January 10, 2014

Tech entrepreneur Peter Shih is the poster child for what ails San Francisco these days.  The young tech entrepreneur in August wrote a blog (since deleted, but covered here) highlighting 10 things he hated about San Francisco. The writing was arrogant, elitist, sexist, and otherwise all-around offensive – and the public outrage that followed was well deserved. CheapAir was quick to newsjack the incident and publicly offer Shih a one-way ticket back to his native New York.

What struck me most about Peter Shih’s diatribe was his lack of appreciation for what I regard as America’s most beautiful city and, in the interest of possible bias, admit it’s a place I’ve called home since last February.  And in fairness to Shih, his fellow tech workers don’t seem all that appreciative to be here either, or interested in being part of the broader social fabric.  One of the first lessons I’ve quickly learned is that the folks responsible for creating and expanding the potential of social media are not very community-minded offline.

What sticks in the craw of the local denizens is the perceived attitude that their city and its public and cultural offerings are not good enough for these tech company transplants, and that there is no genuine desire or intent to assimilate with the local lifestyle or culture. While some of the initial local pushback may have been simply a case of city pride (nobody wants to hear their baby is ugly), the tensions are escalating.

A focus of the ire: the private luxury WiFi-outfitted buses that shuttle tech workers to the plush corporate campuses of companies like Google and Facebook in Silicon Valley. The buses do their pickups at stops earmarked for public transit, thereby disrupting the commutes of local residents who rely on public transit.

Further aggravating the situation is that many Silicon Valley workers are quite well paid and are generally blamed for the dramatic rise in San Francisco rents, particularly in an area known as the Mission District, a long-time enclave of working class Hispanic residents who are getting evicted with increasing frequency so their homes can be rented out at dramatically higher rates.  It doesn’t help matters that many technology workers live a quasi-tribe existence, preferring to interact only with their own kind rather than San Francisco’s broader population. Consequently, housing activists have been among those who have blocked and vandalized the private shuttle buses, which have emerged a rallying symbol for those who see negative impacts from the tech boom.

I’ve talked with plenty of young technology workers during my time here, and am always taken aback by the cavalier way in which they profess to have no interest in San Francisco or concerns about the troubles brewing with more deeply rooted residents. Only one technology employee I spoke to could name the mayor of San Francisco, but he admitted the only reason he knew the answer was because someone at the company told him Hizzoner was responsible for some sweetheart tax breaks they received.

Given the insular behavior of Bay area tech companies and employees, I read with considerable fascination a New York Times story late last month by Ian Austen about Waterloo, Ontario. The city is home to BlackBerry, which is ailing and laying off 4,500 workers, representing 40 percent of its workforce. I have strong family ties to the area, which is about an hour’s drive southwest from where I grew up in Toronto; my grandfather was a rabbi in neighboring Kitchener and my cousin owns a major clothing store there.

Though Waterloo is a city with a population of only about 100,000 and BlackBerry was one of its major employers, the city is reportedly taking the hit quite well. Other tech companies are locating operations there, including companies such as Cisco, Google, Motorola Mobility, and Square, the mobile credit-processing company. From what I’ve read and heard, there doesn’t seem to be the types of tensions seen in San Francisco. While the companies themselves may be acting differently (“We have a long timeline for here. We really want to be part of this community,” Brian Power, the talent director for Square, told the reporter), the local workforce may be the key.

Meet Stacey Tozer. She took a sales job at Blackberry in 2006 and was eventually transferred to Seattle. The company wanted to transfer her to Miami last year, but she opted to leave the company and return to Waterloo, accepting a job at a startup and taking a 75 percent pay cut.  Tozer is especially unique in that it is rare for a Canadian who moves to the U.S. and has great job prospects to ever return to Canada, unless they suddenly aspire to serve as the country’s leader.

“In Seattle, I was very connected and I’d been headhunted by a number of major companies,” Tozer told Austin. “As much as I love Seattle, it was an individualistic, career-driven situation.  Here, it’s not about competition. It’s about building a community helping other companies grow.”

Though San Francisco is my home and I’ve reaped considerable benefits from the tech boom, I admit to secretly hoping that Waterloo continues to prosper and attract best-in-class employees who share Stacey Tozer’s values. For Peter Shih’s sake, I hope he isn’t one of them.  Because in addition to being an accomplished sales executive, Stacey Tozer is a CrossFit Level 1 trainer. If he were to also denigrate the women of Waterloo as he did in his San Francisco post, my guess is Tozer would take him down.