Oakland's Top 20 Tech influencers you need to know!

Steven Loeb · May 11, 2016 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/4537

Vator will be holding its Splash Spring event in Oakland, at the Scottish Rite Center, on May 12

Editor's Note: Our annual Vator Splash Spring 2016 conference is around the corner on May 12, 2016 at the historic Scottish Rite Center in Oakland. Speakers include Tom Griffiths (CPO & Co-founder, FanDuel), Andy Dunn (Founder & CEO, Bonobos), Nirav Tolia (Founder & CEO, NextDoor), Mitch Kapor (Founder, Kapor Center for Social Impact); Founders of Handy, TubeMogul, VSCO, Vinted; Investors from Khosla Ventures, Javelin Venture Partners, Kapor Capital, Greylock, DFJ, IDG, IVP and more. Join us! REGISTER HERE.

Vator has been a long-time champion of the Oakland tech scene. We moved our Splash events from San Francisco to Oakland in 2014, and here's Bambi Francisco, Vator's founder and CEO, explained her rationale behind the move:

"I found myself attached to Oakland’s scrappy baseball team – the A’s – and what they came to represent: a resourceful team facing outsized challenges. The movie Fruitvale Station brought home another Oakland asset – its residents – facing overwhelming odds amid a world forging ahead with prosperity. The movie is, as I wrote at the time in the fall 2013, 'a candid look at the murky reality and morality of life in an environment with few opportunities,'" she wrote.

"My takeaway: To reduce the probability of Fruitvale Station incidents, Oakland desperately needed economic development. Oakland, a place with a diverse, passionate community, deserved the prosperity that was accruing to its wealthier Bay Area neighbors."

We have another event coming up in Oakland, on May 12, at the Scottish Rite Center. To help promote it, we recently we teamed up with the City of Oakland to come up with a list of Oakland influencers, those who are making a difference in the city and showing what a great tech it has, and will, be. 

Beneficial State Bank is an Oakland based community development bank, founded by husband and wife team Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor in June 2007. It provides credit to constructive businesses and non-profits, especially those boosting entrepreneurial activity in inner cities, following and strengthening wellness models, or reconnecting vital rural/urban dependencies.

Fashioned in the image of the great socially responsible banks and credit unions of national and international fame, the Bank is mandated to produce meaningful social justice and environmental benefits at the same time that it is financially sustainable.

Beneficial State Bank, pursues economic justice and environmental sustainability by focusing on transformative sectors that need loan capital, such as affordable housing, sustainable food, low-income community development, clean tech, and women and minority-owned businesses.

The Beneficial State Foundation owns all of the economic rights of the Bank, which means that when profits of the Bank are distributed, they can only be distributed to the Foundation which is mandated to reinvest those proceeds back into the communities and the environment on which we all depend. In our theory and experience, this ownership model aligns our incentives with the triple bottom line and the values of our bank customers.

Sungevity is a solar electricity company based in Oakland. Founded in 2007, the company has raised some $895.5 million in venture capital financing and is helping to provide solar to tens of thousands of residential homes around the world.

In 2014, Danny Kennedy, co-founder and then President of Sungevity, took the stage at Vator Splash Oakland on to discuss the emerging solar power space, and how Oakland was helping that happen.

"The future of solar is the market we know now as electricity," said Kennedy. "The disruption that is coming is not just the disruption of telephony, through a semi-conductor or a silicon ship, but it is the disruption of the market known as electricity."

And where is that change happening? You guessed it: Oakland.

"Oakland is the heart of the future of solar," he said, and specifically he called Jack London Square, where the event was held, the "epicenter of the future of solar."

Lucid's BuildingOS is a data and analytics platform to improve building efficiency and portfolio performance. Its solutions empower organizations to make smarter decisions that reduce costs, improve occupant comfort, and accelerate team productivity.

Lucid’s software is used by the world’s leading companies and institutions to manage thousands of buildings with $500 million in annual energy bills. 

Founded in 2004, Lucid raised $17.18 million from Agility Capital, Autodesk, Dry Creek Ventures, Formation 8, GE Ventures, Peninsula Ventures and Zetta Venture Partners.

Lucid was one of the first modern software companies to call Oakland home when our four-person team arrived in 2007. We’re excited to see Oakland establish itself as a leader in building technology innovation — there are half a dozen such companies a few blocks from Lucid's 12th Street headquarters. We've also been fortunate to attract excellent talent from all parts of the Bay Area who find Oakland a convenient commute and a great place to live," Vladi Shunterov, co-founder and President of Lucid, told me. 

