Tiffany Smith couldn't stop fidgeting.
The 27-year-old had flown halfway across the country from Chicago to pitch a room full of venture capitalists in Oakland, California, about her startup: a website connecting ex-inmates to construction and other blue-collar jobs.
Smith's examiners included Freada Kapor Klein, 64, and her husband, Mitch Kapor (pronounced KAY-Por), 66, longtime advocates for social change in the tech industry.
Taking a deep breath, Smith -- a graduate student of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University -- talked about how her site, Tiltas (Lithuanian for "bridge") can help those needing a second, maybe even a third, chance in life.
"We have some men and women re-entering their communities who don't even know how to use a smartphone," Smith says after delivering her pitch. "I thought, 'Why can't we leverage this to our advantage? What do we have to lose?'"
Her argument was convincing enough for her to come away with $50,000 in seed funding. Smith now joins a rarefied club: the less than 1 percent of African-American entrepreneurs in tech and the 8 percent of female entrepreneurs who have received VC funding. Tiltas launched in May.
She might not have succeeded with other VCs.
That's because the Kapor Center for Social Impact -- along with its Kapor Capital investing arm and Level Playing Field Institute -- has the singular mission of making it easier for women and underrepresented people of color to start their own companies, receive funding and pursue classes and careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Since 2013, Kapor Capital has invested in more than 130 early-stage startups, most of which tackle such issues as diversity, education, nutrition and community outreach. On top of that, the Kapors themselves constantly pressure big-name tech companies like Apple, Google and Uber to diversify their workforce with more women and minorities.
"The entire tech ecosystem in Silicon Valley needs to be redesigned and overhauled so that the level field is genuinely level," says Mitch Kapor, known to people of a certain age for his work developing the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet in the early '80s and co-founding the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990.
"The numbers in tech don't look anything like the demographics in this country," adds Kapor Klein. "When you don't have representation, you can't possibly come up with the products and services needed for the population, no matter how popular or trending you might be."
The couple have also been outspoken about the tech industry's described a workplace culture that was riddled with sexual harassment, gender bias, and unprofessionalism, and 500 Startups, where CEO Dave McClure resigned after admitting he'd made sexual advances to women in the workplace.." That includes Uber, where former engineer Susan Fowler
"This is not just a case of a few bad actors," the Kapors wrote in a statement after McClure's resignation. "This is a culture that has been allowed to fester and to rot by enablers who refused to intervene when they witnessed inexcusable behavior or went to great lengths to avoid seeing it."
Haciendo la diferencia
Two years ago, during President Barack Obama's White House Demo Day, the Kapors pledged $40 million to help women and minorities become tech entrepreneurs.
Last fall, more than 100 Latino entrepreneurs spent an entire weekend brainstorming for Kapor Capital's Startup Weekend Oakland - Latinx Tech Edition. The goal: to come up with ideas for tech that would have a positive impact on the Latino community. Projects ranged from connecting social media-savvy college students with small businesses to using virtual reality to reduce unconscious bias.
It's not just for the sake of doing good. It's also good business sense. That's because Hispanic consumers, who now make up nearly 18 percent of the US population, are expected to "drive the majority of all US growth for the foreseeable future," according to a report published last year by Nielsen.
The winning pitch came from Prezta (a variation on the Spanish word "prestar," which means to lend). The six-person team detailed the legal terms of loans, as well as the repayment and renegotiation plans. "I'm so happy that we were able to expand on my idea," says Juliana Suarez, who came up with the concept. "I think we can make it work."
The group is now working on an app their website describes as "an easy and secure way to borrow from family and friends." In the meantime, they're also getting mentoring sessions with the Kapor investment team, 50 free hours of workspace at a nearby tech hub and partial scholarships to attend a tech academy this summer.
That's pretty much what other tech incubators and VCs do, who also provide mentoring and workspace to portfolio companies. The Kapor Center differs, however, by getting Hispanics, African-Americans and girls interested in tech while they're still young.
"The Kapors are trailblazers in tech," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. "They are forging a broad ecosystem aimed at empowering diverse communities."
That's where the center's Level Playing Field Institute -- which runs Summer Math and Science Honor Academy, or SMASH -- comes in. Here, high school students spend five weeks studying science, technology, engineering and math courses at University of California campuses in Berkeley, Davis and Los Angeles as well as Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Last year, SMASH expanded to Morehouse College, a historically black men's liberal arts school in Atlanta.
More than 500 students, most of them from underrepresented minorities, have gone on to college since SMASH's founding 15 years ago. Half are girls who majored in either computer science or engineering.
"Bright minds of color can succeed," says Kapor Klein. "We believe so much can happen by being in the same space and having these tough conversations with those who aren't accustomed to it. It needs to happen if we are going to have a tech workplace that mirrors society."
But change doesn't come easily.
Smith, for example, admits that it's one thing to win a startup competition, but quite another to convince businesses to take a chance on ex-convicts.
"It's tough to get people to buy into what I'm saying," she says. "I'm still working to build this thing into what I want it to be. It's hard, but it will be worth it."
With the backing of the Kapors, at least, she has a chance of success.
This story appears in the summer 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.
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