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On Companies and Communities A Paper by WeTransfer



Lots of businesses like to tell you what they believe in. But there is a difference between company values painted (however stylishly) on a wall, and the real challenges of setting—and sticking to—a set of principles that guide your decision-making.

At WeTransfer we think in terms of people first, creativity second and technology third.

Since 2009 we’ve been focused on the long-term, building a business that has empathy at its core. We give away millions of impressions on our homepage every year to the arts. Since moving to Los Angeles we’ve partnered with an organization called ScaleLA, providing mentors to college students who, in turn, mentor high school students and younger. And last year we co-founded Into Action, a nine-day festival that brought together community leaders, artists and activists around issues of social justice and cultural empowerment.

We know these are just first steps. But empathy doesn’t simply apply to our decision-making, our staff and our customers. It’s important that we keep in mind the communities which we call home; that we respect and build relationships with them.



Unfortunately, the majority of big tech companies haven’t approached things in this way. The back-lash to these businesses has been predictable and understandable.


Having made L.A. home when we set up the US office in 2016, we’ve been talking about and thinking through our impact. There are no easy answers because, at its heart, this debate is about what kind of business you want to be and what kind of cities we want to live in.

This book is an attempt to bring these discussions to a wider audience and—taking L.A. as an example—to explore how businesses could and should be working with their local communities. We know we’re far from perfect. We’re constantly learning from the way we take our lofty ideals and put them into action. The hope is that this document can open up a dialogue on these issues and align us with partners and collaborators in our efforts.


Damian Bradfield

President, WeTransfer

L.A. has so many different types of rich culture. Whether it’s art, whether it’s eccentricity, whether it’s the Latino-based communities… all of these different pockets throughout have these individual personalities.

In the early summer of 2018, nine utility poles, gas line covers and manhole covers in San Francisco turned gold. The subversive act of a pair of street artists, the very real conduits of day-to-day city infrastructure were covered in 23-karat gold leaf. The metaphor was hard to miss.

The goal behind the pieces, read an artist’s statement, was, “to explore the idea that the San Francisco Bay Area has become an enclave for the rich—unattainable to all but the most privileged.”

The act was merely the most recent manifestation of the frustration bubbling beneath the surface of the “gilded” capital of the tech economy. Sous chefs and bar doormen, high school teachers and local artists, gentrification’s roll through the City by the Bay has claimed plenty of victims as startup valuations rocket into the billions and real estate prices follow in their wake.

Graphic designer and photographer Erik Schmitt paired with interactive developer Nick Bushman for a projects the duo dub, Gilded Cities

The recent revelation that the Department of Housing and Urban Development considers a household pulling in a six-figure salary “low-income” in San Francisco surprised almost no one who’s spent any time in the city. In his 1990 book City of Quartz Mike Davies introduced the notion of Fortress L.A.: A city of exclusion, elitism, high walls and high security. Today that city is San Francisco.

So how did we get here? A lack of long-term planning, an opportunistic approach to development and little regulation have turned what was one of the most progressive and liberal cities in America into a vacuous and culturally devoid center of finance. The “Big Four” and tech in general talk of ‘creating value’ and ‘developing for future generations.’ But with short-term capital (and short-term ambition) as the key driver of most business models, community is far down on the list of priorities. And yet, the issues of displacement and gentrification are some of the most important topics facing the world today, ones that deserve more study and discussion at all levels.

The Big Four are the four biggest accounting firms in the world

Gentrification’s creep has already begun in L.A. Residents in gentrifying areas like Venice Beach, Boyle Heights, Echo Park and Koreatown stand to lose not only their homes and livelihoods, 
but also the sense of cultural cohesion that has existed in these areas for decades. For Troy Carter, who built up his career in talent management on both coasts before becoming an angel investor, a neighborhood like Culver City serves as a warning sign. “A lot of the people who were in the community for 20-something, 30 years are pushed out because of the rise in prices,” he says. “L.A. has so many different types of rich culture. Whether it’s art, whether it’s eccentricity, whether it’s the Latino-based communities… all of these different pockets throughout have these individual personalities.” The diversity of Los Angeles and its current reputation as one of the most creative cities in the world are some of the major factors that draw businesses here. Preserving some of what makes L.A. unique should be paramount for those of us wanting to continue to do creative work here. After all, it’s what brought us to southern California in the first place.