Kaiser Permanente is an integrated managed care consortium that was founded in 1945. It is made up of three interdependent groups: the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan; Kaiser Foundation Hospitals; and the regional Permanente Medical Groups.

It is one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plans, serving 10.2 million members, in eights states, as well as Washington D.C.

Kaiser runs 38 hospitals, 622 medical offices, with over 18,000 physicians, over 51,000 nurses, and over 186,000 total employees. 

The company made $62.7 billion in 2015.

Founded in 2000, Pandora is a music streaming and automated music recommendation service, and is one of the most successful Oakland-based tech startups. The company raised $56.3 million before going public in 2011.

It has recently been struggling, however, due to increased competition. In 2015 the company had $1.2 billion in revenue, up from $920.8 million in 2014. However it still managed a net loss of $170 million for the year, up from a net loss of $30 million the year prior.

Pandora's active listeners were 81.1 million at the end of the fourth quarter of 2015, compared to 81.5 million for the same period of the prior year, a loss of 400,000 users.

The company recently replaced its CEO and was said to be looking to possibly sell itself.  

ASKfm is a global social networking site where users create profiles and can send each other questions.

"How you engage with friends and express yourself on ASKfm is done through the lens of what your social connections are curious to learn about you. Through the natural exchange of questions and answers, ASKfm aims to be a safe, fun and engaging place for learning more about yourself and exploring the social world around you," the company says.

Founded in Latvia, the site  launched in June 2010 and was acquired by Ask.com in August 2014, It is now an operating business of IAC

As of March 2015, the site has150 million monthly unique users.

Founded in 2006, Revolution Foods transforms school food service by provid­ng healthy food, nutrition education, and operational support for schools in California.

The mission of Revolution Foods is to dramatically improve the food and food service experience in schools, by being the first company to provide the combination of tasty, quality food, nutrition education, and operational support to schools at a price that fits the requirements of the National School Lunch Program.

The impact of Revolution Foods in communities it serves is to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity, to improve overall health among children, and to enhance the educational experiencesfor all students.

The company has raised $97.95 million in venture funding from DBL Investors, Oak, Catamount Ventures, New Schools Venture Fund, The Westly Group and Physic Ventures.

Blue Bottle is a specialty coffee roaster that was founded in 2002 by James Freeman with a table showcasing his home-brewed coffee at the Old Oakland Farmers' Market, two credit cards and $15,000 in savings.  

The company has since gone to raise over $120 million from investors that have including Google Ventures, Evan Williams, Chris Sacca, Index Ventures, JamJar Investments, Lowercase Capital, Slow Ventures and True Ventures. 

Blue Bottle Coffee Company is now located in six different cities: Oakland, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, New York City, and Tokyo.

"I liked Oakland. It was cheaper to start a business there than San Francisco and it seemed likle there were more places to do things on the cheap and I liked the weather, the customer base and people," Freeman told Bambi Francisco in an interview in 2014.

"It's great. You can get nice spaces. San Francisco is 49 square miles and there's not much of it. You can start your business here more economically... The ferry is the world's most beautiful commute." 

Founded in 1999, Kapor Capital is an early stage fund that focuses on information technology driven, seed stage startups that drive positive social impact by drawing on the lived experiences of their founders.

It also has a commitment to diversity. 38 out of its 74 investments have a founder who is a woman or a person of color from an underrepresented background; 36 percent of its first-time investments have a female founder; and 23 percent of its first-time investments have a founder of a racially underrepresented background.

Its investments include ClassDojo, LendUp, SchoolMint, Piazza, PayNearMe, and Clever.

Oakland is quickly growing into a major tech hub.  We’ve learned from the examples of other cities where the tech economy served to exacerbate the divide between the rich and the poor, and we’re not going to let that happen here. We want to make Oakland the model of tech getting it right so its success benefits all, not just a few," Founding Partner Mitch Kapor told me.

Founded in 2011, VSCO is an art and technology company empowering people everywhere to create, discover, and connect.

"Our goal is to honor art and artist while fueling a worldwide creative movement through innovative tools and experimental projects," the company says.

VSCO had raised $70 million in venture funding from Accel, Glynn Capital Management and Goldcrest Investments.

