Startups, food trucks and spoken word intertwined as hundreds of people gathered to celebrate local innovation. No, this wasn't another San Francisco pitch event, it was Oakland's Indie Awards, designed to celebrate businesses and artists that have built a prosperous and unique local economy. Oakland ranks a solid ten steps ahead of New York City on Forbes's top 100 best places for business and careers.
When I set out to start my social enterprise in 2011, I chose to base it in Oakland. Oakland is quickly becoming a hub for startups, ranking eighth in the nation for food manufacturing companies and eleventh for tech startups. But whether you're in the business of food, tech, social or whatever, there are four underlying reasons that draw business-savvy "Warriors" to Oakland in search of success. Let's call them the Oakland A's:
1. Arts (& Culture)
Described as having "homely sister status" compared to the shiny city of San Francisco, buzz words like "gritty" and "countercultural" seem to pop up often in conversations about Oakland. But what it really comes down to is diversity. Oakland is a city of contrasts, boasting nationally renowned sports teams and artists alongside a hefty dose of urban reality. What better environment to incite creativity and urgency in entrepreneurs?
If startups and small businesses are truly going to make the world a better place, they must have roots that resonate that mission. And if any city promotes a culture focused on the triple bottom line, it's Oakland. Centuries of continuous immigration to the city, amidst the Gold Rush, the Transcontinental Railroad and the opening of the Port of Oakland have guaranteed a city diverse in race, ethnicity and culture and thus rich in needs, ideas, and creative solutions. Consistently ranked among the most sustainable cities, Oakland lures green-minded, solution-driven startups that fit in with the city's eco conscious culture. And as the recent unofficial headquarters of the Occupy movement, Oakland is inevitably replete with innovators who hold high standards of fairness, transparency and social good. The triple bottom line that Oakland upholds makes burgeoning Oakland businesses a triple threat.
Read: experts, advisors, and eager interns. The proximity to renowned universities like UC Berkeley, UCSF and Stanford provide an endless amount of opportunity to young entrepreneurs looking for words of wisdom, academic expertise and a motivated (cheap) workforce. When my startup Kuli Kuli needed legal advice, we turned to UC Berkeley's free startup law clinic where young law students and wise professors gave us thousands of dollars worth of pro-bono assistance. Every summer we receive a deluge of applications from highly-qualified and passionate students from UC Berkeley and Stanford interested in dipping their toes into the startup food scene.
The vast amount of resources for entrepreneurs in this area is astounding. If I chose, I could attend a panel or networking event almost any night of the week that would teach me something new and introduce me to someone interesting. When starting a business in Oakland, the networkability and hand-holding feeling you had as a college student don't feel quite so distant.
The Bay Area is known for outstanding public transport, and most will agree that Oakland is a favorable hub. With consistent ferries and BART trains into SF, the commute is easy and almost enjoyable if you can snag a seat. By car, if you can evade traffic, you can end up just about anywhere in 30 minutes time. Proximity to the 880 allows for the ease of getting to any part of the Bay Area for business. Yes, even those from the Silicon Valley of the South Bay hella love Oakland. Their techie busses make the 880 trek, as many employees prefer to work in the valley by day, but live the East Bay lifestyle by night.
The City of Oakland itself is determined to make the resources of the Bay Area accessible to entrepreneurs. After quitting my day job in solar finance to plunge into the food world, I found easy assistance and encouragement from Oakland's Economic Development Offices. Regular workshops and networking events have made integrating into the food world a breeze.
Relatively speaking, Oakland is one of the more affordable options in the area. To encourage business development, Oakland offers several tax breaks, incentives and refunds to small startup companies. Resource centers like the Impact Hub Oakland provide reasonable rates for coworking and networking. Impact Hub Oakland even recently became the first Hub of over 60 locations in the world to start a Youth Hub dedicated to empowering young entrepreneurs. And guidance from business plan development to funding is available from numerous nonprofits, such as Inner City Advisors.
Oakland locals prefer the scene for its diversity, creativity and community culture. Citing better weather and friendlier neighbors, it's a community that's bound to draw more down to earth and up for anything innovators. As startups strive to be the next Pandora or Sungevity, the city is behind us. Like an entrepreneur, Oakland is striving to grow and excel in the real world. And when the big ideas and community's resources aren't quite enough, we roll up our sleeves, work hard, and seek inspiration from diversity and creativity.
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