From Alley to Beach, L.A. channels Silicon Valley

LOS ANGELES — On the long drive back from Google headquarters last summer, Oscar Menjivar and 15 of his students from South Los Angeles brainstormed on how they could apply Silicon Valley’s assets to their own community.

They came up with a clever name for their website — Silicon Alley — and in doing so, branded the neighborhood where they learned to build it. Menjivar, founder of Urban Teens Exploring Technology, or Urban Txt, recounted:

“We were talking about what we wanted to do in South L.A. and the idea just came out of, why can’t we have a Silicon Alley? South L.A. people associate with alleys and everything that goes on there, so why not put a positive spin and call it Silicon Alley? So we gave it that name.”

At Urban Txt’s first hackathon this spring, about 70 teens sharing 23 MacBooks tackled programming, coding, web design and development, data management and social media at www.siliconalleysouthla.com.

The daylong hacking event at Normandie Christian School in South L.A. was only a sample of the vibrant tech scene in Southern California seeking to put itself on the map along with innovators up north.

In fact, a tech-centered event takes place in the L.A. area every two to three days, according to Kevin Winston, founder of DigitalLA, Los Angeles’ largest networking organization of startups and the tech community.

This Wednesday through Saturday, DigitalLA’s second annual Silicon Beach Fest in Santa Monica is expected to attract more than 2,000 entrepreneurs and enthusiasts.

Though not as vast as Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach’s startup entertainment community maintains close ties to Hollywood and Southern California’s landmark movie and media industries.

Other leading types of startups — fashion, e-commerce and advertising-based technology — will also be featured in the Silicon Beach Fest panels and parties.

Winston, an alum of Beverly Hills-based Myspace, explained how the Los Angeles — particularly the three-mile stretch of startups from Santa Monica to Venice — gained its name:

“Silicon Beach is a term that journalists started to use a couple years ago and I know that initially, some people in L.A. said, we don’t have to compare ourselves to Silicon Valley, why call it Silicon Beach? But they couldn’t think of anything else. L.A. Tech doesn’t have the same ring.”

While none threaten Silicon Valley as the center of the tech universe, Silicon Alley, Silicon Beach and other L.A. tech hubs have a chance to carve out a key niche, says Douglas Crets, social strategist and editor for Microsoft’s BizSpark program. BizSpark has given tens of thousands of dollars worth of software to startups around the world since 2008.

Crets told SFBay the emergence of Silicon Valley was a singular event likely not to be repeated:

“There’s something very special about Silicon Valley that cannot be duplicated anywhere else. But I don’t think it’s ever been true that Silicon Valley wants to keep that all to itself. I think there’s a spirit of innovation and collaboration that they would want to see success duplicated elsewhere.”

L.A. may not boast the vast tech community and tradition of Silicon Valley, but it has drawn five major accelerators investing big bucks on startups, Winston told SFBay:

“Venture capitalists from San Francisco have been moving down or spending people down because there are different startups here. The L.A. tech scene’s characteristics are more consumer-friendly. We have celebrities like Kim Kardashian with (e-commerce site) ShoeDazzle.”

Forbes contributor Tara Brown and a couple of her colleagues created a ‘Represent LA’ map that pinpoints 744 local startups, 30 incubators, 16 accelerators and counting.

L.A. tech community members like Joe Conte, senior organizer for the community building software startup NationBuilder, have faith in the area’s potential to become a major tech hub. He said during Urban Txt’s hackathon:

“There are a bunch of tech companies who have chosen to be based out of Los Angeles, including our investor. I see great things here in the future – especially since we can forge partnerships with Hollywood and the entertainment industry.”

A big disparity remains, though.

Silicon Beach may be affluent, but represents just a sliver of Los Angeles. In South L.A., crime rates remain high.

For Urban Txt’s 35-year-old Menjivar, who attended Jordan High School in Watts, technology is the equalizer in the 21st century. The independent tech consultant told SFBay a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality can actually help young people succeed:

“Growing up in Watts, I always felt I had two options. Either I hustled to survive or became a victim to the streets. One of my friends got shot and killed and another one is in jail serving a life term. It happened in the 90s and it’s happening now in the 21st Century, so I thought this inequality of opportunity was unjust.”

After seeing his alma mater’s computer classes still limited to typing, Menjivar created Urban Txt three summers ago to encourage inner city teen males to make positive choices.

Urban Txt offers a free, 15-week intensive information technology summer academy at the University of Southern California, as well as Saturday courses for teens. Shadowing opportunities in Silicon Beach are in the works.

This summer, Menjivar aims to take more Urban Txt students to Silicon Valley in a bus instead of a van. In addition to a tour at Google headquarters, he hopes to bring them to Facebook and organize a panel with a few startups.

Silicon Alley could engage South L.A. residents with jobs at startups geared toward closing the gap with higher income communities, Menjivar said.

An Urban Txt participant, 13-year-old Kevin McCurchin of Gardena, said last year’s trip to Google made him wish South L.A. were more like Silicon Valley, and that start-up tech companies in alleys and run-down spaces could combat unemployment:

“I think we can be like Silicon Valley, starting with the people. If we’re willing to learn more technology and productive things, South L.A. can become a better place.”