The San Francisco Changemakers Shaping the Future of Tech
There’s no doubt about it: Tech is changing. Inventors, executives, entrepreneurs, investors and employees are increasingly feeling the need to imbue ethics, equity and inclusion into their products, investments and workforces. Edge computing, 5G connectivity, blockchain and artificial intelligence are all hitting their stride as mainstream technologies. And new models of investment and mentorship are reshaping the ways in which visionaries and entrepreneurs conceive and explore new ideas.
But who are the people driving that change?
Over the last month, Built In SF’s editorial team surveyed the Bay Area’s expansive tech landscape and, after extensive deliberations, presents to you now this list of 21 techies: the San Francisco Changemakers Shaping The Future Of Tech. They are leveraging their influence and knowledge to transform their industries. Some are looking for solutions to humanity’s biggest problems. Others are pushing the boundaries of innovation. And plenty are asking hard questions about the impact of powerful technology.
This groups’ collective focus spans a range of cultural hot topics including sustainability, equity, healthcare, education, augmented reality and health. They are entrepreneurs, academics, thought leaders, designers, investors and executives. They work at scrappy startups, accelerators, established giants and tech unicorns.
All are driving positive change in the local technology industry. Here’s what they have been working on lately.
Adeyemo kicked off his career as a vice president in JPMorgan’s Chief Investment Office. Since then, he’s been bringing solar power to the masses through various endeavors. Most recently, he co-founded Aurora Solar, a tech company that utilizes aerial imagery to assess solar installation projects. The company announced it raised $250 million in Series C funding in May 2021.
What he’s working on: “We are always looking for ways to help solar companies grow their business and streamline their operations. Currently, we are focused on making our software more accessible to non-technical users so that every team in a solar company, from sales and marketing to operations and more, can also benefit from powerful digital solutions that were primarily built for solar designers and engineers. Solar is set to grow exponentially over the next decade, but only if we can scale the industry’s efforts through technology that empowers all solar professionals to do their jobs with greater efficiency.”
Bahn comes to venture capital investing from a career as an entrepreneur, during which he oversaw two startups through successful exits over the course of a decade. After learning the ropes at Mountain View-based 500 Startups (famous for investments in the likes of Grab, Talkdesk, Canva and Gitlab), Bahn went on to co-found Hustle Fund in 2017. The firm invests $25,000 checks in software startups at the pre-seed and seed stages, looking for a combination of execution and velocity they call “hustle” — and recently raised a second fund worth $33.6 million.
Historically, the VC and angel ecosystem has not been very diverse at all.”
What he’s working on: “One project that our team at Hustle Fund is excited to build is a community called Angel Squad. The goal for Angel Squad is to invite new angels — especially those from diverse backgrounds — to learn how to angel invest and become great founder allies. Historically, the VC and angel ecosystem has not been very diverse at all. We believe that our ecosystem benefits when new voices and experiences are represented among asset allocators. We launched Angel Squad in January 2021 and have so far attracted more than 300 diverse angels: 46 percent are women and 32 percent work outside of tech.”
Blanche leverages her empathy and love of math to redesign organizational systems for more equitable outcomes. As a self-described “mathpath” (math nerd + empath), she helps create fair and bias-resistant processes for talent programs, product development, communications and more. Prior to joining Culture Amp, an HR tech company, she was the global head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Atlassian.
On the most pressing issue in tech right now: “Emerging technologies — especially AI/ML but to a large extent AR/VR and blockchain — are being built without the perspectives of people who have been historically marginalized and left out. This problem is inexcusable. These technologies will fundamentally undergird and guide the infrastructure of our society. I recognize the training challenges that are a part of this solution, but believe that it’s a problem we have to solve if we don’t want the next wave of technology to further entrench or exacerbate the existing inequalities. This is something that all businesses that are endeavoring to use and deploy these technologies have a moral and ethical obligation to not only consider but prioritize in solving for within the scope of meeting their other business obligations.”
At 26 years old, Terri Burns is the youngest and first Black female partner at venture capital firm GV (formerly known as Google Ventures). After graduating from New York University with a computer science degree, Burns took her talents to Venmo and Twitter before landing at GV in 2017 as a principal on the investing team. Since being promoted to partner around a year ago, Burns has invested in companies that include HAGS and Locker Room. She enjoys speaking and writing on issues related to technology, diversity and inclusion in her spare time.
