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It’s a blisteringly hot afternoon as high school students stream out of the Diego Rivera Learning Complex in South Central Los Angeles. What these teens don’t yet know is that a brief walk down the alley behind their bus stops at Central and 60th, there’s an oasis of air conditioning and state of the art gaming equipment waiting for them – SoLa Impact’s Tech and Entrepreneurship Center, sponsored by Riot Games.
The minute the gates on E. 61st street open, it’s easy to forget the clutter and chaos of South Central’s industrial alleys as the clatter of nearby recycling shops fades. But it’s not always this quiet at the Beehive, according to SoLa’s chief impact officer Sherri Francois and director of partnerships Daniel Rosove.
The facility had its grand opening Aug. 11, welcoming in 200 people to explore the campus and learn about SoLa Impact’s various programs, which are run through its nonprofit I CAN Foundation. The next round of programs begins Sept. 11, 2022. There’s a one-time annual $25 membership fee, which includes unlimited access to the Tech Center and its gaming lab. The I CAN Foundation also offers scholarships, and recently helped send 25 students to college this fall.
SoLa’s mission is to bridge the digital divide between the greater L.A. tech economy and its minority population. Its mantra, Francois said, is “if you can see it, you can be it.” Those words are in several places in the Tech Center to remind the students (ages 8-18) who come through the doors of their potential, including a mural and desktop wallpapers in the center’s sparkling new computer lab.
“South L.A. is a tech desert,” Francois told dot.LA. “Less than half our service population have computers in their homes, [and] the majority of our local schools lack any type of technology programming, or tech enrichment… the access to technology training is dismal.”
Riot Games recently stepped up and donated $2 million to help launch the center. Its co-founder and president Marc Merrill also donated funds. Other local sponsors include Snap Inc., which also ran a Snap Summit to teach students about mixed-reality, the L.A. Kings, the L.A. Rams, LiveNation and its CEO Michael Rapino. Additional donors include Oprah Winfrey, NWA’s Arabian Prince, and mayor Eric Garcetti’s Angeleno Connectivity Trust.
“What drew us to SoLa was this was a neighborhood for the kid to kind of come in and see what is possible,” Riot Games’ director of social impact Jeffrey Burrell told dot.LA.
A minimum of 1,000 students are expected to come through the Tech Center’s doors in its first year.
"SoLa has been one of the most impactful programs I have ever been a part of," J.J. Flores, a 2021 SoLa scholarship recipient and current environmental studies major at USC, told dot.LA via email. "SoLa provides me with yearly care packages, they made a mini-doc to feature my story, and they provide me with an incredible network of people that truly believe in my potential and want to see me succeed."
Flores added, "seeing the entire program evolve into a bigger and better thing by the day... with its new tech and entrepreneurship center, a space for community events... is such an inspirational thing because it shows me that they're doing all this because they truly see the potential that South LA students like me have."
Here’s a look inside the Tech Center—though Francois and Rosove both encouraged people to drop by and see for themselves. “Outside of Riot and Snap, we haven’t been able to tap into the L.A. tech industry,” Francois said. “One of our goals is to establish better partnerships,” she said, adding that most CEO’s haven’t yet come to visit, but she’d welcome a drop-in.
SoLa Tech Center students participate in a workshop building PCs. Credit: SoLa Impact
Don’t mistake the icon for the London Underground logo–Francois and Rosove told me SoLa’s symbology was inspired by a Google Map pin. SoLa’s I CAN nonprofit is part of a larger umbrella of community initiatives including SoLa Impact, which manages 1,500 apartments for low-income residents, and it was the first to utilize the pin logo, Francois said.
Francois’s brick-lined office is nestled into the right corner when you enter, and on the left there’s some administrative offices. Behind the reception desk is a glitzy wall with glass plaques acknowledging the center’s donors. What really catches anyone’s eye is the neon sign above the check-in desk, proudly proclaiming “powered by Riot Games.”
“Absolutely none of this would be possible without Riot,” Francois said.
The computer lab is impressive, with brand-new Macs that would be at home at a visual arts college. Of course, there’s brand-new fiber optic internet, which Rosove said had to be installed from scratch, since the building – and most of South Central L.A. – isn’t wired for high-speed internet. “Most of the internet access is through phones for these folks,” he noted.