But how do we do it? Many of the issues and problems that make up the phenomenon of gentrification aren’t typically the purview of corporations. Providing affordable housing for residents, for instance, is more than most companies could take on, even if they wanted to.

Yet there are still a range of things that can be done to help mitigate gentrification, and companies of all sizes can take steps to make positive changes in their own way. The key here is change that is strategic, useful and sustainable, both for the businesses and for the community at large.

The purpose of this document is twofold. We want to discuss the effects gentrification has on community. But we also want to suggest strategies companies can employ to mitigate its effects, and avoid the problems of San Francisco here in L.A.

When a farmers market isn’t enough

Many people use the terms gentrification and revitalization interchangeably. Businesses, in particular, see both these words as ways to describe the improvement of a neighborhood. As a result, many business owners are mystified when their presence in these changing communities invokes vehement opposition. Who would be opposed to improvement in their own neighborhood? Surely a farmers’ market will solve all our problems?!

The difference between gentrification and revitalization can feel subtle if you’re not currently living in a gentrified neighborhood. The Brookings Institution defines gentrification as “the process by which higher income households displace significant numbers of lower income residents of a neighborhood, thus changing the essential character and flavor of the neighborhood.”

The Brookings Institution is an American research group founded in 1916

That process has invoked fierce reaction in some areas of L.A. Anti-gentrification activists in Boyle Heights and Downtown have succeeded in their efforts to close down at least one art gallery and picketed businesses like Weird Wave Coffee, the type of enterprises they perceive as harbingers of gentrification. Detergent attacks during gallery openings, anti-gentrification graffiti and harassment via social media have put owners on edge.

Gentrification’s threat is in disrupting [L.A.’s] alchemy by homogenizing neighborhoods in terms of race, culture and socioeconomic background.

The most hardcore residents, on the other hand, see these protests as the only way to have a voice in the changes happening around them. Locals are aware that the “improvements” being made to their communities are aimed at new, wealthier residents rather than at themselves. The reality is that these new residents will eventually displace them when “improvements” lead to a sharp increase in rents and overall costs. To them, gentrification is not a force of positive change, but a force that will eventually remove them from the place and people that they call home.

The numbers can tell an alarming story. Families displaced by the rising cost of living are at a much higher risk of becoming homeless. The overall homelessness rate in L.A. has gone up by a staggering 75% since 2012 according to a joint study completed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, with elderly and single-parent households most at risk. The majority of this displacement is attributed directly to the surge in rental prices brought on by gentrification. In San Francisco, landlords use legal loopholes and Ellis Act evictions to oust long-term tenants or hike rents to unbearable levels.

With that displacement comes a rending of the cultural fabric of a place. This is one of the hardest aspects of gentrification to quantify, though its long-term effects can be profound. Rising housing costs in New York City pushed artists to outer boroughs before many began upping stakes for places like upstate New York, New Jersey and, in recent years, Los Angeles.

It’s not hard to understand why. L.A.’s cultural diversity stretches across miles of communities made up of varying nationalities, income levels and professional pursuits. Gentrification’s threat is in disrupting this alchemy by homogenizing neighborhoods in terms of race, culture and socioeconomic background.

That process can often be a tumultuous one. Trouble arises when the notion of who “belongs” changes with the neighborhood. Sociologists label this nasty side effect of gentrification, the ‘criminalization’ of a neighborhood. An example of this came last year, when the traditional Caribbean J’ouvert Festival in Brooklyn had a heavy police presence that caused an uproar among long-time locals. “There’s some evidence that 311 and 911 calls are increasing in gentrifying areas,” Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson told The Atlantic. “That makes for a potentially explosive atmosphere with regard to the police.”

In stark contrast, revitalization—at least in theory—takes the existing community into account when making changes. True revitalization is a collaborative effort, where the city’s urban planning department, existing community members and both incoming and long-standing business owners, decide on improvements that can create more equitable change for all involved.

Nonprofits are typically at the vanguard of revitalization efforts. Organizations like LA-Más in L.A. create alternative housing options for low-income residents. They’ve also set up a “knowledge hub” that offers residents access to neighborhood leaders who can help them with issues of tenancy rights and other financial problems that may arise from gentrification. Groups like the Coalition for Responsible Community Development offer programs for youth education and small business development.