My current and consistent focus is to find the next great companies that are shaping the future of work, consumer behavior and markets.”
What she’s working on: “My current and consistent focus is to find the next great companies that are shaping the future of work, consumer behavior and markets. It’s not always easy, but I’m excited about it because the tech industry has the power to have cascading impacts on the entire world. I take our responsibility to make sure those impacts happen thoughtfully and equitably quite seriously.”
Esther Crawford started her career managing social media for Weight Watchers back in the mid-2000’s, before moving on to marketing roles at companies throughout Silicon Valley. More recently, Crawford started the company Squad — a screen-sharing startup popular among teenage girls — which was acquired by Twitter in December 2020. Crawford now leads product and engineering efforts on Twitter Spaces, a place for live audio conversations.
What she’s working on: “I’m the product lead for our creator monetization efforts at Twitter. For the first time we’re giving people the ability to make money directly from their followers and fans on the platform. Historically, big tech companies have relied on ad-based revenue models, which meant only the most popular creators could make a meaningful amount of money. Instead, at Twitter we are building features like Tip Jar, Ticketed Spaces and Super Follows so anyone with an engaged audience can profit. It’s an ambitious vision that aims to build a middle-class creator economy that empowers content creators around the world to make a living doing what they love, right from their phones.”
Dave started his first company in India at the age of 17 — a so-called “LEGO kit for electronics” designed for middle school kids. The product gained some impressive traction, boasting Intel as an early customer, and eventually, he decided to move to the United States to pursue a career in tech. His current venture is Obviously AI, a no-code platform for building machine learning models that has raised money from Facebook and a handful of Bay Area-based VC firms.
We’re making it incredibly easy for anyone without a background in programming or machine learning to build predictive AI models.”
What he’s working on: “I am working on Obviously AI, a tool that enables anyone to build their own AI models without writing code. Plenty of businesses today don’t have a data science team or cannot scale one — there is a massive need for data science but limited talent. With Obviously AI, we’re making it incredibly easy for anyone without a background in programming or machine learning to build predictive AI models for their business, enabling them to make critical business decisions fast. We’re a small team based in San Francisco and backed by some of the top investors in the Bay Area.”
Dr. Hanna is asking some of the biggest questions in tech today. Prior to joining Google’s Ethical AI team, Dr. Hanna was an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto. She applies her sociological and academic perspectives to probe the “origins of the training data which form the informational infrastructure of AI and algorithmic fairness frameworks, and the way these datasets exacerbate racial, gender and class inequality.” When she’s not working toward improving processes to reduce inequality and possible harm generated by tech, she’s playing roller derby.
On the most pressing issue in tech right now, and what she’s working on: “As a sociologist I like to turn this question on its head and identify the most pointed locations in which society interacts with tech, notably how tech contributes to and exacerbates inequality. For me, that has a lot to do with two issues: First, the sites of tech labor, including how tech is being used to exploit working-class people. Second, how people are being subjected to the harms of tech, especially without their knowledge. I think we need to understand much more deeply how and where tech causes harm before choosing to build new things.
“I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the data used in machine learning. Most of the time the data that’s used to train, test and evaluate machine learning systems is poorly documented, obtained without consent from marginalized people and generated by low-wage workers without labor protections. I’m trying to understand the genesis of those data and what we can do to improve those processes.”
Over a two-decade career in tech, Kearns has worked in product marketing, product management and consulting enterprise organizations (including eight years at Verizon) and startups alike. From 2016 to 2020, she was the CEO of the Cloud Foundry Foundation, an open source organization that works on cloud and infrastructure trends with leaders at more than half of the Fortune 500. Kearns now leads technology teams at Puppet, an infrastructure delivery and management automation platform. In addition, she advises and invests in a variety of startups across the cloud and infrastructure industries.
Automation is key to helping every company, regardless of industry, be able to effectively and securely scale.”
What she’s working on: “As CTO of Puppet, I am helping shape the future vision of the leading infrastructure automation company. While we started with the goal to eliminate the soul-crushing work that infrastructure and operations teams were struggling with every day, we have evolved to help those same teams scale those environments across increasingly hybrid estates on-premise and in the cloud. Automation is key to helping every company, regardless of industry, be able to effectively and securely scale. And at Puppet, I have the opportunity to focus solely on solving that problem for the most complex environments.