"Since 2011 the real change has been Mayor Libby Schaaf and her commitment to improving Oakland. Buildings and roads are being fixed up and as a result, we've seen an increasing energy in Oakland, especially in downtown where VSCO is headquartered," VSCO co-founder and CEO, Joel Flory, told me.

Founded in 1999, Sparkart is a digital agency developing websites and interfaces. It designs and develops products, websites, interfaces, and experiences.

"Our team works closely with our clients to carefully execute each project using our time tested process: research & plan, create, build, measure and optimize. We develop content rich websites using our open source developer platform, Solidus, or any third party platform from WordPress to Shopify," the company says.

It works primarily in the world of music and sports. The current client roster includes America’s Cup, Bon Jovi, Keith Urban, Lil Wayne, Microsoft, Slipknot, The Killers, Ultimate Fighting Championship, and Ultra Music.

Founded in 2013, Devlabs is an incubator for international entrepreneurs with a focus on education, agriculture and energy.

It provides access to capital/finance to entrepreneurs who are building tech start-ups that provide access to basic services to people in undervalued regions in the Americas. Devlabs provide them with in-house technical expertise to build scalable and high impact software solutions that address a defined market. 

The company typically invests in education, health, agriculture, enterprise, finance and tourism companies, though not it is not exclusive to those categories. 

"Oakland is the hub for global sustainable tech entrepreneurship because of its diverse history and people.  Oakland is now attracting visionary entrepreneurs from all over the world that are solving very big global problems leveraging technology and the know-how of the localOakland community," Ruben Hernandez, Co-founder and CEO of DevLabs, told me.

Founded in 1977, itron is an energy and water tech provider.

It provides intelligent metering, data collection and utility software solutions to the water and energy industries. The company specifically specializes in electricity, gas, water and heat meters, and data collection and communication systems.

The company went public in June of 2009.

Oaklandish started in 2000 as a public art project designed to illuminate Oakland’s local history and unique cultural legacy.

After years of covert multi-media stunts around the Town, the Oaklandish brand of apparel was introduced to help support our ongoing calendar of public events and annual Oaklandish Innovators Grant program.

Its sole mission is to spread “local love” by way of our civic pride-evoking tees and accessories, while creating quality inner city jobs for locals, and giving back to the people and places that maintain the city’s trailblazer spirit. In line with this mission, it donates a portion of all proceeds to grassroots nonprofits committed to bettering the Oakland community.

Turnitin, which was founded in 2000, provides instructors with the tools to engage students in the writing process, provide personalized feedback, and assess student progress over time.

It includes instant formative feedback on prompt-based student writing, similarity checking, online feedback, and rubric grading tools for evaluating student work and automated assessment of writing at scale.

Turnitin is used by more than 26 million students at 15,000 institutions in 140 countries.

Minted, founded in 2007, is a social commerce company that crowdsources graphic designs and content from a global design community of independent artists and designers, who are located in 48 states and 43 countries. 

"We believe that great design lives and thrives in the hands of independent artists that people do not have access to through traditional retailers. Minted uses technology to allow consumers to discover great creative talent, making Minted a place where artists can learn, gain exposure, and build their businesses," the company says.

Minted raised $89.1 million from Benchmark Capital, IDG Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Technology Crossover Ventures, and Norwest Venture Partners, along with angels Marissa Mayer, Jeremy Stoppelman, and Yishan Wong.

ProActiveBusiness Solutions provides IT solutions for relocations, support, project, and staffing needs.

"Simply put, ProActive Business Solutions takes on all the technology tasks your organization doesn’t have the time or resources to handle on its own. These range from relocating data centers to upgrading desktops, to calibrating sensitive cleanroom tools, to supporting wafer fabrication," the company says.

That includes managed services (work on an ongoing basis), oroject-based assignments (one-off or periodic jobs) and staff augmentation (short- and longer-term needs for certified specialists and other trained personnel)

Back to the Roots, which was founded in 2009, produces specialty home growing kits, including a fish tank that grows human food and a mushroom kit using coffee grounds. 

Founded by Berkeley students Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora, Back to the Roots got started when the two heard you could grow gourmet mushrooms in pots of coffee grounds. So they tried it in their dorm room—and it worked. That gave them the idea to create a kit that would allow anyone to grow their own mushrooms at home.

Back to the Roots has been featured on ABC’s The Chew and Martha Stewart. Additionally, the startup was recognized at the White House during 2013's Empact Awards, and the co-founders have been awarded Inc’s 30 Under 30, Forbes 30 Under 30, and Businessweek’s Top 25 Social Entrepreneurs.

