KPCB Fellows Application

This year, I decided to apply for the KPCB Engineering Fellows Program, and I while I became a finalist and had the option to join the program, I’ve opted not to. If you’re looking for an internship next summer, I highly encourage you apply, especially if you’re outside of the bay area! I’ve been asked to share my application essay (below) and my implementation of the challenge

I’ve got a problem with “making the world a better place.” The status quo of that statement revolves around an almost self-entitled belief that you, as an individual, were meant to somehow be better than everyone else. The truth is, the tenable qualities in people aren’t balanced, but the problem stems from the culture of believing that you, a single individual, somehow have unequivocal power over everything and everyone around you.

It’s not an easy problem to address. Just by the manner we’ve been raised and everything leads us to believe that we’re the hero in our own stories. It leads us to lose empathy for any outside of our immediate periphery. This makes it hard to truly leave a meaningful impact on our world, because how are we supposed to understand what people want the world to look like if we don’t understand others. Specifically, in technology, people are too consumed on serving those who can bring them financial success and fame. This leaves us blind to the needs of the people who really need their worlds to change, and hundreds of different social media applications created by people with tools to make real change.

So what do I want to leave our world? I’d like to change business as usual. I’d like to see entrepreneurship be a facet of everyday life, from helping start new initiatives in our communities to building a new park bench on a lazy Sunday. I’d like people to keep believing that they’re meant to change the world, but have a better understanding of the world they live in, and go about making real change from the perspective of making a direct impact on the lives of others rather than an idealized and misconstrued image we constructed ourselves.

I’m not sure how I plan on achieving anything on the lines of what I’ve stated. A fairly good manner might be sticking to my comfort zone and creating or helping sustainable tech businesses that embody that sort of culture. The hope there is that people can start to see what business should look like. A sphere of interest there might be politics. Many political systems across the world are extremely broken, and people should have access to the same crazy data pipelining that companies like Palantir and Addepar are providing to large private organizations to make more informed and meaningful decisions. I might want to run for office (US Senate) one day, and lead by example.

Amongst all this uncertainty, I’m sure of this: nothing I set out to achieve I’ll accomplish on my own. The only way real change will happen is if I believe in motivating others to help each other achieve their collective ambitions. Being able to leverage each other instead of competing for meaningless scraps is the biggest hurdle we as a species need to overcome. Once we communally realize we’re all insignificant in the grand scheme of our universe, we can focus on improving and empowering each other’s existence.

Tech’s Second Attempt at Oakland

      It seems today that no discussion of Oakland is complete without a gander of the seemingly viral dispersion of tech companies and gentrification that often comes with their spread. Given the seemingly endless spike in real estate within San Francisco and Oakland’s vicinity to one of the world’s best engineering schools, it would be deemed inevitable that Oakland would succumb to the same trends that San Francisco did. Yet, this isn’t the first time Oakland has faced mass gentrification at the influence of big tech. During the original dot com years, then mayor Jerry Brown made a huge push for “redevelopment” of the downtown area as well as construction of housing projects in the hopes of incentivizing ten thousand tech individuals and more of the same liking. Even though the dot com crash of 2003 would severely halt the progress of gentrification in Oakland, much of the same signatures that defined the beginning of the 21st century have been identified today. Clearly, much like it did in 1999, locals are having trouble maintaining their homes as well as the culture that drove the diverse nature of Oakland. Yet, while both time periods in Oakland have shown similar signs of urban displacement, severe partitioning of communities, disparity in access to resources, and income inequality, the city of Oakland as a whole has shown a more amenable but cautious attitude to the expansion of tech companies in recent years, an attitude that should encourage a harmonious relationship with the tech sector in tandem with maintaining and incorporating with tech.

      Interestingly enough, much of what might end up diverging the paths of the two eras can be defined by the leadership of the city’s government, and more specifically the different outlooks of the different mayors. Jerry Brown took office in 1999 with the intent of providing the city with an influx of more well to do citizens. His “10k” plan intended to revitalize the downtown area and Jack London square, while creating housing projects in anticipation of dislocating current residents. The root of Brown’s thinking can be really derived from, “When Mayor Brown was asked whether his plan to gentrify downtown would threaten diversity, he replied (“tartly,” according to his supporter George Will),