“I also have the pleasure of sitting on the board of Lightbend, a fantastic company that is helping shape the future of serverless applications and address growing concerns with complex distributed applications at scale. Finally, I am also investing in early stage startups that are tackling a variety of issues in enterprise infrastructure from testing and security, to addressing management of Kubernetes at scale. There are so many new and exciting companies that have started in the last year, and I am looking forward to seeing how they shape the future of the industry and ecosystem.”
Brianne Kimmel founded Worklife Ventures around two years ago. Since then, the early stage venture firm has invested in more than 40 portfolio companies whose products are geared toward improving efficiency for designers, scientists, creators and everyday people. Kimmel jump-started her career in entrepreneurialism while at Kent State University, where she created an investment program to connect student entrepreneurs with mentors, investors and thought leaders in nationwide tech hubs. She also developed an entrepreneurship curriculum for student-led businesses and created a women in entrepreneurship program that she taught in New Orleans, LA and Santo Domingo, DR. Today, she runs an invite-only program called “SaaS School” that connects entrepreneurs to thought leaders at companies like Airtable, Dropbox, Drift and Slack.
On the most pressing issue in tech right now: “While the technology industry saw a productive year working from home, service industries in the physical world such as restaurants, salons and tattoo parlors suffered. Worklife is building and backing new ways for anyone to start the business of their dreams from their kitchen table. We shifted our attention to helping other classes of work that would benefit from no-code tools. We want to help them start creative businesses online that are not dependent on real estate and foot traffic.”
Meggie Enxuto’s history with Hackbright Academy goes back almost a decade. After graduating from University of California, Berkeley, Enxuto enrolled in Hackbright in 2013 and became an instructor roughly two years later. She personally taught software engineering to over 700 women and non-binary people and worked her way up the leadership ladder until she became VP of education at SEI Bootcamps, which includes both Hackbright and Devmountain, a bootcamp based in Lehi, Utah. Hackbright surpassed 1,000 graduates in 2020 under Enxuto’s leadership, and when she’s not working with the academy, she’s engaging in an avid love of ballet.
Diverse teams are repeatedly shown to be more productive, innovative and good for business.”
On the most pressing issue in tech right now: “Diversity. The number of technology jobs and computer science graduates have increased dramatically over the last five years. However, the number of women and non-binary individuals graduating from computer science programs has plateaued, failing to keep pace with growth in tech overall.
“Diverse teams are repeatedly shown to be more productive, innovative and good for business. To improve, leaders in the tech industry can focus on the very complex and important task of making sure underrepresented people have access to positions on their teams and that leaders are creating a work environment that allows underrepresented people to thrive.
McGinley’s career has covered the gamut in the financial technology space, from leading analysts working on JPMorgan Chase’s $120 billion credit card portfolio to serving as COO for Aura Financial, a microloan startup that has now raised almost $600 million. His latest venture is SeedFi, which offers a variety of money management services for people who live paycheck to paycheck, and which recently raised $65 million in funding.
On the most pressing issue in tech right now: “One of the most important issues to me is ensuring that our work product is having a positive impact on society. We’ve seen a shift in the criteria people apply when making job and career decisions — mission and purpose are weighted more heavily than ever before. We are also seeing growing expectations from public markets and investors around impact metrics. I hope we are able to build on this momentum to help business builders thoughtfully manage priorities and ensure they are driving better overall outcomes — and not just better business metrics. We have worked hard to build products where customer success begets company success and to build a culture where people are empowered to make decisions with the customer as the first priority. The pressure on business metrics will only grow as we scale, but I hope there is just as much focus on the overall positive impact we are having on our customers.”
McIntyre leads the charge at humm, a neurotech startup looking to boost key cognitive functions in individuals. How? Users apply the company’s humm patch — currently in public beta — for a 15 minute-session as an electric current is channeled to the brain to help boost a user’s working memory.
We’re facing a global reskilling crisis.”
