Venture Capitalist Joanna Rees: San Francisco's "Innovation" Mayor?
Wednesday afternoon was one of those rare San Francisco days where it was too hot to stay working indoors, so I popped over to an event that Peter Hirshberg, a local entrepreneur, had told me about: a chance to meet Joanna Rees, a candidate for mayor of San Francisco, and hear about her "innovation" platform.
Ms Rees is a venture capitalist and thus she can claim to have helped create thousands of jobs via her firm's funds. It also means she understands the needs of small, innovative companies.
She made a strong case for eliminating the city's payroll tax for companies in San Francisco - a tax that also applies to stock options.
"I've been told that there are at least five tech companies that are thinking of moving out of San Francisco because they want to IPO." She said San Francisco should keep the innovative companies it already has, and also attract new ones.
Here's a startling statistic: The Bay Area was second to Detroit in job losses last year.
She spoke about a "listening" tour she made a few months ago, walking around San Francisco and talking with people.
"You should join me downtown at 6.30 in the morning, and you'll see dozens and dozens of buses, from Google, etc, all lined up, all picking up their staff. About 25% of the people that live here commute outside of the city. They pay extra to live here yet have to leave every day. We should change that."
Twitter recently won a ruling from City Hall where it won't have to pay additional payroll taxes on new hires for the next six years. This was a very controversial decision, and it was unpopular within many city groups, who said it was unfair for rich companies such as Twitter to avoid paying their fair share.
I agreed, especially since Twitter founders always talk about "social responsibility" being important to their company -- yet here they were, campaigning vigorously to take away resources from the very community where they live and work(!) How does that demonstrate a strong focus on social responsibility? (Hypocrisy gets me going every time.)
I asked Ms Rees if she would support eliminating the tax on stock options, and keeping the extra 1.5% payroll tax that San Francisco levies on its businesses. After all, there are benefits to being located in San Francisco, and it seems fair to pay a little bit extra for that advantage. But I agree that the stock options tax is going too far.
She said that she would but she said that the payroll tax should be the same for all businesses, no matter where they are located.
Innovation needs education...
I especially liked her positions on education. She pointed out that less than half of San Francisco's public school students graduate.
- She proposed mentoring programs to help principals better manage their schools, something that successful entrepreneurs might volunteer for.
- She also said that it should be possible to find an internship position for every one of San Francisco's high school children.
- She is an advocate of children attending their neighborhood schools.
The local schools issue is a big one for me. San Francisco operates a unified school district, which means that students have no guarantee of attending their neighborhood school. My son was assigned to a school way on the other side of town, in a strange neighborhood. Yet there was a great school one block away.
Ms Rees pointed out that you see this all the time, the long lines of parents in cars, picking up their children, when if they attended local schools, they could walk home.
But there's more to the education issue than just neighborhood schools, as Ms Rees points out, they are starved of government and local funds, and while the teachers are trying their best, it's a bad situation for all.
My good friend Tony Irons was chief operating officer of the San Francisco Unified School District eight years ago. He eventually resigned out of frustration at with the No Child Left Behind Act, which in typical 1984 "doublespeak," was designed to do just the opposite. The deck was stacked against his students and there was nothing he could do about it except to resign and hope to draw attention to legislation that was harming public schools nationwide.
Silicon Valley public schools disaster
I've always been shocked and amazed that San Francisco and Bay Area public schools are such a mess. Yet Silicon Valley is right here, with it's amazing technologies, people, and future.
How can Silicon Valley companies say to the world that they are inventing such a marvelous future when the infrastructure of their communities is so awful? It's embarrassing.
I keep saying: Our schools should be showcases, not basket cases!
(Ms Rees please feel free to use this slogan its under creative commons :)
Within a few minutes walk from every public school there is an incredible array of people and resources, we just need to find a way of connecting them to each other.
Yet people constantly tell me that the situation is beyond help. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems, once told me the same thing: "Yes, Tom, it is embarrassing, but we've we tried to fix the public schools and they can't be saved."
I was shocked. Here is one of our top business leaders, a Captain of Industry, a man used to tackling big problems, and achieving great things -- yet it's too tough for him. Wow.
But I don't believe him. We have some great technologies, we have great people, we just need to apply them.
A simple idea...
I have a simple idea, one that would go a long way in helping schools and their students. It won't cost much (I'll even pay the server bills) and it doesn't require any special permits or regulations.
Let's build a "Cragslist" type service around each classroom, in each school.
If the teacher needs some pencils, for example, I can pick some up next time I'm in Office Depot.
If a teacher needs help in explaining some science -- hey, I'll come into the classroom and help out, or we could do it by streaming video. Or I'll get one of my buddies to help out. Every parent and their network can help.
From my experience with Forestville Elementary, a California top-100 distinguished public school, in Sonoma County where my kids attended -- the more you can tie a school in with its community, the more successful are its students. And that's true everywhere.
The parents of Forestville Elementary joined together and funded all the arts and music teacher salaries, school trips, and much more. It was a great demonstration of the power of community where it matters.
I love that "barn raising" spirit in the US, there's no waiting around for the government to "do something," people in small towns just get up and do it themselves.
But when we moved to San Francisco, the schools were different, they didn't know how to build that same level of community support.
We have now have the means -- powerful collaborative technologies and tools -- to help every school to connect with their community, and tap into their local resources, which are often sitting just a short walk away.
For example, what if some of our rock star CEOs walked down the street to address a local school assembly? That would be incredible, the same is true for our rockstar VCs.
I'm sure that many in our Geek community would love to be mentors to kids; I'm sure that there is a huge pool of goodwill and good people that would love to get involved in educating our kids. We just need to connect the two.
Here's yet another chance to lead
I once read that if the Bay Area were a country, it would be the tenth largest economy in the world. Tenth or twentieth — it doesn't matter, but what does matter is that we have the resources to make our schools showcases for the rest of the world. And if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.
Thanks to our crappy local bandwidth and cellular networks, whatever we do through online "tools for schools" that succeeds, means that it'll work everywhere around the world.
We have a great opportunity to create world class education technologies, using our kids as the developers and users.
We can show the same leadership here, that we show in chip technologies, computing, networking, IT software, communications, new media, clean energy, biotech, green IT, pharma, (even sailing technology via Oracle)...
Ok, my rant is over.
I'm looking forward to finding out more about Ms Rees, and I encourage you too.
The event was held at RocketSpace, a very cool, and very new shared workspace with about 65 companies, founded by Duncan Logan. He says the space is filling up quickly and is about 85% full. It's only for tech and new media companies -- no lawyers or job recruiters allowed, "They tend to bother the other companies too much," he says.
I also met Peter Boboff, a VC at Transmedia Capital and managing partner at Kicklabs, a very cool incubator housed at RocketSpace -- I'd love to return and find out more about the firm.