Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor with their dog, Dudley. (Photo/Kola Shobo)
Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor with their dog, Dudley. (Photo/Kola Shobo)

Meet the Oakland philanthropists trying to diversify the tech world

One of Freada Kapor Klein’s earliest memories is of her older brother coming home from school, bloody. His classmates had accused him of killing Christ, and beaten him.

Freada was only 3 at the time and her brother was 7; the family was living on an air force base in Biloxi, Mississippi.

A few years later, when the family was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Klein and her two siblings constituted the entire Jewish population of their elementary school. Her parents had to go to the principal to get their children excused from singing “Jesus Loves Me.”

Did these early experiences shape her as an adult? “I don’t remember making a conscious decision about my life’s work at age 3 or 6,” she said, “but obviously these are memories and they’re cumulative. They fit in with what has been a continual commitment to social and racial justice.”

While lesser known in the Jewish community than some others, Freada Kapor Klein and her husband, Mitch Kapor, are well-known in the Silicon Valley as well as in Oakland, where their Kapor Center for Social Impact is located. The center’s mission is, in broad strokes, to diversify the tech world. And one could say that the couple, who are in their mid-60s, have dedicated much of their lives to that goal.

Kapor is the founder of Lotus, which popularized the spreadsheet, and the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting digital civil liberties.

Klein also worked at Lotus for a time, but has long focused on social issues. A Cal graduate, “I chose Berkeley because of the strength of its activism in the anti-war movement, civil rights and feminism,” she said, adding, “Isn’t that how everyone chooses a college?”

While she studied criminology as an undergrad, shortly after graduating she founded the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion in 1976. It is widely considered to be the first organization in the United States focusing on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Klein, who has a Ph.D from Brandeis in social policy and research, later worked for Lotus, where she met Kapor and was head of employee relations, organizational development and management training.

Besides making Lotus 1-2-3 ubiquitous in business, Lotus had as its mission to be the most progressive employer in the country, and Klein was hired to help achieve that.

She and Kapor began dating years later, when she no longer worked at Lotus.

The couple, who have homes in Oakland and Healdsburg, are primarily known as venture capitalists and philanthropists. Kapor Capital, their fund, invests only in startups that are committed to diversity or are trying to close that gap.

Their Level Playing Field Institute was founded by Klein in 2001, and educates students of color in the fields needed to advance in computer science. The Level Playing Institute has a Summer Math and Science Honors Academy (SMASH) for students of color, most of whom end up pursuing science as a career.

“Education is traditionally a focus in the Jewish community,” said Klein. “Both of us see a direct connection between our SMASH program and the opportunities our fathers, who came from poverty, were given. Now we’re giving back to the communities that are impacted now in the way our parents’ communities were impacted many decades ago.”

Both Klein and Kapor had immigrant grandparents. And their fathers were the first in their families to attend college — Kapor’s at New York’s City College, and Klein’s at the University of Oklahoma under a quota system.

Kapor entered Yale many decades later, only a few years after the Jewish quota there had been lifted, as it lasted into the 1960s.

The couple are known for being outspoken about what they see as wrong in the tech world. Though they were early investors in Uber, they were also among its most outspoken critics after a female Uber employee went public with assertions of sexual harassment at company headquarters and a culture that appeared to do nothing about it.

“We are disappointed to see that Uber has selected a team of insiders to investigate its destructive culture and make recommendations for change,” they wrote in an open letter to the Uber board and investors in February. “To us, this decision is yet another example of Uber’s continued unwillingness to be open, transparent, and direct.”

We’re giving back to the communities that are impacted now in the way our parents’ communities were impacted many decades ago.

They are not afraid to criticize the larger tech world, either.

“There’s a tendency in tech philanthropy to try and push things internationally while ignoring what’s happening in our own backyard,” said Kapor. “The income inequality in Silicon Valley is so striking, yet there’s no understanding that the people who are serving their food and cleaning their offices are completely struggling.

“Philanthropic reinvestment in our communities is something that is very overlooked.”

Speaking to his fellow “tech titans,” he said, “My question to them is, with all the wealth they’re creating, are they creating economic opportunities broadly, or are they only creating jobs for others like them?”

Given the couple’s prominence in the world of philanthropy (at a White House event two years ago, they announced plans to give $40 million over three years to make the tech industry more diverse and inclusive), there’s a reason they are not as well known in the Jewish philanthropic world.

“We are looking to close gaps of access or opportunity for underrepresented groups, and it’s hard to look at the founders of tech startups or venture capitalists and say that Jews are underrepresented,” Kapor said.

Klein, noting that her Jewish identity is much more of a cultural nature than religious, said she definitely can trace her commitment to social and racial justice to being Jewish.

“It’s clear to me that the kind of racism going on in this society — the anti-immigrant sentiment and deportations and stereotyping — is all akin to the things that our relatives went through.

“Frankly, I am disappointed with many American Jews who have been very successful and do not feel that standing up against racism is a responsibility, given that previous generations took risks for them to be alive and be successful.”

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."