My mother moved from Jamaica to America to start a new life. My deceased father was the first in his family to go to college, yet he became the first Black to get a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech. He also has three patents for fiber optic cables. My younger brother started his own company. I, too, wanted to create something, so I quit at my law firm, sold my dream car, and moved to the land of creation: Silicon Valley.
The first thing I had to do was find a place to stay. I found it very difficult to schedule viewings from Atlanta, so I visited for a week in December to lock down a place. I didn’t know much about the plethora of neighborhoods, so I decided to stay as close to public transportation as possible. After much sorting through Craigslist, I found a nice Jewish woman in Noe Valley who is renting her son’s room while he’s away at college. However, her room did not become available until Valentine’s Day, so I had to book a room on Airbnb for the first six weeks.
I arrived in San Francisco (I know it’s not Silicon Valley, but it’s my article and makes for a better title) on January 4, 2015 and immediately went into hustle mode. My objective was to attend one event per night. I’ll never forget that on January 8, 2015, I attended a tech networking event, and when I went to check in, the woman said, “You know this is a tech event, right?” Obviously, she hadn’t met many Black people who were interested in tech. And she is not alone.
Say what you want about the South, but at least people have been exposed to Blacks in all fields. For many in San Francisco, however, the only Blacks they are used to seeing hang around the Tenderloin. And if you’ve never been to the Tenderloin, don’t be fooled by the name — there’s nothing tender about it. The Tenderloin, or the TL, is basically Hamsterdam from The Wire. I am convinced everything is legal there. And I mean everything.
The defining part about the Tenderloin is the homeless population. I’ve never seen anything like it before in any city I’ve ever visited or lived in. The only thing more gut-wrenching than the fact that many— dare I say most— of them are Black is the fact that so many rich people live here. The homeless problem is so bad that most have become desensitized to it.
All that is to say, people in SF seem a little surprised to see a Black man who looks just like them?—?full beard, hoodie, messenger bag, and Nike running shoes. I’ve received those looks in other cities when I’m wearing a suit, but no one has ever looked at me in amazement for wearing street clothes until I moved to SF.
Dressing the part isn’t always enough to neutralize the “threat” of being Black. I was walking through the Mission in broad daylight in my SF attire and saw an older White man and his wife leave a restaurant and walk up to their Tesla Model S. I asked him if he had a rare 40 kWh like the one I owned because I did not see a 60 or 85 decal on the back. I could tell he thought I was going to rob him. Needless to say, we didn’t talk for long.
However, the vast majority of people have been warm and welcoming because networking is key to survival. I know very few people who have lived in SF for more than five years, so everyone is trying to build their network. Also, people empathize with my story of quitting a job to move to San Francisco (could I have been any more cliche?). In addition to the traditional mediums, people here even network in a Lyft Line or UberPool. The ability to network is imperative because internal referrals make it easier to get hired and jobs for early-stage startups are essentially word-of-mouth only.
Despite many people only wanting to connect on a surface level, I have made some actual friends. I actually befriended a White guy at the same January 8 networking event who took me sailing and surfing for the first time. And I made two Black friends who are recruiters at tech companies while watching March Madness at a restaurant. Chance encounters like these happen all the time in SF.
In addition to it being easy to meet people because people like networking in SF, there’s just more to do in this 7 x 7 mile city. There’s always free events, such as movie screenings, art shows, app launch parties, and waffle giveaways going on. My favorite thing to do is attend concerts. Fortunately, SF is one of the few cities to have Jukely Unlimited, a service that provides unlimited concerts for $25/month.
I’ve seen everyone from Asgeir to Catfish and the Bottlemen to JMSN to Flight Facilities through the service. I didn’t expect to see many Black people at any of those shows. I was, however, a little surprised that there were few Blacks when I went to see Just Blaze in SF or Prhyme in Oakland. I’ve quickly learned there’s no de facto critical mass of Black people in the Bay Area. If you’re Black and want to meet people who look like you, you have to plan in advance because we are so spread out (see, Our Family Dinner, infra).
Notice that I italicized the phrase “and want to meet people who look like you.” There are two types of Black people in tech: Black people who’d prefer to see more Blacks in tech and Black people who’d prefer to remain a unicorn. It’s really easy to spot the difference. As stated above, people love networking in SF, even people with poor social skills. So, if meet someone and invite them to coffee or lunch and they make no attempt to even put a date on a calendar, I leave them alone.
Other than the crabs in a bucket, I have no problem with Black people in the Bay Area. Blacks in Oakland frequently question why I would live in SF with people who don’t look like me. I’m not concerned about the racial makeup of my community. I care more about living in the center of the action, especially while I am looking for a job. To me, SF is worth the premium price and colder weather.
Despite the longstanding dissension between Black in the Bay — at least from what I gleaned from a visit the African American Museum and Library in Oakland — I believe the Black professional community is very strong here. Black professionals in Atlanta often take our numbers for granted. Here, however, I was placed on a Young Blacks in San Francisco listserv before I even moved here. And I was one of hundreds of people who paid nearly $50 to meet other Blacks in the Bay at the “Our Family Dinner” event on February 21. Some attended to find a significant other (I actually know a married couple who met at a prior OFD) while others went to network.
I do not care how connected you are, it is not easy to find a job in tech, especially if you do not know how to code. It’s extremely competitive out here because you are competing with people from around the world. I moved here for legal or policy counsel positions with a tech company and/or startup. Positions with early-stage startups generate a lot of interest because of the possibility of equity in the next Facebook. Equity would be ideal, but I care more about using my legal and policy expertise to help grow a business, even if it is already public.