An anonymous donor recently contributed 10 3D printers, which will be used in a CAD design program to teach students how to create their own models. On a lab shelf – interspersed with Riot Games memorabilia from its hit “League of Legends” title – Rosove pointed out a couple of freshly printed Easter Island heads ( Moai) made recently by students, giving a big thumbs-up.
Emblazoned in bold colors on the wall dividing the computer lab from the kitchen area is Francois’s mantra, “if you can see it, you can be it.” Heading towards the gaming lab and jam room, there are two walls filled with plaques celebrating SoLa’s 124 scholarship recipients and a tantalizing row of four classic arcade games.
Across from the lab there’s a room for students complete with a green screen and closet retrofitted to be a podcast studio, basically the video production hub. As Francois got her start as a producer for CNN, NBC News and HGTV, it was important for her to have a media room for other people to learn the trade and create a portfolio. “That’s quite a core part of Sherri’s vision of folks have to be really building a personal portfolio as part of their time here,” Rosove said.
Image by Samson Amore
A paradise for music lovers, LiveNation’s donation to SoLa helped fund its music room, which is complete with a sound board and everything needed to hold an open mic night or create a full band, including a drum kit where Rosove admitted he occasionally blows off steam during the workday.
There are tributes to the greats of West Coast hip-hop scattered around the room, including a framed copy of “The Chronic.” Across the hall there is a brand-new mixing studio funded in part by 1500 Sound Academy and N.W.A.’s Arabian Prince, who wanted SoLa to pass on production and DJ skills to a new generation.
LiveNation collaborated with SoLa on a program where students taking a 10-week course worked with its pros to put on its first local youth-led music festival, which was held on Aug. 12 with 15 live acts.
“It's set this great benchmark for what this program could be and what's really great is five of the students are moving on to internships at Live Nation,” Rosove said.
If most students using SoLa’s facilities are accustomed to using their phones to access the internet and game, they’ll be blown away by the tech here. Towards the back of the center there are four gaming chairs and a brand new PS5 and Xbox Series S waiting to be used by eager teens.
Across the way, there are a dozen Oculus headsets in an open space for kids to flail around and experiment in VR. “We piloted an educational software put together through Meta around virtual world building in the spring but didn't quite hit,” Rosove said, noting they’re still working out the kinks.
The darkened, LED-lit cavern in the very back of SoLa’s facility is the real draw. It’s the Riot Games esports center, a scaled-down version of the company’s flagship West L.A. gaming arena.
Soon, it’ll be the home base for SoLa’s student esports team, which will compete in Riot Games titles like “Valorant.”
Part arena, part gaming café, this place is all awesome. In the back there’s a DJ booth and professional-grade voiceover booth nicknamed the SoLa Streaming Studio for students to practice “shoutcasting,” or calling an esports match, and tons of TVs to broadcast the action live. Right before the entrance to the green room is a wall of gaming history collected by Francois, including some consoles younger students might never have seen before (feel old yet, Sega Genesis?).
“I guarantee you, coming out of this Tech Center, at some point, you will see the first World Championships right out of South Central,” Francois said about the esports teams. She joked the gaming content is “the chocolate on the broccoli,” the glitzy fun part that gets kids in the door and then inspires them to learn other skills in the gaming world.
Riot’s branding is all over the esports arena, which could also double as an event space – Francois said SoLa’s eager to work with companies for private events to help keep the lights on.
“I will not forget this, we opened the doors [in January] and the first two kids were middle school students – they turned to each other and one, he said, ‘oh my god, is this for us?’ And the answer is hell yeah, it’s for you,” Rosove said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment from a SoLa scholarship recipient.
According to a Forbes report last April, both the viewership and dollars behind women’s sports at a collegiate and professional level are growing.
In 2022, the first 32 games of the NCAA tournament had record attendance levels, breaking records set back in 2004, and largely driven by the new and rapidly growing women’s NCAA tournament. WNBA openers this year saw a 21% spike in attendance, with some teams including the LA Sparks reporting triple-digit ticket sales growth, about 121% over 2022’s total. In 2023, the average size of an LA Sparks crowd swelled to 10,396 people, up from 4,701 people.
Women make up half the population, but “also 50% of the folks that are walking into the stadium at Dodger Stadium, or your NFL fans are just about 50% women,” noted Erin Storck, a panelist and senior analyst at Los Angeles-based Elysian Park Ventures.
Storck added that in heterosexual households, women generally manage most of the family’s money, giving them huge purchasing power, a potential advantage for female-run leagues. “There's an untapped revenue opportunity,” she noted.
