The South Park Commons Fills a Hole in the Tech Landscape

The South Park Commons Fills a Hole in the Tech Landscape

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It’s also a way of preparing for the future.

“You get a couple of shots in life to do something meaningful and impactful. Why not take the time to identify that?” Ms. Sanghvi said during a recent conversation inside the Commons, a high-ceilinged space decorated by local artists. “It is very easy to fall into the traps of Silicon Valley — ‘Let’s start a company,’ or ‘Let’s invest’ — without giving it a second thought.”

Founded a little more than 18 months ago, the Commons aims to fill a hole in the tech landscape. Northern California is littered with incubators and accelerators, organizations like Y Combinator and Techstars that help small companies develop and grow. This is something different, a community you can join before you have founded a company or even when you have little interest in founding one.

The Commons is a bit like the hacker spaces that have long thrived in the Valley — places where coders and makers gather to build new software and hardware — but it moves beyond that familiar concept. Its founder, for one thing, is a female engineer turned entrepreneur turned executive.

The group, which includes 25 to 30 people at any given time, is one small piece of the Northern California tech scene, but it arrives at a crucial moment. Silicon Valley is a place in transition, thanks to a shifting economic landscape, the rise of artificial intelligence and other technologies, and new pressure to embrace a more diverse range of people.

Ruchi Sanghvi, the founder of the group, was the first female engineer at Facebook and sold a start-up to Dropbox.

Credit
Jason LeCras for The New York Times

Today’s tech industry also provides an extra degree of economic freedom, said Ms. Sanghvi, whose husband, Aditya Agarwal, also has a long history in Silicon Valley and is now the chief technology officer at Dropbox.

Many tech workers were stuck with their companies for years, waiting for an initial public offering. Now they can easily sell their shares on private markets, and that means they have more opportunity to explore new ventures. At the same time, the path to the next venture is less obvious, as companies shift toward very different types of technology, most notably artificial intelligence, or A.I., which is rapidly changing the way the world builds software.

Increasingly, Silicon Valley is embracing what are called deep neural networks, complex mathematical systems that can learn discrete tasks by analyzing vast amounts of data. These have become an enormously effective way of recognizing objects in images, and words spoken into smartphones, but they also find uses in fields including security, health care and robotics.

The rub is that the talent needed to build and deploy these techniques is scarce, so much so that the likes of Google and Facebook are running classes to educate their employees in this new way of doing things. The Commons provides both a physical and a social environment where others can learn in similar ways.

Ms. Sanghvi recruits people to the Commons solely by word of mouth, and they join merely by showing up and contributing a few hundred dollars in dues, to pay for items like coffee, snacks and paper towels and to fund regular events at the townhouse.

When Cinjon Resnick arrived at the Commons last year after moving to San Francisco from New York, it was already cultivating an interest in neural networks and other A.I. techniques. He was among those who spent several months exploring the field, reading and discussing the latest research papers, and organizing lectures and workshops at the Commons.

Many groups strive for this dynamic of exploration and dialogue, but for Mr. Resnick, the Commons succeeded. “It’s a loosely structured place where people can come and form ideas,” he said during a recent interview. “It’s what we all wanted.”

Eventually, Mr. Resnick landed a residency at Google Brain, Google’s central artificial intelligence lab. Three others joined OpenAI, a competing lab founded by Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk.

Virtual reality, biotechnology and other new movements may drive similar changes across the Valley, and the Commons is built to embrace it all; Ms. Sanghvi and others recruit members precisely because they are different. While Mr. Resnick and others explored A.I., David Kosslyn and Ian Thompson worked with virtual reality. Nikil Viswanathan and Joseph Lau built the meeting app Down to Lunch. Kanjun Qiu built a recruiting company, Sourceress.

From left, Andrew Hsu, Anurag Goel and Connor Zwick working on an idea at the group’s headquarters.

Credit
Jason LeCras for The New York Times

But this arrangement has other byproducts. Ms. Qiu is one of three female founders who have emerged from the Commons. Though Ms. Sanghvi said the organization still needed more women, her presence and the group dynamic are at least a step toward that future.

“This is collaborative learning,” said Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who studies how social environments affect career paths, particularly in science and technology. “That can feel more satisfying for women in a culture like Silicon Valley.”

Mr. Resnick and other alumni of the Commons say this vibe exists because Ms. Sanghvi takes such a strong hand in guiding her creation. With a style both endearing and remarkably direct, she runs the community the way a good parent raises a child.

She pays for the townhouse, giving the group a place to meet and work each day, and she lays down the rules. She demands regular lunches, dinners and other events, like the early lecture on A.I. from a Silicon Valley veteran, Keith Adams, who is the chief architect of Slack, or a recent presentation from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the charitable organization started by Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan.

“Events give you an excuse to talk to each other,” Ms. Sanghvi said. “They make you feel like you’re working on something together.”

But she also sets limits. Anyone who builds a company that grows to more than five people graduates. She does not want the Commons to become just another accelerator.

The trick lies in keeping the current vibe going and, better yet, mimicking its approach across the Valley. For the Commons, that means more independence from Ms. Sanghvi, a way for the group to attract members and raise funds on its own.

Ms. Sanghvi said she might find a way to get the Commons a tiny percentage of any start-up that emerged from the townhouse or she might seek sponsorship from big businesses or nonprofits.

That may or may not change the Commons. But Ms. Sanghvi is intent on ensuring that the vibe remains. “I don’t want this to be something that lasts for three years and disappears,” she said.

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