“There is no diversity there now. You have a concentrated, homogenous population—the elderly, parolees, people in rehab, from mental hospitals, transients. This is not the vibrant civic culture some might have in mind.” Obviously, this is not the Brown who worked alongside Mother Teresa.” (Reed 23)

In not recognizing and valuing the variety of the people who inhabited Oakland, it was clear that the governing body would take no regulatory measures in controlling overwhelming gentrification. On the other hand, Libby Schaaf, has to deal individual residents moving over to Oakland as well as whole corporations are moving headquarters or major engineering offices inside the city itself. In response to Uber’s purchase of the Sears building in downtown Oakland, she let the company know that,

“I look forward to working with you to identify ways that your unique contributions to Oakland’s economy can make this a more vibrant and equitable city where we all thrive” (Schaaf 2015).

Libby Schaaf has actively taken the stance to promote tech growth only if the companies involved opt to hire locally and choose to be actively involved with Oakland’s culture as is. As much as she may choose to stress those tenets, she’s limited by the fact that many of these purchases are completely private transactions and tech companies are no longer taking public money to develop their offices. The precedent that Uber and Schaaf set in what is slated to be the largest tech office transplant into Oakland will define new tech companies moving in and their relationship with Oakland in the future.

      The cautious outlook of Libby Schaaf does draw warrant, especially considering the fact that unlike in 1999, the real estate competition extends to businesses as well and individuals. During Jerry Brown’s term, most of the tech employees that resided in Oakland or more generally in the East Bay usually worked in San Francisco or some other region in the South Bay, and the large incentive for moving to Oakland was cheaper housing with potential for urban development. Given the diversity and already brewing tension set in from previous movements of gentrification, there’s the sentiment that,

“San Francisco had a very long ramp of displacement and gentrification, that by the time things exploded, the vast majority of the poor people and the people of color were long gone. That’s not true in Oakland. It will happen much more rapidly and it will be a much grittier experience.” (Wharnet 2014)

Yet, with businesses moving over to Oakland, the entire dynamic has changed. It places the city of Oakland right in the epicenter, and rather than being a collective of priced out individuals, companies are actively using the culture and affordable environment as perks. In contrast to Brown’s “10k” plan,

“At the time of the plan’s inception, Oakland was experiencing what Leslie calls “leakage.” People were working in the city, but they weren’t living there.” (Zillman 2014).

Since people are now completely priced out of the city as well, people are opting to live and become a part of the Oakland community.

The risk that runs concurrently with this spurt of technology is that it might start to consume the city much like it did San Francisco. In 1999, even with individuals of color and lesser means were being priced out and being forced to move out to Sacramento Valley,

“Oakland, however, hadn’t become New Hampshire yet. And so, even with the black drain that is occurring under Brown, Oakland still hosts one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the country, a callaloo of cultures.” (Reed 26).

This was possible in Reed and Brown’s time because the individuals who were brought into Oakland by Brown’s initiatives were mainly uninvolved with the cultural heart of the city. Yet, as more and more individuals are shying away from San Francisco, a large contingent of techies is following the starving artist into Oakland. With enough of that contingent calling Oakland home, embellished with the even stronger push of real tech jobs within Oakland itself, the same types of people who helped reshape San Francisco into the tech-over-all environment are planting roots. Signs of such progression can be found when taking a close look at the historic Telegraph Ave, one bustling with diverse and locally owned businesses, now teeming with groups of,

“well-dressed and soon-to-be well-groomed men sat patiently in the sun outside Temescal Alley Barbershop waiting for $25 haircuts and $30 straight-razor shaves. Some idly pecked at their phones, while others wandered into Standard & Strange, a men’s clothing store that stocks rugged-looking American-made apparel.” (Haber 2014)

More simply put, Oakland is seeing much of the cultural impregnation that Brooklyn witnessed over the last decade. Events like First Friday in Oakland are no longer frequented by a people of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together to celebrate their differences, but rather by a more homogenous party enjoying fourteen dollar drinks and an assortment of food trucks.