The company was one of the winners of Vator's OakTown Tech Startup Competition, which was specifically held for East Bay startups, in 2014.

"Oakland is home. This is the hub for innovation when it comes to food, tech, art & sustainability. We at Back to the Roots are honored to be part of that community!" said Alejo Vélez Ramírez, co-founder of Back to the Roots.

Dictionary.com, which has been around since 1995, is a digital dictionary, and is committed to accelerating the discovery and mastery of English.

It provides millions of English definitions, spellings, audio pronunciations, example sentences, and word origins. Dictionary.com’s main, proprietary source is the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, which is continually updated by our team of experienced lexicographers.

Dictionary.com also offers a translation service, a Word of the Day, a crossword solver, and a wealth of editorial content that benefit the advanced word lover and the English language student alike.

:Personally and professionally, I have seen so much change in Oakland in the past decade and, particularly, in the last few years," Liz McMillan, CEO of Dictionary.com, told me.

"There’s an incredibly dynamic environment and a creative spirit that is unique to this city - and it’s a true asset. My hope is that, as more companies begin to call Oakland home, they’re invested in fostering this spirit and our incredible local talent."

Renew Financial, which aas founded in 2008, originated the idea of the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing model. Its mission is to develop innovative financing designed to transform America’s economy to clean energy.

The cpmpany administers CaliforniaFIRST, the nation’s largest PACE program, which provides affordable financing for home upgrades to more than 20 million Californians. CaliforniaFIRST has funded millions of dollars worth of projects throughout the state and is seen as a model program for other states that are implementing PACE programs with our assistance.

"For 2016, we want to get to 100% coverage of California for our CaliforniaFIRST PACE program. Then we want to take the same approach to the state of Florida and to grow our PACE financing territory there much the same way we did in California: city by city, city council member by city council member," Renew Financial CEO Cisco DeVries told me.

"It’s a lot of work, but at the end of 2016, to be able to look back and see the same type of growth we’ve seen in California would be a great success for Renew Financial, and I think we’ll do it.

(Image source: oaklandfloats.com)

Read more from our "Trends and news" series

More episodes

Related Companies, Investors, and Entrepreneurs



Joined Vator on

Pandora, the leading internet radio service, gives people music they love
anytime, anywhere, through a wide variety of connected devices: laptop and
desktop computers, smartphones, connected BluRay players, connected TVs,
etc. Personalized stations launch instantly with the input of a single “seed” –
a favorite artist, song or genre. The Music Genome Project®, a deeply
detailed, hand-built musical taxonomy, powers the personalization or
Pandora. Using this musicological “DNA” and constant listener feedback
Pandora crafts personalized stations from the more than 800,000 songs that
have been analyzed since the project began in January 2000.
More than 75 million people throughout the United States listen to
personalized radio stations for free on Pandora through their PCs, mobile
phones and devices such as the iPad, and connected in-house devices
ranging from TVs to set-top boxes to Blu-Ray players. Mobile technology has
been a significant factor in the growth and popularity of Pandora, starting
with the introduction of the Apple app store for the iPhone in the summer of
2008. Pandora instantly became one of the most top downloaded apps and
today, according to Nielsen, is one of the top five most popular apps across
all smartphone platforms.

Pandora is free, simple and, thanks to connectivity, available everywhere
consumers are – at the office, at home, in the car and all points in between.
In 2009 the Company announced that Pandora would be incorporated into
the dashboard in Ford cars via SYNC technology; GM has already followed in
announcing plans to integrate Pandora into its vehicles and Mercedes-Benz
introduced their Media Interface Plus device that works with the
free Pandora iPhone app to provide direct control of Pandora from in-dash
stereo controls. This was all great news for the millions of Pandora listeners
who had been plugging their smartphones into car dashboards to listen to
personalized stations while driving. More than 50 percent of radio listening
happens in the car, making it a crucial arena for Pandora.

Today tens of millions of people have a deeply personal connection with
Pandora based on the delight of personalized radio listening and discovery.
These highly engaged listeners reinforce the value Pandora provides to: 1)
musicians, who have found in Pandora a level playing field on which their
music has a greater chance of being played than ever before; 2) advertisers,
who benefit from the multi-platform reach of Pandora, as well as its best
practices in targeting consumers for specific campaigns; 3) the music
industry, which has found in Pandora a highly effective distribution channel;
and 4) automobile and consumer electronics device manufacturers, who have
noted that incorporating Pandora into their product makes it more valuable
to consumers.

