Giving back has long been an issue in tech companies’ relationship with their communities. Facing some pushback from its Venice, Calif., neighbors, Snapchat jumped at a chance to help out.
LOS ANGELES — When St. Joseph Center, a services agency in the seaside Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice, needed funding for a software-programming class for low-income women, Snapchat was an obvious candidate.
But the neighborhood’s most-hyped startup was better known for taking up land than giving back. So at a meeting last fall, St. Joseph Center started small, asking for a simple holiday drive before hinting at the need for a coding-class sponsor.
Snapchat jumped at both ideas.
“We knew there was potential for you to see the good in it,” St. Joseph Center Executive Director Va Lecia Adams Kellum recently said, sitting alongside Snapchat spokeswoman Shannon Kelly. “We didn’t know you were going to love it.”
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Many who live and work in Venice blame Snapchat for driving up rents, displacing locals and sanitizing an enclave whose trademark grit has given way to corporate shuttle vans, security guards and MacBook-toting millennials.
But to St. Joseph Center, Safe Place for Youth, Grand View Boulevard Elementary and other groups that have benefited from Snapchat’s largesse, the nearly 5-year-old company is a model for how Venice’s new tech residents can help preserve its character.
The groups said Snapchat over the past two years has sought to promote the arts among Venice youth and address the issues of homelessness and income disparity. This year, Snapchat plans to spend more than $500,000 on community service, according to a source not authorized to speak about the matter.
The company has not publicly discussed most of the initiatives, but the nonprofit groups and social-services agencies hope Snapchat’s initial involvement will signal to hundreds of other beachside-technology startups that they too can emphasize charity work early in their life cycles.
“We live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth and everyone wants to be here,” said Alison Hurst, executive director of Safe Place for Youth in Venice, where Snapchat is paying for the construction of showers. “If you get to be in this awesome place, you have to give back.”
Not a strength
Giving back has not always been the tech industry’s strength. Demonstrators in the San Francisco Bay Area have blockaded employee buses and rallied outside offices — and even the homes of some tech workers — to protest the industry’s blasé response to its effect on the region.
Tech leaders took heed. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff joined others in pledging personal and professional donations.
Anti-tech sentiment has not reached the same tenor in Los Angeles. Nor, though, have charitable efforts by local tech companies.
Snapchat’s giving looks small compared to the millions of dollars offered up by older Silicon Valley peers. But Venice leaders say the disappearing-message app maker is at the philanthropic forefront.
The company, funded by $1.4 billion in venture capital and an estimated tens of millions of dollars in quarterly revenue from ads and in-app sales, declined to say whether it has set aside some of its stock for charitable causes. But Snapchat acknowledges there’s room to grow its philanthropy.
Snapchat says its philanthropy started in late 2013, when it had about 40 employees and received a $5,000 innovation award at retailer PacSun’s Common Threads industry event.
With the cash, Snapchat Chief Executive Evan Spiegel decided to encourage more of the creativity that lured him to Venice. Spiegel, 25, who declined to comment, told Los Angeles business leaders last fall that Venice’s creative vibe gave his team “the strength to defy conformity.”
To foster more of that creativity, the L.A. native chose P.S. Arts, a Venice nonprofit that brings arts education to schools.
For now, Snapchat’s biggest commitment is to St. Joseph Center, which said it received about $250,000 over the last year. Its most ambitious program is St. Joseph Center’s Codetalk — a triannual, 15-week course intended to provide women with unstable work histories sufficient tech skills to land an entry-level job.
Some residents say Snapchat must do more to win them over. Michael Reese, 51, and his wife are frustrated that they have to park more than five blocks from home because Snapchat secured rights to an adjacent lot. The company’s “continued encroachment” is worrisome, he said.
The company has tried to ingratiate itself with neighbors, even in small ways like encouraging workers to use company-provided vouchers to lunch at local eateries.
But that doesn’t offset the tech-driven flight from Venice, Reese said.
“You have the original people who like it a little bit gritty but reasonable, and you have the new generation that wants to clean it up,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see where the dust settles.”