      To imply that the influx of technology in Oakland can be completely likened to the kind of “cleansing” that Brooklyn has experienced this last decade would be out of place. The new level of involvement that individuals from the software world are brining to Oakland has shown some positive signs within the community. One of the biggest criticisms of the tech community is its lack of gender and racial diversity. This is extremely apparent from the recent findings of the Chamber of Commerce. Oakland has 5% more females working at tech firms compared to San Jose and San Francisco, as well as 7 times more black and multi-racial employees than anywhere else in the Bay (Oakland City Chamber of Commerce 2015). This drastic differentiating factor amongst local companies (albeit still in need of far more change) suggests that many of the cultural keystones of Oakland are starting to show within the companies themselves. When Pandora was asked why they chose Oakland, they cited the culture. For a music company they felt it was critical to their mission that they be able to incorporate as many viewpoints as possible, finding that,

“We [Pandora] found a model where employees are actually involved in determining how to spend their budget because when they own it, they’re a part of it. If you’re not a part of something it’s easy to complain, but if you’re part of something you feel an ownership and accountability, and you’re more engaged. So everything we do around employee experience we try to make employee owned.” (Pandora 2014).

With local companies being much more interested in incorporating themselves into what Oakland as a city culturally represents as opposed to reincorporating something else into the city, the companies stand a far better chance of involving the citizens of Oakland in shaping the company and helping Oakland as a city grow using tech rather than falling to its side. At the beginning of the century, the key difference was that the companies people worked at weren’t based in Oakland. Given a new sense of embodiment, there’s hope that the new wave of immigrants to Oakland might just buy into what the traditional, blue collar spirit that has driven the city to be what it is today.

      More interestingly, the tech community has made an active attempt in incorporating the habitants of Oakland into tech. Haber notes that transplants from the city kin to Mitchel Kapor feel like,

“There’s a sense that everything is possible,” continued Mr. Kapor, whose Kapor Center for Social Impact funds various groups in the Bay Area committed to diversifying the face of technology, like Black Girls Code and Hidden Genius Project. “We’re going to see an explosion of tech in Oakland. It’s the next big area.” (Haber 2014).

Rather than seeing Oakland as an area to displace workers and wiping out the current embodiment of the city, a lot of resources are being dumped into tech education and hiring local. The state has pushed millions into Berkeley, Albany, and Oakland HS to develop technical skills. Likewise, over the last three years, tech can easily be attributed to a rise in local salaries rising 17% as well 4% growth of employment in tech amongst individuals residing in the city three years or longer, (Oakland Chamber of Commerce 2015). If tech is willing grow alongside the city rather than displace it, there’s a lot to be said for the benefits of its involvement.

      With all of this, how does Oakland move forward? Given that the city has very little it can do to actively impede companies from moving over to the East Bay, it needs to anticipate the migration in the next ten years, especially with rumors of giants like Google and Amazon shopping for Oakland real estate, and Uber moving in 2017. Yet, maintaining the cultural spirit and diversity is key, a resource that is much harder to come by in recent years. Oakland has the opportunity to be an example of how to incorporate previously disenfranchised groups in an industry famous for excluding those who just “don’t fit in.” The hope is that Oakland can move forward by avoiding much of the issues cities like New York and Sn Francisco have seen with the industry, while avoiding the lines of its failures in 1999. If anything, Oakland’s biggest asset is just how different it is from the rest of the tech incorporated bay, and if it can move forward into embedding tech companies into the city without comprising its values, then we all have a lot to gain from its growth. Otherwise, we’re destined to see a repeat of the failure that we’ve seen in Brooklyn, Palo Alto, San Francisco, and the most concerning, a previous version of Oakland.

Bengal, Separated by Religion, United by Ecosystem.

      To the world outside of the Indian subcontinent, the freedom of the British Raj was commonly considered a huge win for the Indian people, and a repercussion of the toll that the United Kingdom had taken over World War II. Yet, like the empire chose to do with many of its holdings in the Middle East and Africa, the British split India fairly arbitrarily into two separate countries India and Pakistan (Bangladesh would later split from Pakistan in 1971, but would be at the time labelled East Pakistan or East Bengal). The critical separating factors were key socioeconomic divides that would prevent the country from growing at a significant rate for at least 50 years, but more impactful was the religious divide. India had developed a significant contingent of a Muslim population under British rule (about 50 percent), and while the lines of Pakistan and India were the most significant barriers by religion, the country was fairly sparse throughout. Some of these lines were drawn in the middle of two significant regions of India, Bengal and Punjab. The former would go from becoming the capital of India to one of the most impoverished parts of the world, and the Partition of India would cost the region over a million lives and more than half a decade of tension and religious based violence. Through all of that, the region would begin reconciliation over its most defining natural feature, the Bay of Bengal and the estuary of the Ganges.