Pandora continues to focus on its business in the United States. The radio
arena has never been hotter, thanks to technology that enables radio to be
personalized to the individual and more accessible than ever before. Right
now millions of people listen to Pandora in the United States and we hope
someday to bring Pandora to billions of people around the world.

• 2000 – Tim Westergren’s Music Genome Project begins.
• 2005 – Pandora launches on the web.
• 2008 – Pandora app becomes one of the most consistently downloaded
apps in the Apple store.
• 2009 – Ford announces Pandora will be incorporated into car
dashboard. Alpine and Pioneer begin selling aftermarket radios that
connect to consumers’ iPhones and puts the control and command of
Pandora into the car dashboard.
• 2010 – Pandora is present on more than 200 connected consumer
electronics devices ranging from smartphones to TVs to set-top boxes
to Blu-ray players and is able to stream visual, audio, and interactive
advertising to computers, smartphones, iPads, and in-home connected



Joined Vator on

Name of the company



Joined Vator on

Connecting teachers with students and parents to build amazing classroom communities. 



Joined Vator on

Name of the company



Joined Vator on

Name of the company

Back to the Roots


Joined Vator on

Back to the Roots is an Oakland-based startup developing products that connect families with their food. Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez founded it straight out of college in 2009 after they learned in a business ethics class at UC Berkeley that gourmet mushrooms could be grown from recycled coffee grounds. Inspired, they turned down their finance and consulting job offers to become full-time urban mushroom farmers. BTTR has since grown to distribute two award-winning products, the Mushroom Kit and AquaFarm, in over 2500 retailers nationwide. The Mushroom Kit is a small brown box that grows up to 1.5 lbs of oyster mushrooms in 10 days, and the AquaFarm is a self-cleaning fish tank that also grows food! BTTR was recognized at the White House during last year's Empact Awards, and the co-founders have been awarded Inc’s 30 Under 30, Forbes 30 Under 30, and Businessweek’s Top 25 Social Entrepreneurs.


More about Back to the Roots:

Kickstarter Video; Martha Stewart; ABC's "The Chew"; Cool Hunting


More about Alejandro Velez:

Alejandro Velez co-founded Back to the Roots in 2009 as a senior at UC Berkeley, giving up a potential career in investment banking to become an urban mushroom farmer. Alejandro oversees the sales and finance half of the business, and with his co-founder, Nikhil Arora, has led the company to triple digit annual growth.

Alejandro also founded the Sage Mentorship Project, a 1000+ member non-profit that is the largest student-run organization at UC Berkeley. He has been named one of BusinessWeek's Top 25 Entrepreneurs under 25, BusinessWeek's Top 25 Social Entrepreneurs in America, 2010 Social Venture Network Social Innovation winners, 2010 20 Influential Hispanics Under 40, and 2010 Hitachi Young Entrepreneur Winners.

Alex graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business with a degree in business administration and a minor in education. He is originally from Medellin, Colombia and is also a proud Hodgkin's Lymphoma cancer survivor.


More about Nikhil Arora:

Nikhil Arora co-founded Back to the Roots in 2009 as a senior at UC Berkeley and gave up a potential career in consulting to become an urban mushroom farmer. Nikhil oversees the marketing, product development, and operations half of the business, and with his co-founder, Alejandro Velez, has led the company to triple digit annual growth over four years.

Since co-founding BTTR, Nikhil has been named one of BusinessWeek’s Top 25 Entrepreneurs under 25, Top 25 Social Entrepreneurs in America, UCLA’s Opportunity Green Top 25 Green Company Leaders, 2010 Social Venture Network Social Innovation winners, and 2010 Hitachi Young Entrepreneur Winners. Nikhil is currently on the Board of Directors of the Sage Mentorship Project and Social Venture Network.

Nikhil graduated summa cum laude from the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business during which he spent 6 months in Africa creating a profitable recycling program for the University of Ghana.




Joined Vator on

Name of the company

Blue Bottle Coffee


Joined Vator on

Name of the company

Kapor Capital

Angel group/VC

Joined Vator on

Kapor Capital invests in seed and early stage startups whose success in business generates positive social impact.


Alejandro Ramirez

Joined Vator on


Ruben Hernandez

Joined Vator on


james freeman

Joined Vator on


Mitch Kapor

Joined Vator on