A lot of discussion has been made about two Americas — the America which has a clear path to success and other America whose path is paved with struggle — but there are also two tech scenes. The traditional scene lacks diversity and views disruption not as social change, but of business change. The new tech scene is interested in social change, diversity of employment and products.

On April 22 and 23, Vator Splash Oakland 2015 marked the collision of these two tech scenes.

This is the second year that Vator Splash has taken place in Oakland. The founders make clear they want to be a part of Oakland’s attempt to approach tech differently. For example, in a session titled “Accelerator Nation: How Accelerators are Evolving and Changing the Local Ecosystem,” Oakland accelerators were featured, including solar power accelerator SfunCube and Zoolabs, which helps musicians maneuver through the tough financial market for their music. The panel was 75 percent people of color, 75 percent women and 100 percent passionate about social change.

It was a heartening to see Oakland’s tech diversity, though overall Vator Splash was still dominated by the traditional tech scene — predominately white men in their 40s and 50s acting as investors to white men in their 20s and 30s. This is the scene that petrifies long-standing Oakland residents and newcomers alike who live in the city and hope to escape the tech traps that have seemed to overwhelm other areas around the Bay.

“This is what keeps me up every night,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf during a session titled “When will tech look like America?”

“It is an incredible opportunity that we’re seeing right now, and it’s also an incredible threat. And as somebody that is born and raised here and is so proud of our history and our heritage and what we are, that uniqueness, I do not want to see that wiped out,” said Schaaf.

The mayor was joined on the panel with moderator Evie Nagy of Fast Company, Kimberly Bryant of Black Girls Code, Google’s Manager of Diversity and Talent Inclusion Nilka Thomas, Pandora’s Senior Diversity Manager Lisa Lee, and Freada Kapor Klein, co-founder of the Kapor Center for Social Impact.

While the Kapor Center started in San Francisco, it’s since moved to Oakland. The center funds student programs such as SMASH — a summer math-and-science program for women and people of color — and includes investments in startups that make social change such as Pigeon.ly, a tech startup created by a former prison inmate who saw a need to help inmates and their families make less expensive long-distance phone calls; Regalii, a company that helps with safer, more cost-effective transfers of remittances; and Schoolzilla, which predicts when kids might fall off track in school in order to prevent that from happening.

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Black Girls Code also recently moved to Oakland from San Francisco, in part because most of the students they serve live in the East Bay, but also to help stop the homogenization of the Oakland’s population due to the thriving tech economy, a problem Bryant watched occur in her hometown of San Francisco.

“I don’t want to see that in Oakland. I want to see the community be a part of the change — to actually profit from the change,” said Bryant. “We have an opportunity that we have probably never had in Oakland before because a rising tide raises all sails. And I want those sails to be those people who are in the flatlands. I want those sails to not just be those people who are transferring here from San Francisco.”

Bryant added that there’s a lot of work to be done to that effect, because resting on the merits of diversity of Oakland at the moment is not enough.

“We need to be planning on how Oakland is going to look in 20 years, how’s it going to look in 30 years, and how do we make sure that picture isn’t inequitable,” said Bryant.

The panelists all shared their companies’ attempts at changing the tech landscape, from plans on getting more kids in preschool by Mayor Schaaf, to Google’s launching of new student programs in Oakland. Lisa Lee of Pandora noted that they recruit from Laney and Mills colleges, do not have a cafeteria so employees will support local restaurants, and offer employees 40 hours of paid volunteer time a year.

“One of the criticisms around tech is that tech is supposed to be something that is supposed to have humans at the core of it, but we’ve gone so far to have now taken the human element out of it. So how do we put that human element back in? How do we start to really look at tech to bring us closer together and not further apart?” said Lee.

The questions, problems and programs brought up at the panel highlighted the ways which tech can be a force for progressive social change. Sadly, the audience for the diversity panel had dramatically thinned as compared to the product-focused panels earlier in the afternoon. The crowd that remained was pleasantly diverse and young, yet it seemed worrisome that so many from the traditional tech scene were seemingly uninterested in discussing on change. While talking about transparency within employee survey data at Google, Thomas noted that everyone needs to be a part of the change in tech diversity.

“We can’t have these conversations in silos where you’re just talking to women about the women’s experience, when you think about your organizations as being 70-to-80 percent men. If they’re not talking about this, then this is a losing battle altogether,” said Thomas.

In the end the conflict between the two tech scenes at Vator Splash could be summed up by the startup competition. Predominately white and male, the majority of the eight startups competing were focused on serving corporations and those with expendable income. As a competition for business investment, that was not surprising.

The winner selected by judges was a woman of color. Her company, Thesis, is using modern technology to redesign the high heel and make it more comfortable and less damaging to feet. The shoes will be in the affordable luxury category, running from $300 to $1,000.

The People’s Choice award went to ShareRoot. During the presentation to the judges, ShareRoot’s co-founder, Noah Abelson, showed examples of culturally insensitive advertisers by showing ads that depicted dramatically racist and sexist marketing from early-to-mid-20th century. To show how little advertising has changed, they showed a recent example from DiGiorno Pizza that co-opted the domestic violence hashtag #whyistayed to refer to pizza.

ShareRoot’s presentation used these stories to market their company, which helps corporations make use of individual’s Instagram and Twitter posts, yet the presentation clearly stated how their product would help solve the problem of socially negligent marketing.

The audience of traditional tech, potentially the audience that left during the diversity panel, appeared unfazed by the irony of ShareRoot’s presentation.

Oakland Local reached out to ShareRoot to clarify the goal of their company and to discuss the problematic nature of using sexist and racist advertisements to market a company that is against sexist and racist advertising.

Though Abelson understands ShareRoot’s vision may be viewed skeptically, he insists the company wants to make brands more sensitive to consumers and give consumers a better way to express themselves to corporations. ShareRoot plans to create a messaging app between companies and consumers, including image-tagging contests, which Abelson believes could act as a first line of defense against culturally-insensitive taglines.

“If you have 500 more eyeballs on that, you’ve got to assume a subsection will take a few seconds to breeze through it, interpret in a way they think a lot of people will, and share their thoughts on it,” Abelson said.

Admittedly, ShareRoot’s presentation was flawed in part due to the same lack-of-eyeballs problem, and their tiny company could benefit from more diversity.

“I get that. I think there’s room for improvement. We’re not predominately white male, but it’s the largest subgroup. We have the ability and responsibility to balance that out more.”

Abelson ended our discussion noting the need for more constructive conversation and diverse viewpoints. “It can’t be talked about enough,” he said. And on that, we can all agree.

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