The following article was published in new america media on december 23, 2013

San Francisco Firm Looks to Humanize Tech

SAN FRANCISCO—Local non-profits in San Francisco’s mid-Market Street area have joined the growing list of those forced from the city by rising rents associated with the latest tech boom. Many are taking with them services that the area’s poor and homeless have long relied on. 

One startup, however, is hoping to do its part to fill that void. 

“It developed organically,” said Tiffany Apczynski of her role as director of Social Responsibility at Zendesk, a startup that provides users with a cloud-based customer service platform. As the company grew, she explained, so did the recognition of its obligation to the community around it. “It was an opportunity to engrave community action into our DNA.” 

Like a lot of tech firms, Zendesk was lured by generous tax breaks to settle in the city’s mid-Market corridor, an area long associated with high rates of poverty and crime, but also home to a large concentration of low-income elderly, families, and newly arrived immigrants.

“When we looked at [this building] … we realized we have a chance to set a strong precedent, to be leaders, and protect us from being the jerks that did it wrong the first time.”

Zendesk was the first of six companies to take advantage of the so-called “Twitter tax break,” pushed by Mayor Ed Lee as part of efforts to revitalize the area. Part of the package included a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), which commits companies to diverting a portion of their resources toward the local neighborhood.

“It’s a neighborhood that can shock you,” admits Apczynski, who has lived in the city for close to two decades. “We’ve seen people in some truly harrowing situations.” Still, to her surprise and delight, her colleagues rose to the occasion. 

“Our company has completed over 1,400 community service hours since April,” she says. “Even our CEO does volunteer shifts in the Tenderloin. Our employees then get motivated by the positive reception we get, and they want to be a part of something.”

In addition to encouraging employee volunteerism, Zendesk also gives cash grants to community organizations in the area, including $125,000 to the St. Anthony Clinic and $10,000 to the Tenderloin Community School.

Still, with rising rents driving out local non-profits and community organizations, the tech boom’s collateral damage will likely continue to affect the area’s most needy, despite these efforts.

Apczynski acknowledges that tech companies need to do more, but also stresses the need for more government involvement.

“If we save one organization, what about the 17 others? If I give a huge grant to a school, will it fix public education? Tech can—and should—help with money, but we can’t pass legislation,” she says. “If the [city government] really wants to protect the diversity of San Francisco, then there has to be real structural change, on a policy level, to make sure that happens. We need all hands on deck.”

Apzcynski pointed to a suggestion by the Citizen’s Advisory Committee, which would mandate companies with a CBA to contribute part of their payroll tax into a rent stabilization fund, as a good example of such a policy initiative.

At the same time, Apzynski cautions tech companies against limiting themselves to policy or “board-level” involvement, encouraging them to go out on the street as much as they can. “You need to be walking in the neighborhood, you need to be meeting people, you need to look them in the eye,” she says. “You’ll get to see that a place like the Tenderloin is a neighborhood. You’ll get to build relationships with your neighbors.”

The recent protests staged in front of Google Buses ferrying employees to the Internet giant’s Silicon Valley campus suggest where that relationship stands now. 

“It comes down to ‘Do they care, or not?’” says Apczynski. “When you’re as big as Google, you want to be looking into policy involvement, because you have the resources … but when you’re that big, do you even care? That’s something every company has to decide.”

There are signs, in fact, that some in the industry are starting to get the message: Twitter, which arrived in 2011 to equal parts fanfare and chagrin, is now looking to hire an in-house community outreach and corporate philanthropy manager.

Apczynski says one reason for the lack of philanthropy among other firms is that many are still young, “and so they wait until they’re more established before they ‘give back.’”

As for the negative image surrounding the industry, she partly attributes it to a view of tech as arcane and impenetrable. 

“How many people do you meet—myself included—that are scared of tech? That’s what’s happening. Tech really is in a vacuum—and the unfortunate part is that this vacuum is now the backbone of our economy,” she says, adding, “We’re doing our best to humanize it.”