Why can’t LA keep its tech and engineering grads?

This event took place on:
Wednesday, May 27, 7 - 9pm


For May’s AT30 event, AirTalk host Larry Mantle and his guests convened at Cross Campus on Wednesday, May 27 for KPCC’s “The state of Silicon Beach and tech in Los Angeles” to discuss L.A.’s homegrown tech hub in the form of Silicon Beach, an area that encompasses Culver City to Santa Monica, that has seen an explosion of new startups and venture capital activities. Panelists included James Briggs, Tracy Thrower Conyers, Chad DePue, Cyndi Hench, Kara Nortman, Scott Perry, and Ashish Soni.

“If you live in L.A., you take L.A. for granted. If you live outside of L.A., you take L.A. for granted.” –Scott Perry, founder of L.A. Tech Digest

Southern California graduates more engineering students than any other city in the country. Still, despite some big successes, the L.A. area has struggled to keep top talent in the area. What’s holding it back?

Airtalk host Larry Mantle convened a panel of guests at Cross Campus, a 14,000 square foot coworking and office space in the center of Silicon Beach. which includes the area from Culver City to Santa Monica where L.A. has been working to cultivate its own homegrown tech hub. The site has seen an explosion of new startups and venture capital firms in recent years.

Once a city completely disregarded and avoided by engineers because of a perceived lack of opportunities, Los Angeles is now home to a critical mass of start-ups: more than 1,000 companies, according to Represent L.A., which maps area tech companies.

Heavyweights Tinder, Snapchat, and Whisper have chosen Silicon Beach as their epicenter. Along with them, perceptions of the Southern California tech environment have been rapidly changing.

“In the last few years, things have felt different in Silicon Beach,” said Kara Nortman, partner at Upfront Ventures. “Now we have IPOs, permanent sources of funding, and mentorship” here in Los Angeles, qualities widely thought to be unique to the engineering ecosystem of Silicon Valley

So what’s behind L.A.’s newfound success in attracting tech talent? Wednesday’s panelists mentioned a few key factors:

  • A unparalleled quality of life. “Angelenos value quality of life. That’s central to the Silicon Beach lifestyle and very different from Silicon Valley,” notes Perry when asked reasons why one would choose to move to Silicon Beach.
  • A diverse, multicultural community of potential customers and colleagues that can serve as a stand-in for a national or global set of users.
  • A school that not only churns out engineering degrees, but provides students seed money. USC is the only school in the country that provides financial support for its students’ startups, said Ashish Soni, Founding Director of the Viterbi Student Institute for Innovation (VSi2) at the University of Southern California.
  • A supportive political administration. The panelists heaped praise upon Mayor Eric Garcetti, calling him one of the most tech-friendly mayors. “I’ve never seen a city government as tech-friendly as his,” said Scott Perry, founder of L.A. Tech Digest.
  • A growing and tightly-knit community of tech talent. Wednesday’s panelists agreed that Silicon Beach’s collaborative, supportive environment should be an ideal community for engineers. “We want to help each other down here. With jobs in San Francisco, you have to be looking over your shoulder for fear of someone poaching your job. Here, the issue is retaining talent,” Nortman said.

Still, Silicon Beach still faces huge hurdles in its quest to compete with Silicon Valley. Its biggest obstacle has been in retaining its engineering talent. So what’re the problems it faces?

  • Status: Engineers in the Bay Area have more social clout than their colleagues in Los Angeles.“Every ecosystem has a dominant culture,” said Soni. “L.A.’s is a creative culture. But engineers want to work for companies that value engineering.” Social capital and clout— might mean a lot more to talent, enough even to keep them up in an area that they know encourages their presence and proliferation.  
  • A critical mass of tech talent. “The density of engineers matters when building a startup culture. It impacts the community and it impacts how you’re rewarded,” said USC’s Soni.
  • History. San Francisco has had a 50 year head start on Silicon Beach. And with L.A.’s retention rate issues, it seems that while Silicon Beach should be a big draw for engineers, they might need a little more convincing before we see an explosion in growth.
  • Rising costs and community frustration. Since 2012, the cost per square inch in Venice has jumped from $600 to $1,100. Briabe Mobile CEO James Briggs said that larger companies like Snapchat can afford the bumps in rent that average people and small business owners simply cannot, and that’s breeding some frustration among Venice renters and businesses.

One last factor was universally agreed upon. An audience member’s question was greeted with unanimous assent from panelists and audience: “We are the creative capital. Can we please come up with a better name than ‘Silicon Beach’?”

Are there other factors you think are critical to keeping engineering grads in Southern California? Let us know in the comments!

Larry Mantle - Host of AirTalk

James Briggs - CEO of Briabe Mobile

Tracy Thrower Conyers - Founder, Silicon Beach Properties at Coldwell Banker

Chad DePue - Chief Technology Officer, Whisper

Cyndi Hench - President, Neighborhood Council of Westchester / Playa Vista / Playa Del Rey

Kara Nortman - Partner, Upfront Ventures

Scott Perry - Founder, LA Tech Digest

Ashish Soni - Founding Director of the Viterbi Student Institute for Innovation (VSi2) at the University of Southern California

This event was part of the AirTalk 30th anniversary tour. 

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