On the most pressing issue in tech right now: “Before COVID-19 impacted the global workforce, the World Economic Forum already predicted that by 2022, more than 40 percent of core skills required to perform existing jobs were expected to change. Now, 114 million jobs were lost during the pandemic. We’re facing a global reskilling crisis. Automation and technology are increasing productivity and improving efficiency, but they’re also drastically changing the skills and jobs needed in the modern workplace. At humm, we're creating the world’s first learnable for people who need to reskill or upskill as soon as possible, learn quickly and synthesize large amounts of information, while ensuring the price and usability is accessible to everyone who needs it. Humm takes decades of proven neuroscience research and packages it in a sleek, easy-to-use wearable that improves working memory in just 15 minutes. While tech companies are creating massive change in how we work, it’s crucial that we also ensure workers don’t get left behind and that everyone has equal access to the education and training needed to stay current in today’s job market.”
Mitra is an entrepreneur, consultant and author with the goal of supporting tech entrepreneurship in its various forms — from bootstrapped to venture-funded. She has ambitious goals to democratize entrepreneurship education and was featured as one of LinkedIn’s Top 10 Influencers in 2015. Mitra founded One Million by One Million as a virtual accelerator for tech startups.
What she’s working on: “One Million by One Million has kept me busy for over a decade. Our mission is to help a million entrepreneurs reach a million dollars in annual revenue and beyond. We not only support the less than 1 percent of entrepreneurs out there who qualify for venture funding but also the other 99 percent that need to build their businesses without venture capital, in a bootstrapped mode. We’re democratizing entrepreneurship education, incubation and acceleration on a global scale.”
During a decade-long stint at Facebook, Liu created and led Facebook Marketplace as well as Facebook’s first mobile ad product for apps and its mobile ad network. She also built the company’s games business and its payment platform. She founded Women in Product, a nonprofit that connects and supports women in product management, and has made a number of seed investments during her career. On top of all that, Liu recently started work as the chief executive at Ancestry, a consumer genomics company.
Technology can often drive us further apart, but we are bringing people closer together as part of the human family.”
What she’s working on: “I joined Ancestry because it connects people with their family history and helps them capture their family’s story. Technology can often drive us further apart, but we are bringing people closer together as part of the human family. We help connect people with those who came before them and those around them. This enables them to see themselves as part of the global community and understand that we are all connected in different ways.”
The climate crisis is a matter of urgent attention. Sanchali Pal is helping people take action with Joro, an app that aims to promote sustainability-friendly choices by providing users with transparency around the carbon footprint of their purchases. The Harvard Business School and Prince University grad previously worked as a consultant at Dalberg, where she focused on sustainable development in East Africa and South Asia. Joro scored $2.5 million in Sequoia-led seed funding in December 2020.
What she’s working on: “Our team is focused on our recently launched subscription product for users to cancel out their carbon emissions. Just as companies like Microsoft and Shopify are able to quantify their emissions and invest in carbon removal to get to net zero, Joro allows consumers to take action. Living a net zero life is a new concept. For the first time, Joro makes it possible to track, reduce and automatically offset the carbon footprint of everything you buy. You can use the way you spend money to actively demand a world in which we no longer rely on fossil fuels.”
Salehi has spent his career moving between public service and private enterprise, most recently helping to found Y Combinator-backed Shef, a marketplace that connects home cooks with their neighbors. He previously served as a White House technology advisor under President Obama, authoring the country’s first Federal Source Code Policy and overseeing its regulatory enforcement. He also co-founded Code.gov, the United States’ primary platform for sharing and innovating on government code, including a huge number of reusable software projects from a bunch of federal agencies and organizations.
We’re now working with legislators around the country to introduce safe and well-informed home-cooking laws that can help millions of people gain access to a meaningful income.”
What he’s working on: “My parents immigrated from Iran with very little in their pockets. Like many, they had a deep-seated desire to build a better life for their children and worked incredibly hard to rebuild their lives in the U.S. They opened a restaurant, but the operational costs were so high that they eventually had to close. There are thousands of stories just like these, underscoring how difficult it can be for so many families to make ends meet. We’re now working with legislators around the country to introduce safe and well-informed home-cooking laws that can help millions of people gain access to a meaningful income. And it’s working — 44 home-cooking bills were introduced across 29 different states in the last year alone. We look forward to continuing these efforts so we can help as many people as possible.”
If you’ve ever seen an autonomous vehicle cruising around San Jose, Santosham may have had a hand in getting it there. As the chief innovation officer for the mayor of San Jose from 2016 to 2020, she championed the autonomous vehicle pilot program in 2019 as part of her big vision for building a smart city. She is a thought leader in urbantech and agtech, among other fields. She is currently applying her skills at Plenty, an urban vertical agriculture startup using tech to drastically reduce water consumption.
