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Social-equality debate triggers blowup between venture capitalists

A discussion on how San Francisco's tech community is falling short leads to verbal pyrotechnics between angel investor Ron Conway and former Facebooker Chamath Palihapitiya.

Angel investor Ron Conway at an event in 2013. Dan Farber

What started off as your typical tech conference session ended up looking and sounding a lot closer to Jerry Springer.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who now runs Social+Capital Partnership, was on stage Monday morning at a tech gabfest sponsored by Bloomberg, riffing about the growing gap between haves and have-nots in San Francisco.

The social and financial impact of the tech industry has led to sometimes angry confrontations in San Francisco. Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution issued a report on urban inequality which found that the wealth gap between rich and poor is growing faster in San Francisco than in any other city in the United States.

So it was that Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, ticked off a myriad number of steps that he thought the city and local industry ought to take. He closed his talk by warning that if things don't change, San Francisco would suffer the sort of social riots that have hit Paris and London in the last couple of years and needled Mayor Ed Lee for letting the social fissures widen.

That's when fireworks broke out.

As the lights dimmed and Palihapitiya began to make his way off stage, venture capitalist Ron Conway, one of the most connected money people in Silicon Valley and a major Lee supporter, stood up and demanded to be heard.

"I live in the city of San Francisco. You live in the city of Palo Alto," Conway said, adding that Palihapitiya misstated Lee's record in offering incentives to lure tech companies while not doing more for local residents.

"How dare you, Palo Alto resident!" Conway said, adding that City Hall has a mandate to build 30,000 new housing units by 2020. "He is doing something."

"Ron, all I was talking about was that you could create simple economic measures to fund that," Palihapitiya replied.

"No, they're working to make it a better city," Conway said. "Not worse."

Palihapitiya kept calm but appeared to have been caught off guard by Conway's vehemence. He maintained that many San Franciscans feel that they're being pushed out and that not enough effort was going into subsidized housing.

Conway wasn't impressed and accused Palihapitiya of having unfairly ridiculed Google. The Internet giant and its perks -- most symbolically the "Google buses" that ferry workers to and from their Silicon Valley campuses -- have become ground zero in the debate over tech culture and the Bay Area economy.

"You don't know what you're talking about," he shouted at Palihapitiya before the moderators called the festivities to a close.

Earlier, Palihapitiya suggested a 1 percent equity levy on startups as part of a broader approach to fund better housing, infrastructure, and education in San Francisco. Social inequality "is going to get dramatically worse because I do not think there are enough of these people focused on these problems," he said, adding that "I need to call a spade a spade."