The hot ticket in downtown Berkeley on the evening of Thursday Jan. 28 was arguably the gala opening party for the new BAMPFA, but if you had seen the several-hundred strong line of people snaking down Center Street and round the corner along Shattuck between 5 and 7 p.m., waiting to get into the NextSpace building, you’d have been forgiven for thinking there was an even hotter event going on.
More than 3,000 people signed up to attend the Berkeley Startup Job Fair, according to Ben Hamlin, co-founder and CEO of Localwise, the Berkeley-based job community which organized the first-of-its kind event. And of those, more than 1,000 showed up. The fair, which was focused on promoting diversity in tech, was co-hosted by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development. Other partners included 16 nonprofits, including the Kapor Center for Social Impact, Latinas in Tech, Telegraph Academy, Lesbians who Tech, Code Berkeley and the Level Playing Field Institute. (See the full list of partners).
The overwhelming response to the fair appeared to indicate the need for more opportunities for job-seekers to meet with young companies who are recruiting. Many attendees came from nearby UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College, but others had traveled from further afield, including from more far-flung colleges. For still others, their student days were far behind them. And it was a diverse crowd who formed lines and patiently waited to speak with potential employers inside NextSpace’s ground-floor atrium.
Jennifer Cogley, Sustainable Business Coordinator at the City of Berkeley, was taken aback with the response to the fair — “it was not a foregone conclusion,” she said — but not altogether surprised. Cogley tracks the city’s startup field closely, and is aware of how quickly it is blossoming. Since 2014, there has been a 23% increase in jobs available in Berkeley startups, according to her office.
Initiatives like UC Berkeley’s Sky Deck accelerator, the city’s Berkeley Startup Cluster and the recently arrived Batchery incubator, as well as the opening of co-working spaces such as NextSpace and WeWork that help address a lack of office space in the city, have all helped boost the sector.
A commitment to diversity within all the companies sprouting up is important to the city, Cogley said, hence her office’s eagerness to co-organize the event
“Berkeley is going to be some type of tech hub,” she said. “The question is what kind of tech hub.”
Cogley said the startup picture should resonate with Berkeley’s values, and that includes having minorities well represented, something the tech sector as a whole has failed woefully to achieve so far. At large tech companies, only 29% of the employees are women and only 15% are black or hispanic, according to a 2015 report in TheVerge. While at startups, only 8.3% of venture funding goes to women-led tech startups, according to the International Business Times. The numbers are as low as 1% for African-American led startups.
PocketMe, a 3D portrait studio that recently relocated from Berkeley to San Francisco, was at the fair to make its first hire. Co-founders Dylan Saloner and Allison Saloner said they were looking for a marketing executive. They were excited about meeting UC Berkeley grads in particular, as they saw them as the type who would “take the initiative,” Dylan, a Cal grad himself, said.
Lexy Abrams-Bourke had set up a table for Lantern.com, a startup offering online programs focused on emotional well-being. Abrams-Bourke said the company, which was looking to fill about ten positions, wanted its employees to be representative of the population, particularly given that Lantern is in the mental health space. “We want people from all walks of life,” she said. “It’s really easy to get out of balance.”
Startups at the fair ran the gamut from high growth, venture-backed companies like Massdrop, Captricity and Turo, to earlier stage ones like Civil Maps and Dray Technologies. Two coding bootcamps were there: Telegraph Academy, which teaches software engineering to under-represented minorities, and Code Berkeley, the first state-funded bootcamp in California which is based out of Berkeley City College.
Justin Hoffman at Code Berkeley said momentum is certainly building at the three-year-old program. “Code Berkeley draws a very diverse student population,” he said, adding that entering students may have no tech skills at all, unlike other boot camps which expect a certain knowledge level. The 40-strong class has already sent graduates off to internships at the likes of Intel and jobs at Tesla, Hoffman said.
As to how many of the hundreds who flocked to the startup job fair last week will have snagged jobs there remains to be seen. The consensus that diversity is a priority was evident across the board, however. Fluid Financials, a young Oakland-based startup that’s embarking on its first round of funding was at the fair in a bid to double its four-strong, already diverse team. They were looking for software engineers and marketing experts, among others. “A diverse team is the core underpinning of building a strong business,” said CEO and co-founder Ipsheeta Furtado.
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