In the soccer world, Los Angeles-based women’s soccer team Angel City FC has put in the work to become a household name, not just in LA County but across the nation. At an LA Tech Week panel hosted by Athlete Strategies about investing in sports, Angel City head of strategy and chief of staff Kari Fleischauer said that years before launching the women’s National Women’s Soccer League team, Angel City FC was pounding the pavement letting people know about the excitement ladies soccer can bring. She noted community is key, and that fostering a sense of engagement and safety at the team’s home venue, BMO stadium (formerly Banc of California Stadium), is one reason fans keep coming back.
Adding free metro rides to BMO stadium and private rooms for nursing fans to breastfeed or fans on the spectrum to avoid sensory overload, were just some of the ways ACFC tried to include its community in the concept of its stadium, Fleischauer said. She noted, though, that roughly 46% of Angel City fans are “straight white dudes hanging out with their bros.”
“Particularly [on] the woman's side, I'd like to think we do a better job of making sure that there's spaces for everyone,” Fleischauer told the audience. “One thing we realize is accessibility is a huge thing.”
L.A. Tech Week has brought venture capitalists, founders and entrepreneurs from around the world to the California coast. With so many tech nerds in one place, it's easy to laugh, joke and reminisce about the future of tech in SoCal.
Here's what people are saying about the fifth day of L.A. Tech Week on social:
#LATechWeek has been on 🔥🔥🔥. Yes the events are super cool at amazing venues. But, I’m blown away by the people. I’ve met so many founders building generative AI companies from the ground up. I’m so bullish on LA right now🥳. LA is for builders #longLA
Thanks @rpnickson 📸 pic.twitter.com/B6rT2jJYIs
— Dr. Kelly O'Brien (@Kvo2013) June 8, 2023
Successful LatinxVC Avanza Summit 2023 in LA! It’s been an amazing few days near the beach w great company. Thank you to our panelists & participants.
Huge thanks to our incredible sponsors SVB, Chavez Family Foundation, Annenberg Foundation, PledgeLA, Fenwick & West, Countsy! pic.twitter.com/oVuGIgFurk
— LatinxVC (@LatinxVCs) June 9, 2023
30+ gaming startups presented at the A16z Speedrun Demo Day in LA yesterday. Great thanks to the @a16zGames team for an awesome day of events! #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/DKq8IFo5QZ
— Grace Zhou (@graceminzhou) June 9, 2023
📣🤩 What’s the buzz? It’s #LATechWeek from @TechstarsLA & @TechstarsHealth joint demo day with the #Techstar HC team where our @fyelabs founder/CEO Suvojit Ghosh mentored both cohorts! #TechStars demo day highlighted 12 amazing emerging #startups in #healthtech #innovation. 🩺 pic.twitter.com/0RXClCtfDQ
— FYELABS (@fyelabs) June 9, 2023
Another successful Coffee On Slauson in the books for #LATechWeek.
Special thanks to the good people at Pledge LA, SVB and @GundersonLaw for the ongoing support and the @findyourhilltop staff for providing the space, eats & vibes. ♻️ pic.twitter.com/51cMDoEn30
— Slauson & Co. (@SlausonAndCo) June 9, 2023
The perfect combo to start #LATechWeek Day 5: pastries, coffee, and great convos with industry founders ✨
Fireside chats with @enriquealle, @wp, and @robynpark pic.twitter.com/booYPdekVV
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Of course @designerfund has the most amazing pastries at their event. #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/PjyWlGTQI4
— Jesse Pickard (@jessepickard) June 9, 2023
My favorite event from @Techweek_ has to be "Modern Storytelling & Business Building." Hosted by @STHoward #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/SV1eexMJ4k
— JonnyZeller (@JonnyZeller) June 9, 2023
And the finale of the night was courtesy of the one and only @zedd for an unforgettable end to the "City of Games" party! Hosted by @a16zGames and @100Thieves #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/hliI9yLKse
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Excited to be at the @a16zGames Speedrun Demo Day! Loved the energy and excitement from the companies that pitched there. It was also great to see @Tocelot and @ndrewlee at this amazing #LATechWeek event pic.twitter.com/NfLQO5lR27
— Andy Lee | andypwlee.bit (@andypwlee) June 9, 2023
Thank you to everyone who joined the Sony Venture Fund US team at #LATechWeek for our screening of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Last summer, we started building a presence in LA. Today, it's exciting to host such an event with the @Sony family and the LA VC community. pic.twitter.com/wdDm6qtHdL
— Sony Innovation Fund (@Sony_Innov_Fund) June 9, 2023
Time to eat, connect and build while @remi_rodney provided the vibes. 🙏🏽#LATechWeek @BuildOnBase @developer_dao @WeAreRazorfish pic.twitter.com/QIPh1gjvoA
— Hola Metaverso-Blockchain & New Web Tech Events 🎪 (@holametaverso) June 9, 2023
@Lux_Capital at #LATechWeek advancing the impossible to inevitable, from..
