous when it comes to corporate giving. That said, my suggestion to tech leaders was to make sure they’re being proficient and efficient with how they’re engaging their employees in the community, above all by supporting employees with inspiring volunteer opportunities that motivate them to be ambassadors of good will and positive change.
So I was thrilled to read in John Diaz’s recent SFGate article that venture investor Ron Conway’s alliance of tech companies, SF.citi, has chosen a signature initiative for 2014 that gets its members deeply involved with the heart of the city’s future - its children. Specifically, SF.citi will begin linking its 900 members to volunteer programs in San Francisco’s 116 public schools, starting with low-income schools in the city’s southeastern quadrant, with one goal being to expose kids to careers in technology. School principals will be asked what they need in the classroom, and SF.citi is partnering with the San Francisco Education Fund - which has been connecting volunteers to schools for the last 50 years - to further ensure that its efforts yield real impact.
As Diaz notes, “No one should be under the illusion that this fledgling volunteer effort will assuage the anxieties that have accompanied the phenomenal growth in the footprint of tech on the city...Still, this is a promising start of a good-faith demonstration that the tech companies are not just in the city, but are willing to become of the city - and are ready to do so with a touch of humility and on the city's terms.”
What makes this even more exciting is that SF.citi will begin by targeting mid-tier tech companies, the kind of companies that may not be household names but have plenty of interest in making a difference - and the human capital to do so. I recently wrote about why mid-sized businesses should prioritize corporate philanthropy, noting that while more than two-thirds of mid-sized companies are looking to enhance or establish their CSR programs, this powerful class of companies tends to struggle with employee engagement in their programs and overlook opportunities to use CSR activities to impact their bottom lines.
If mid-sized companies begin to recognize employee volunteer programs not just as philanthropy vehicles but as important drivers of profits, they’ll invest the appropriate resources and strategy around making sure they’re successful. Engaging in far-reaching efforts like the SF.citi campaign is exactly the sort of sustained community involvement that leaders of mid-tier companies should embrace and fully leverage to enrich their corporate cultures, for the betterment of their communities, their employees and their bottom lines.
So far, the effort has been a resounding success, with employees eager to get involved, students inspired by the technology representatives in their midst, and principals and senior tech executives from participating companies equally delighted with the rollout. It’s everything that a corporate volunteer effort can be - and more. There’s power in numbers, and the tech community banding together to make a significant impact on a particular community need acts as a multiplier effect that has the potential to reverberate widely. If this effort encourages more kids to pursue careers in technology, the tech community will have increased the headcount of a new generation of employees to help drive its future. And that sort of mutually beneficial feedback loop is exactly why my company, Causecast, partnered with the White House to champion STEM volunteer opportunities in corporate America. It’s an issue that affects us all and can be addressed to benefit us all.
This isn’t the only positive step that the Bay Area’s tech sector has taken in the last few months to support the city, and it’s encouraging to see the forward momentum build. As Diaz notes, a University of San Francisco poll showed that 68% of the city’s residents believe that tech growth was good for the overall economy of San Francisco, and 35% believe that the economic benefit of that growth was shared by their families. There’s no reason why the general community should be pitted against the tech sector. And with well-considered and strategic volunteer efforts like those of SF.citi, there’s hope for a harmonious relationship that greatly benefits the city and the companies stepping up to help.