So where can companies step in? They can begin by moving beyond surface-level community interaction—the toy brand that hands out toys to lower-income communities at Christmas—into a deeper relationship that places community needs and concerns at the foundation of their involvement.

Why it makes sense

In 1994, the author John Elkington proposed something called a “triple bottom line”. Corporations, he posited, should add on to their profit a second and third key performance indicator of their success: their people and their impact on the environment.

Author John Elkington in 1994 triple bottom line people, planet, profit

Granted, some of the factors that contribute to displacement and gentrification—the wealth gap, housing scarcity—are the domain of government entities. But companies can and should do a better job of understanding their impact on the community: How many people are directly benefiting from the company’s presence, whether through jobs or other social programs? What, if anything, does the company “give back”?

Tech brands, in particular, are often founded on the belief that their technology can be transformative for people and communities. But that core product promise often makes them blind to the subsequent consequences of their actions, says Sebastian Buck the co-founder of enso, a creative agency that helps brands infuse social impact into their makeup. “Yes, Facebook reconnects a bunch of friends. But they got so focused on that first priority for them, they were completely blind to the secondary things: what does it do for privacy, what does it do when we give that data away?” he says. “What does this do when we dominate neighborhoods?”

The last point resonates especially in Northern California, where Facebook, Google and Apple have built massive campuses that cater to their workers’ basic needs (and then some) in an effort to keep them productive and efficient in one place. In the process, the livelihoods of grocers, restaurants, dry cleaners and dentists, to name but a few, are negatively impacted. Mountain View, the home of Google and a new Facebook outpost, in 2014 attempted to counteract this by passing an ordinance barring companies from offering free lunches to their employees. Still, the trend of local stores being replaced by the glossy outposts of national brands has continued, a homogenization of goods, services and prices.

I would love to see more resources that could aggregate opportunities for young, engaged startup employees. Give them an opportunity to not only give back in a meaningful way but to see measurable progress.

The last point resonates especially in Northern California, where Facebook, Google and Apple have built massive campuses that cater to their workers’ basic needs (and then some) in an effort to keep them productive and efficient in one place. In the process, the livelihoods of grocers, restaurants, dry cleaners and dentists, to name but a few, are negatively impacted. Mountain View, the home of Google and a new Facebook outpost, in 2014 attempted to counteract this by passing an ordinance barring companies from offering free lunches to their employees. Still, the trend of local stores being replaced by the glossy outposts of national brands has continued, a homogenization of goods, services and prices.

Contrast that with Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s efforts in Las Vegas. Investing $350m of his own money, Hsieh’s goal was to revitalize Downtown Las Vegas after the 2008 financial crisis. His philosophy: a strong community produced happier workers more likely to be good customer-service providers, his brand’s key business differentiator.

“That recognition that healthy community drives business outcomes is huge and is completely inverse to how the tech companies approach things,” says Buck. “Tony Hsieh designed a process where you interact with as many people as possible.” But what if a company’s bottom line isn’t tied to the health of the community? One of the great challenges of our age is that capital relocates faster than people do. And most entrepreneurs getting their MBAs don’t necessarily have the time or headspace to consider their impact as they’re building their company. That impetus often comes from their employees—those living and working in their communities—as well as the talent those companies are hoping to attract.

An increasing number of brands are realizing that, for those key groups, they need to stand for more than just shareholder returns. Enso recently completed a study in which around 67% of Americans revealed they don’t have strong alignment of values with their company.

The potential and the need to change that is significant. “It feels like we’re going through several distinct phases of community impact or citizenship being built into companies,” says Buck. “The first phase was activists were throwing rocks at companies and so they had to do something. The second phase is customers, and in particular younger customers, are demanding they have substantive impact—not just a Super Bowl ad. The third phase, and by far the most exciting for me, is the intrinsic motion of employees.”

What those employees need most is guidance on where they can make the most impact. Taylor McPartland’s nonprofit ScaleLA offers some alternatives. The nonprofit partners with companies like Google in their mentor2mentor program, which pairs tech mentors with college-age mentors, who in turn mentor kids at the high school level. McPartland says there is a real desire within the tech community to do more volunteering, but confusion as to how. In ScaleLA’s case, he’s pointed them towards events like the annual hackathon they co-host for the county’s Foster Care system. The 72-hour event provides targeted solutions for problems like communication between social workers and foster care parents by building a transparent platform that makes the process more seamless.