Thus far, I have had interviews for legal counsel with Skycatch, a drone startup, and the Wikimedia Foundation (nonprofit that runs Wikipedia). Words cannot express how grateful I am to even have made it to the interview process. I did not get either job, but I do not think it was because of my race. My gut feeling with Skycatch is that I wasn’t hired because of my litigation background and they were looking for someone with more transactional experience. And I didn’t feel good about the Wikipedia interview.
I honestly feel like going to school in the South is a bigger strike against me than my race. People are aware that UNC-Chapel Hill is a great college, but few realize the University of Georgia is a Top 30 law school and Top 5 for my master’s program. I even had to revise my resume to add the U.S. News rankings because I felt like I was getting overlooked by people who attended West Coast institutions. Unlike going to public institutions in the South, racial diversity can be seen as a good thing. Indeed, Apple just donated over $50 million to get more minorities and women into tech. Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz also has been actively working to increase the number of Black founders.
I also know that working at boutique firm is a strike against me. When companies say they want someone who works at a “top” law firm, they mean a large law firm. However, it’s a known fact that associates at smaller firms have more autonomy and responsibility than people at large firms. In fact, my old firm only hired former federal law clerks for its litigation team. I don’t know of any large firm whose standards are that high.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a force to keep certain people out of tech, but I believe the problem is worse in private companies. In fact, at the Crunchies (think the Oscars for tech), a startup founder’s wife told me that many investors will not invest in a company if there are too many non-Asian minorities and women at the company. I’m sure Ellen Pao would agree with regard to discrimination against women. For Blacks in tech, we can only aspire to become Tristan Walker. And if you don’t know who that is, you’ve just proven my point (no hyperlink, google him for yourself).
The ironic thing is that despite meeting many people who fit the “founder profile” (white and Asian men), I haven’t met many people with truly disruptive business models. Rather, they just want to piggyback off something that has been done before (“My startup is like [insert successful company], but [insert meaningless distinction]”). Not to toot my own horn, but I have good startup ideas. I just don’t code well enough to build them by myself.
That’s precisely why there’s a premium for engineers out here. A guy who used to work for Lyft told me that there was a $1,000 finder’s fee for new employees, but $10,000 if you were an engineer. Kind of makes me wish I did not go to law school … or college for that matter. Seriously, why pay all that money for college when you can go to coding school for a fraction of the price, make over six figures, and get equity in a company? I definitely feel like my high school guidance counselor dropped the ball on that one.
Coding is a language that should be taught in every school. Sadly, coding courses are not available at many schools, including ones in SF. That’s why I gladly accepted a position on the board of Mission Bit, a nonprofit that teaches coding to public high school students.
Of course, when you take tech out of the equation SF, is just like any other city. The weather is much different from the South. People back East tend to think of California as a whole, but the weather in Northern California is much different from Southern California. In fact, with the microclimates in SF, the weather can be significantly different just one mile away. The weather is dramatically warmer if you go to East or South Bay.
The next thing to surprise me is the difference in how women look. It’s not uncommon to see women in full club attire at the Lenox Mall in Atlanta. The other end of the spectrum is SF, where many women seem to wear fairly androgynous clothing. Of course, women in San Francisco dress up, but it’s reserved for special occasions, Temple Nightclub, and the Marina District (still haven’t been to verify).
The last thing to surprise me has been the Christian community. Growing up, I expected to find nothing but “Godless heathens” in SF. In the “Bible Belt,” people often claim to be Christian because it is part of the culture. Here, however, being Christian isn’t as ingrained in the culture, so you have to be more intentional with it.
The churches I’ve been to here also seem to be very involved in the community, especially with helping the poor. In fact, the first civic organization I joined was a YWAM Tenderloin ministry.
Homeless people need more than a meal or some money. They need people who are willing to make a long-term investment. And I intend on being here for the long haul. I’ve had some life-changing experiences in SF, but nothing has been more transformative than walking around the Tenderloin at night and handing out hot chocolate to homeless people with YWAM. We engaged with people by learning their life stories, shaking hands, giving a hug of encouragement, and praying for them, if they requested it. That’s what Christ requires of his followers, yet I had never even had an actual conversation with a homeless person until I ventured to the land of Godless heathens. Ironic, indeed.
I visited Atlanta during Easter weekend and was angry for most of the time. I was angry that my mom lived so far from the city. I was angry that it was difficult to walk around Midtown. When I got to Midtown, I parked my car in a surface lot and was determined to walk as much as possible. After making a few stops to see friends, I eventually made it out as far as General Assembly at Ponce City Market (about 2.3 miles from where I parked). I then was angry that the tech networking event at General Assembly was overrun by people who were only there for the free beer.
I get angry in SF, too. I saw a quote at the African American museum from Rep. Barbara Jordan that read, “All blacks are militant in their guts, but militancy is expressed in different ways.” For me, militancy is best expressed by attacking the problem and not just complaining about it. I’m furious about the homeless problem in SF, so I’m working to do something about it. And I’d like to see more Blacks in tech, so I started with myself.
Jarrod Jenkins received his JD/MPA from the University of Georgia. He currently resides in San Francisco. When he's not eating or listening to music, he's probably talking to a stranger about autonomous vehicles.