..defense primes partnering with cutting edge defense tech startups, to..
..hardware x LLMs improving mental health.
From the rich and diverse LA ecosystem stems generational companies: pic.twitter.com/v5S5r8JtbU
— Shahin Farshchi (@Farshchi) June 9, 2023
LA Tech Week has been a blast! Met some amazing creators, founders and investors from all over the world! #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/AAh9JFELhe
— Chris Germano (@netslayer) June 9, 2023
Had such a blast at LA Tech Week and hosting events for @brexHQ
Top highlights were collabing with @pulley on an Emerging Managers / Founder mixer at the @poplco House, rooftop event in Venice, creator panel with @thechangj & proper Korean food with in KTown.
Exhausted is an… pic.twitter.com/mGQnSYGPdg
— Τyler Robinson (@TyyRob3) June 9, 2023
Did you have fun at @sophiaamoruso’s launch party for @trustfundvc? #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/gbrbXRQ9Xx
— Kay (@KaySnels) June 9, 2023
y00tilty in every city with @KaylaLor3n & @cryptochrisg813.
Welcome to the LA @y00tsNFT fam! #LATechWeek #3XP week. pic.twitter.com/6wWKlsTacx
— VanG0xH (@CryptoVanGoghs) June 9, 2023
Really enjoyed #LATechWeek. Here are some observations I made 👇
— s.personal.ai (Suman Kanuganti) (@SumanPersonalAI) June 9, 2023
Thank you @TheKofiAmpadu for including me in #demoday with the latest @a16ztxo cohort! It was a real full circle moment to witness the brilliance of both @ChrisLyons & @ZMuse_ & #PledgeLA very own. She’s why we’re #LongLA 🚀💕 #LAtechweek pic.twitter.com/itkKXMxQRb
— Qiana Qiana! (@Q_i_a_n_a) June 9, 2023
@upfrontvc Gaming Founders Podcast #iLOVELA #LATechWeek @Techweek_ @KatiaAmeri @mucker @fikavc @bonfire_vc @TenOne10 @WatertowerGroup @ganasvc @IAmRobRyan @john_at_stonks @eva_ho @dereknorton pic.twitter.com/LCbaGXCoW7
— Sean Goldfaden (@seangoldfaden) June 9, 2023
Hosts Kevin Zhang, Partner at @upfrontvc, and Eden Chen, CEO of @pragmaplatform, interviewed two special guests from @raidbaseinc Stephen Lim, Co-Founder & Product Director, and Trevor Romleski, Co-Founder & Game Director. 🎙 #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/hxHEAoELZ6
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Kicking off @a16zGames @100Thieves City of Games party at #LATechWeek 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/zQcZedG15f
— Jon Lai (@Tocelot) June 9, 2023
Yesterday at @socinnovation I got to have this AWESOME conversation with @iamwill — musician, producer, technology entrepreneur, and Founder & CEO of https://t.co/D60y1e2JOu #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/KBxK6rXyTG
— Anna Barber (@annawbarber) June 9, 2023
I absolutely love this game. Proud moment for the team @investwithatlas. #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/fPZvKXU7TC
— Tobias Francis (@TobiasFrancis) June 9, 2023
Had a blast at LA Tech Week this year with @brexHQ
From hosting & moderating my first creator panel featuring @BlakeMichael14, to a fun rooftop night in Venice, and to attending some amazing events such as Watertower’s emerging manager panel and a VC/founder tennis tournament pic.twitter.com/udjfmLHE0L
— Jonathan Chang (@thechangj) June 8, 2023
At Lowercarbon Capital’s LA Tech Week event Thursday, the synergy between the region’s aerospace industry and greentech startups was clear.
The event sponsored by Lowercarbon, Climate Draft (and the defunct Silicon Valley Bank’s Climate Technology & Sustainability team) brought together a handful of local startups in Hawthorne not far from LAX, and many of the companies shared DNA with arguably the region’s most famous tech resident: SpaceX.