      As it still is today, the region has been defined by its fishing culture for over the last three centuries. It is the only truly sea-life rich area of the Indian peninsula, one where the majority of major rivers in the subcontinent converge to create the one of the largest estuaries in the world. The Bengal region is otherwise largely covered in tropical forests and farmland that once again relies of the Bay of Bengal for its survival and adequate irrigation. Yet, the entire region needed to work together to have an effective economy. Much of the prime fishing territory was on the East Pakistan side of the estuary, but in order to make an economy of the practice, much of the fish would be traded up the Ganges to Kolkata and beyond.

      A large part of this economy began to fail once the lines were drawn in the Partition of India. Over the next ten years, a region once fairly assimilated by class and religion would begin to self segregate over the arbitrary border defined by the British. This would make such trade extremely hard, and disconnected West and East Bengal from their respective nations. This isolation festered internal frustration, and the two sides began to blame each other for the misfortune across the region. Those who were wealthy enough abandoned the region, and everyone else was trapped socioeconomically. Once the Indian and East Pakistan borders began to close, it became harder for people to move, and those who were misplaced as a minority were heavily persecuted and often killed. My grandparents lost a net total of seven siblings and several other family members to this effect.

      Since 1957, the people of Bengal have been able to make amends over the violence that once dominated the region due to the mutual dependency on the Bay and its defining factor in the operation of the region. After the dust settled over war and violence, the tension persisted. This tension defined the better part of the late 20th century, but began to diminish as younger generations began to take over industry, farming, and fishing. Slowly, but surely, the two countries began cooperation over trades and fishing rights, and these agreements have been critical to the assimilation of people into their own countries. Families have been since reunited, development has begun to once again progress after vastly falling behind the rest of India, and the diffusion of tension by religion in Bengal has been critical into eventual progress with rekindling relationships with other Muslim nations and moving the people of West Bengal out of the conservative right.

      The next big challenge for the region will once again be defined by the Bay of Bengal. The region has the highest loss of landmass rate of any shore in the world cause by global warming. The expectation is by 2030 half of the current available land go underwater or inhabitable, displacing over thirty million people once again. For a region defined by massive migration and displacement, it’ll be hard for the people of Bengal to once again recover from another disaster. Yet, there’s reason to be optimistic. Many initiatives have been started by India and Bangladesh together to preemptively maintain the estuaries natural properties as well and creating natural forms of irrigation that are mitigated the effects of flooding. Many urban innovations have been made by cooperative research to prevent the effects of Global Warming tied to the natural monsoon season, and in like the two countries are developing the area in a manner that is respectful to the environment as well as each other. It took the region fifty years to heal, but it wouldn’t have been possible without their mutual connection to the Bay of Bengal.

Balanced Inequality

      Americans as a whole, when asked where their patriotism stems from, begin to cite values such as freedom, independence, and the ability to pursuit “the American Dream.” In the fifties that might have meant a house, a car, a television, a well supported family, and vacation once in a while. That simple notion has since evolved into the sentiment that if we (as Americans) worked hard, we can achieve whatever we set out too. Coincidentally, those dreams usually involve extravagant residences, a frivolous and luxurious lifestyle, and even more wealth than we already have. Yet, the reality of our economy and its zero-sum game begin to hit when taking a look at what the unilateral pursuit has done to the people of the same nation that allowed it to be as such. The byproducts are corporations which are forced to provide more for relatively less, catering to a consumer base which unequivocally pursuits the best deal. In turn, these corporations are pushed into depriving that same consumer the opportunity to create his own wealth as was previously available. Those same corporations are now built of people who will do anything to keep our system as is, even if it requires breaking down our system of governance and undoing a centuries worth of economic progress. In essence, these dreams and disasters are rooted within inequality, which has become less about the difference in the income and wealth of our citizens but rather the certain discrepancy in access that distribution has created. As critical as American freedoms are to the integrity and values of our nation, we have to question our practices once they begin to disable our citizens from what the vast majority would consider basic rights for the modern American; the opportunity to work for a steady job which provides for respectable food, housing, and education.

      Establishments cannot exist without some justification, and the current one does so on very dated ones. The most obvious are that everyone has a fair chance at “having it all”, America is a country of opportunity, and that we live in a government that equally represents each of us. Then the problem becomes to stem to the belief that things are the way they are without flexibility to change, where the

“rising economic inequality is the inevitable fate of countries that don’t choose something worse” (Graham 2016).