“I would love to see more resources that could aggregate opportunities for young, engaged startup employees. Give them an opportunity to not only give back in a meaningful way but to see measurable progress,” says McPartland. “I might do a beach cleanup day because I want to give back and I want to get outside and it feels good. But, the beach is going to get dirty again. And I know that if there was a way I could have an impact I know would have a sustained positive benefit to my community, that would be huge for me.” Initiative that comes from the junior levels is the reality, but it is not nearly enough. For effective partnerships, community leaders say it’s imperative to speak to higher ranking executives. Director level and above—the decision makers, those that 
have the potential to effect change—should be the ones leading the conversation.

They have something unique to contribute. Tech brands inherently attract mindsets hungry to innovate and problem-solve. Those minds should be unleashed on strategies to mitigate the damaging effects of gentrification. But those methods can only work if they’re rooted in a deep understanding of community fears and needs. “You’re probably not going to come up with a stronger solution,” says Buck, “than if you go through the process of building relationships, building sound judgement.”

Strategies for positive change

Where to begin? The purpose of this paper isn’t to place the onus for solving this issue on any one party: nonprofits play their role, as does city government. Portland’s tax increment financing strategy has created hundreds of affordable housing units in desirable neighborhoods, like the Pearl District, since 2006. But there is a unique role that companies can play, leveraging their brain power, their dollars and their employees to be better community members.

We’ve spoken to community organizations, cultural leaders and creatives shaping the social impact of brands and asked them to come up with strategies for companies to consider when they move into L.A. What follows below (and indeed throughout this paper) is a collection of those ideas. One of the key takeaways: smaller commitments that can be sustained over the long term have more impact than grand gestures that disappear within a few months.

Something that is so important in a vibrant creative culture is diversity. Not just in terms of race or gender but what people do, and what they talk about.

Education

One of the clearest opportunities, especially for tech companies moving into areas with low levels of science, tech, engineering and math levels (STEM), is in education.

STEM is often badly lacking in public schools in the US, even in major cities like Los Angeles. Black Girls Code and the David E. Glover Education and Technology Center have stepped in to help fill this void. The advantage here is twofold: the investment is designed to grow the talent pool from which your company can only benefit, and the positive impact is obvious to the community in the short and long-term.

Serving as a partner in solving this problem runs the gamut from smaller companies offering incentives to current employees for mentoring in local schools and nonprofits, to a larger corporation funding a tech program at a local community college. There are other opportunities: coding classes for public school students, scholarship opportunities for state and/or community college students studying in applicable majors and training programs for those interested in switching careers. Helping existing community members train for the kinds of jobs your company offers will allow locals to bridge the income gap so central to the destruction of existing communities.

Sometimes it’s also about recognizing the opportunity to use your know-how to create something of benefit to the surrounding area. When the Federal Communications Commission reversed their ruling on net neutrality in April, WeTransfer partnered with the Community Broadband Project to create a fixed wireless network.

A mesh of routers and antennas outside of WeTransfer’s head-quarters in Venice Beach produced an internet independent of traditional ISPs for local households to access. The Community Broadband Project has since maintained and expanded the network.

High-level community engagement

The kind of blue-sky thinking that creates great business and product ideas can be infectious – but it can also be misapplied. Initiatives that begin in the brains of company boards or directors intended for the communities they inhabit often miss a crucial partner – the communities themselves.

“The process in which it’s executed is the problem,” says Gina Belafonte, co-director of Sankofa, the social justice organization based in New York and L.A. “They don’t look to the community for the solution. They try to just bring up solutions to the community. You need to give them not just buy-in but the feeling that, ‘This is our park, this is not a park that was brought here for us. We designed this park, we were part of the team to work with the architects to design that building.’”