Here’s a look at the greentech startups that pitched during the Tech Week event, and how they think what they’re building could help solve the climate crisis.
Arbor: Based in El Segundo, this year-old startup is working to convert organic waste into energy and fresh water. At the same time, it also uses biomass carbon removal and storage to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in an attempt to avoid further damaging the earth’s ozone layer. At the Tech Week event Thursday, Arbor CEO Brad Hartwig told a stunned crowd that Arbor aims to remove about five billion tons of organic waste from landfills and turn that into about 6 PWh, or a quarter of the global electricity need, each year. Hartwig is an alumni of SpaceX; he was a manufacturing engineer on the Crew Dragon engines from 2016-2018 and later a flight test engineer at Kitty Hawk.
Antora: Sunnyvale-based Antora Energy was founded in 2017, making it one of the oldest companies on the pitching block during the event. Backed by investors including the National Science Foundation and Los Angeles-based Overture VC, Antora has raised roughly $57 million to date, most recently a $50 million round last February. Chief operating officer Justin Briggs said Antora’s goal is to modernize and popularize thermal energy storage using ultra-hot carbon. Massive heated carbon blocks can give off thermal energy, which Antora’s proprietary batteries then absorb and store as energy. It’s an ambitious goal, but one the world needs at scale to green its energy footprint. According to Briggs, “the biggest challenge is how can we turn back variable intermittent renewable electricity into something that's reliable and on demand, so we can use it to provide energy to everything we need.”
Arc: Hosting the panel was Arc, an electric boating company that’s gained surprising momentum, moving from design to delivering its first e-boats in just two years of existence. Founded in 2021, the company’s already 70 employees strong and has already sold some of its first e-boats to customers willing to pay the luxury price tag, CTO Ryan Cook said Thursday. Cook said that to meet the power needs of a battery-powered speedboat, the Arc team designed the vehicle around the battery pack with the goal of it being competitive with gas boats when compared to range and cost of gas. But on the pricing side, it’s not cheap. Arc’s flagship vessel, the Arc One is expected to cost roughly $300,000. During the panel, Cook compared the boat to being “like an early Tesla Roadster.” To date Arc Boats has raised just over $35 million, according to PitchBook, from investors including Kevin Durant, Will Smith and Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Clarity Technology: Carbon removal startup Clarity is based in LA and was founded by Yale graduate and CEO Glen Meyerowitz last year. Clarity is working to make “gigaton solutions for gigaton problems.” Their aim? To remove up to 2,000 billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere through direct air capture, a process which uses massive fans to move chemicals that capture CO2. But the challenge, Meyerowitz noted in his speech, is doing this at scale in a way that makes an actual dent in the planet’s emissions while also efficiently using the electricity needed to do so. Meyerowitz spent nearly five years working as an engineer for SpaceX in Texas, and added he’s looking to transfer those learnings into Clarity.
Parallel Systems: Based in Downtown LA’s Arts District, this startup is building zero-emission rail vehicles that are capable of long-haul journeys otherwise done by a trucking company. The estimated $700 billion trucking industry, Parallel Systems CEO Matt Soule said, is ripe for an overhaul and could benefit from moving some of its goods off-road to electric railcars. According to Soule, Parallel’s electric battery-powered rail vehicles use 25% of the energy a semi truck uses, and at a competitive cost. Funded in part by a February 2022 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Parallel Systems has raised about $57 million to date. Its most recent venture funding round was a $49 million Series A led by Santa Monica-based VC Anthos Capital. Local VCs including Riot Ventures and Santa Monica-based Embark Ventures are also backers of Parallel.
Terra Talent: Unlike the rest of the startups pitching at the Tech Week event, Terra Talent was focused on building teams rather than technology. Founder Dolly Singh worked at SpaceX, Oculus and Citadel as a headhunter, and now runs Terra, a talent and advisory firm that helps companies recruit top talent in the greentech space. But, she said, she’s concerned that all the work these startups are doing won’t matter unless we very quickly turn around the current trendlines. “Earth will shake us off like and she will do just fine in 10,000 years,” she said. “It’s our way of living, everything we love is actually here on earth… there’s nothing I love on Mars,” adding that she’s hopeful the startups that pitched during the event will be instrumental in making sure the planet stays habitable for a little while longer.