      Interestingly enough, this opinion stems from people, much like Paul Graham, who come from a place where it is hard to see how the nation as a whole is doing. It’s easy to preach that things are fine the way they are when you’ve lived in a bubble. A bubble where you’ve made your wealth benefiting from your connections that were provided from inherited wealth and claiming to be creating jobs and growing the economy by dumping money into people who already come from favorable positions. Even when people like Graham choose to look outside their sphere, they see from a jaded lens. So through that lens, they see that the poor are disabled because

“not that they are getting paid too little for the hours they work. It is that they are not working full time or at all” (Brooks 2014).

What Brooks and Graham lose in their pictures is a causality for why

“they are not working full time or at all.” It comes from stories like Natalie Ford, whose whole family lost jobs when Whirlpool decided to move its manufacturing facilities to Mexico due to labor regulation and cost. (Greenhouse 2010).

      It comes from factors like “walmartization”, where retail workers are abuse, undervalued, and often cheated of pay and benefits through unpaid overtime and firings to save benefit money. Since these industries have made up the body of the middle class, and with the disappearance of better situations, the same people are forced to consume and support the same institutions that continue to abuse them. Likewise, the people left with purchasing power, like Graham, Brooks, and the anyone wealthier than the middle class continue to support such practices because it allows them to consume more and reap more wealth (Equity, Trading, etc.). Consumer interest is wealth and power, but when it’s placed in a direction that drives more and more people to poverty, it’s time to reconsider our values.

      So why aren’t people looking at the government to change what can be easily be seen as misconduct under the what this country values? People don’t trust the American government! Amongst first world nations, America struggles in terms of voter turnout for regional elections. People feel that the government has cheated them, and they are overpowered by the people who have put them in their current situation in terms of political influence. (Reich, 2008). They’re right! Yet, they have to power to change that situation. Reform in campaign donations, lobby hiring practices and non-monetary bribing, and corrupt practices in legislature creation, the common American has a fairer shot at what most US citizens believe they deserve (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness). This start through participation in the same local elections most people seem to cast away. Yet, what’s clear for the educated isn’t necessarily as transparent to those who weren’t privileged to have a fair education. Rather than address these issues in their government, these same people aren’t aware of what needs to be done or just too busy making sure there is something on the dinner table tomorrow night. If people aren’t given the chance to be vocal, it’s not fair to expect them to be! It’s transparent then that a huge chunk of our country no longer has access to a fair education, or often times even acceptable nutrition and shelter. They are unequal citizens because they have no access to the values we hold dear.

      Then it’s fairly clear that there’s a problem. That problem isn’t that the vast majority of our country is completely uninvolved from our political system. It isn’t that purchasing power has been so polarized our current retail economy (even at a corporate level) has become unattainable for the vast majority of American businesses. It isn’t that almost half our country as of right now has no access to what we as Americans consider basic citizen rights. The most apparent problem is that as aware people are slowly becoming, they feel there is nothing they can do about it. As goes with addiction, the first step is recognizing there is a problem, but the second is acknowledging that approaching the issue is something that needs to be done. Americans live under a government that they no longer believe in, work for people who they blame for having reduced their potential and robbed them of accessibility, and then go on to owe similar or often time worse people for the rest of their lives. It’s also easy to see why people feel the way they do. Yet, the reality is Americans can make major, but hard, changes that not only empower them to redirect the dynamic in their favor, but re-value their worth in our socio-economic and political system. It requires Americans to recognize they are addicted. Addicted to hoarding undervalued goods that will only come back to reduce their status in that same market. Addicted to consuming dangerous financial products that only increase the wealth of the already rich by preying on the dreams of those who happen to have less than them. Addicted to leaving political decision to those who don’t care for them, pleading ignorance in the face of disaster, and refusing to go beyond blaming those who they believed have wronged them. The reality is that the system isn’t broken, it’ll just break if we let it. Americans can achieve this “Balanced Inequality” the country as a whole can agree on, only if they choose to take the action to cut that addiction.

Breaching in Stronghold

A while back, I wrote a short essay for my students on the FRC Team that I mentor, 5499 BHS Robotics, on whether the team should place focus on breaching outer works in the 2016 game. If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, you should check out FIRST. I did a bit of analyis on the statistics of previous years and an historical layout on how similar games were played and the insights we could take away from that. Here is the paper!