PreSeed Fireside Chat with Legendary Impact Investor Mitch Kapor
When we created Better Ventures PreSeed to help catalyze the social entrepreneurship community in Oakland we couldn't have hoped for a better speaker than legendary investor and philanthropist Mitch Kapor.
Simply put, Mitch and his wife Freada -- along with Kapor Capital and Kapor Center for Social Impact -- are giants in the field of impact investing and philanthropy, and they are paving the way for so many others, including Better Ventures. They are a veritable force of nature in Oakland as philanthropists and investors.
As such, it was an honor and pleasure to have a good, long chat with Mitch at Impact Hub Oakland to hear all about his work, how he got to where he is, his views on Oakland and diversity in tech and where he and the Kapor empire is headed.
As it turns out, Mitch may possibly be the most entertaining and quotable speaker in impact investing, so please indulge us while we provide copious quotes below. These are just a few noteworthy nuggets of wisdom from our talk. The full video is available at the bottom of this page, or you can watch it among our other past events in our Video Archive.
"I was a very smart kid growing up in an era when there was nothing cool about being a very smart kid... Actually it's where I got my sense of importance of fairness because I was always excluded." (3:35)
"I was a radio disc jockey in college professionally and just wandered after school in the early 70s. I was a meditation teacher, I was a mental health worker... I realized I could make a contribution to the field of human services by getting out of it" (4:50)
"I bought an Apple II computer. I just took all the money I had in the world, I drove across state lines to New Hampshire where there was no sales tax... it was like a calling. I had found myself... There was something mystical that was pulling me toward it. I stayed up all night...and the next day I was unemployed and I was hanging out at a computer store in Cambridge and I saw a guy and came up to him and said 'Excuse me sir, I'm a consultant and I think I can help you with your problem'… and he hired me for five bucks an hour. I tell [this story] because not everyone who goes on to do things went to Stanford or was in Y Combinator… It was pretty modest origins." (6:05)
Lotus Development Corporation
"I would not hire me as a programmer. " (11:15)
"It [Lotus Development] got to be overwhelming because we got huge fast and I had no training or background and unlike today when there are mentors and accelerators and books and workshops and infrastructure so you can get some help, you're not alone, this was 1983. We were basically making all of this stuff up as we went along... and I wound up jumping ship from Lotus early in '86 because it just got to be too much." (11:55)
"We tied managers bonuses to how well their direct reports said they actually practiced our corporate values, that they embodied them, so the values worked, not just in the abstract. There's some economics to them." (13:15)
Seed Investing and Early Web
"I had this idea along with a few other crazy people that the Internet was going to be a big deal so I invested in UUNET which turned out to be enormously successful." (16:20)
"I like doing seed investing. It's the difference between primary school and high school. If you're teaching primary school, you're helping people get fundamental skills that they going to need their whole life... You're getting them ready for the cold cruel world that's going to come afterward. I love doing that. What comes after that I don't like as much, I'm not as good at it so I sort of found my spot."
"Genius is evenly distributed across ZIP Codes. Access and opportunity are not. "[this quote is] not original to me although I think the ZIP Code phrasing of it is original…I have very few original ideas. I have lots of twists and incremental improvements on other people's ideas and that's a lot of the way innovation works." (20:50)
"I made a connection with these [African American and Latino] kids, despite obvious differences of age, race, class... and understood that they fundamentally wanted the same things that I wanted as a kid. I wanted to be recognized, I wanted a chance to show what I could do, I wanted that opportunity, I did not want to be excluded. And if you give them that chance they will completely blow you away." (23:35)
"Four years ago I said Oakland is going to be the next big tech hub. When I started saying this four years ago, people literally thought I'd grown a second head! So when Uber bought that big building down the street… I did enjoy a week or so of I told you so." (24:35)
"Tech needs Oakland... it's not just a matter of office space. If tech is going to serve America, it needs to look more like America which it does not, and not in Silicon Valley. Oakland is a different proposition given its history, its diversity, it's very aggressive political and cultural traditions. There's an opportunity to do tech here in which social impact and diversity are more in the mix than in San Francisco " (34:55)
"Being early to stuff... I only have one skill and that's my skill. We said Oakland's the place to do it, let's place a big bet and that's why we came here and are building a building. and you know, hey, and it's happening! I think the big test is going to be Uber. It's the elephant in the room. They're going to have two or three thousand people in that building. (36:15)
"Our lens on social impact is that we're looking for companies which are closing the gap of access and opportunity for some under served population. Could be African-American or Latino but not necessarily. It depends a lot on the context. But there has to be a gap, there has to be a closure strategy and it has to be beneficial to an underserved community. That's our lens... It turns out that there's just way more great opportunities that meet our criteria than we can actually invest in." (39:55)
"We have our companies create a social impact plan and a diversity plan as a funding condition. That sort of sets the baseline… but not just of how big the market is going to get but who's going to be better off and how many people?" (42:30)
Proudest Investment and Legacy
"Our proudest investment is the 1000+ SMASH scholars (Summer Math and Science Honors Academy)... this is not a for-profit investment, it's a nonprofit but the kind of ROI on that is huge. I'm proud of what we did at Lotus because I was the founder and we helped create an industry. I'm proud of being an investor in some things that got to be huge including UUNET. I'm proud of having helped get Mozilla started and EFF. And I'm proud of the Uber investment, although I have to say on that one nobody thought it was going to be as big I can tell you as it's turning out to be. On reflection it's the people related stuff that I'm proudest of… At Lotus the biggest legacy was not the product, although that was huge. Lotus wound up doing Notes and then getting bought by IBM in '95 and nobody's ever heard of it unless you are under the age of 30 or 35. it was really the people and bringing together that group and the influence that the company had on them and what it brought to their careers. That's really my proudest legacy." (55:05)
Watch the full video below.