On the most pressing issue in tech right now: “I think it’s time for tech to do some self-reflection on if we’re living up to our vision to make the world a better place. For me, that starts with our impact on the environment. Tech companies must evaluate environmental, social and governance initiatives from a 360-degree lens. At Plenty, we are focused on increasing our already high standards related to ESG to ensure we are staying true to our mission of protecting people, plants and the planet. For example, California and much of the West are hampered by a devastating drought. Plenty is working on our technology, our processes and our partner relationships to find new ways to conserve even more water, growing more food with less land and making produce so clean it doesn't need to be washed.”
Kirin Sinha has a highly technical background that prepared her well for a life as an augmented reality entrepreneur: a computer science degree from MIT, a master’s degree in mathematics from Cambridge, a master’s degree focused on machine learning and neural networks from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. The founder took her advanced learnings and founded Illumix, whose recent Five Nights at Freddy's AR: Special Delivery game has generated 6 million downloads. Illumix has secured $13 million in venture capital funding so far, and director and special effects titan Michael Bay is among the company’s investors.
Our technology allows e-commerce brands to build high-fidelity digital ‘try on’ experiences.”
What she’s working on: “Illumix is making it easier for retailers to allow customers to easily see products on themselves before purchasing online. Our technology allows e-commerce brands to build high-fidelity digital ‘try on’ experiences right on their main website with no need for their customers to download an app. This innovation will make online shopping more seamless and also help brands with their DEI efforts, as no model can be a substitute for determining how an item will look on you personally.”
Sutton’s main mission in life is to advocate for mental health awareness. As a Black man in tech, this mission is personal. As a serial entrepreneur and advisor, Sutton has reflected on his own traumatic experiences of building his career while coping with racism and oppression. In 2019 he drew upon his experiences to found the Icon Project, a non-profit that supports Black and brown men’s mental health and professional development in the tech industry.
On the most pressing issue in tech right now: “Mental health is the most pressing issue in tech. Humans are processing more information, relationships and conflict while adjusting to a new pandemic world. Simultaneously, we are working towards our career and life goals. Working in tech today requires self-awareness in how it affects our mental health. My hope is that we can approach life with empathy to understand how each of our experiences affects how we show up at work and on video calls and how we communicate with one another.
“Throughout my journey, I’ve had the privilege to connect with great mentors, coaches and therapists who have helped me survive. With the Icon Project, I want Black and brown men to do more than survive, but thrive and overcome any challenges they may face in tech.”
Before joining Facebook in January, Kristy Tillman spent two years working as Slack’s head of global experience design. And this experience leading and building design teams at some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies has given her a certain degree of influence over the industry. Now, she’s using that influence to help open doors for others into the tech industry, reasoning that there are huge wells of untapped design potential hiding in society’s many gaps. To this end, Tillman founded the Made in the Future Fellowship, which provides access to training and job opportunities for underserved communities.
The most exciting thing I am currently working on is the Made In the Future Fellowship, which is my current side project.”
What she’s working on: “The most exciting thing I am currently working on is the Made In the Future Fellowship, which is my current side project. Made In the Future is a design career-building fellowship beginning with a three-day summit fostering community and connection amongst preeminent design leaders and emerging underrepresented design talent via a series of immersive events. The idea was developed after hearing from over 100 aspiring design professionals asking for tactical advice to jumpstart their careers. Made In the Future was designed to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and broadening of perspectives to create a more progressive, diverse and inspired industry"
Alyson Watson is the founder and CEO of Modern Health, a mental wellness platform that has boomed throughout the pandemic, growing from 40 employees to more than 200 over the course of the last 18 months. Watson led health industry strategy consulting at PwC and behavior change management teams at Keas, which was acquired in 2016.
What she’s working on: “As the destigmatization of mental health continues, the next challenge is getting people to engage with their mental health earlier and recognize the need for new preventive and proactive modalities of care, beyond therapy. We are currently expanding a successful program called Circles, community group sessions across topics like healing racial trauma and parenting stress, which are led by clinically trained practitioners and are accessible to both members and the general public. We also recently launched a podcast that gives listeners a few minutes each week to pause and build the foundations of good mental health.”