Since arriving in 1998, Annie Philbin has transformed L.A.s’ Hammer Museum into a globally relevant destination for artists and created a hub for the community. Philbin echoes Belafonte’s sentiment, and adds that the current philanthropic landscape of L.A. is there for the shaping. “They shouldn’t just write checks, they should become members and join the boards and really get involved,” she says of companies. “It really could be so much easier, more meaningful and more fun for everyone involved. Working together in partnership would be amazing, as there are very limited corporate sponsorship opportunities in this city and all the institutions are hungry for those relationships.”

Employee engagement

A brand’s strongest ambassadors are the people who work for it. Many of those you hire to work in your offices will be living in the neighborhoods battling with the change brought on by those new residents. Incentivizing employees to get involved in community work or working with local schools can be a way of counteracting this criticism.

The most successful project at the nonprofit i.am.angel in Boyle Heights is a robotics program. Partnering with international nonprofit FIRST Robotics, i.am.angel helps form robotics teams with students, some as young as eight, from local schools in Boyle Heights, Watts and other lower-income communities. Together with mentors from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, 
or HyperLoop, the students build robots, learn to program them and then compete in national robotics events.

“When it comes to youth from inner cities, or lower income communities, the first instinct of parents is to put them into sports,” says i.am.angel’s program director Oscar Salinas. “But realistically, a lot of the kids who play have slim chances to get to a professional level. Every kid who can learn about this sort of tech can become an engineer, can become a coder, can have a great career and come back to the neighborhood if they want. STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts and Math) gives a good pathway for these students to make something of themselves.”

Cultural preservation

Finally, one of the thorniest issues is gentrification’s role in disrupting local culture. The makeup of a place naturally changes when newer, more affluent residents move in. There are no easy solutions to this. Indeed, many would argue that finding solutions is the wrong approach, because the evolution of neighborhood is 
a natural phenomenon.

But as urban planner and born-and-bred Angeleno Sandra Kulli points out, “people don’t fear change, they fear being changed.” So what’s at stake isn’t necessarily the loss of the community but the successful meshing of what came before with what is coming now. Drum circles, mariachi bands, block parties… neighborhoods have histories, they have customs and rituals. Understanding what those are upon entering a new community is perhaps the most important step a company and its new employees can take.

We already know what diversity of thought can do for creativity and innovative thinking within the walls of the company. But companies that look outward and seize upon the rich history 
of the neighborhood can build more meaningful relationships.

There are the surface solutions: investing in local galleries, sponsoring shows, cultural programs and arts organizations. But then there are the less obvious opportunities: maintaining the architectural style of the neighborhood in the design of new office space, including the work of neighborhood artists in company projects, or creative initiatives launched by your brand. “The density of creativity here is extraordinary,” says Philbin, “and to think that moving huge companies here without touting that and embracing that and figuring out ways to weave that into their lives, would be just a lost opportunity.”

Housing & space creation

Maintaining pockets of affordable housing as a neighborhood gentrifies is one of the biggest challenges facing local governments. Companies can help in alleviating this problem. Larger corporations, in particular, often secure housing for out-of-state employees. Setting aside a certain number of affordable housing rentals for the community when purchasing housing for employees is a way in which companies can help even the odds and maintain the social fabric of the neighborhoods they 
inhabit. “Something that is so important in a vibrant creative culture is diversity,” says Philbin. “Not just in terms of race or gender but what people do, and what they talk about. If they really want to plan housing for employees, wouldn’t it be nice if they mix other people—like artists or people who work in different fields into the same building so they’re not just talking and looking at themselves? That makes a neighborhood.”

Philbin’s vision for The Hammer Museum was always as a place for people to get together and mix at everything from lectures to concerts, six nights a week. Reversing the bubble mentality that tech companies so often have of their spaces Philbin says that there is a real opportunity for brands to do something similar. Some have already begun taking these steps. In 2017, Apple began transforming its stores from transactional retail centers into “town squares” where “creative pros” showed locals how to do things like create music tracks, and professional photographers took them on photo walks. The architectural landscape of L.A. can yield inspiration in and of itself. The birthplace of mid-century modern design in the 1940s through 1960s, many of the city’s temples to this era of design are in bad need of refurbishment and attention. There is a great opportunity for companies to engage with and support further some of the local landmarks; The Eames Foundation, MAK center, Fitzpatrick-Leland house or other historical houses designed by Neutra, Lautner and others.

Organizing events that allow an alchemy of backgrounds,
connections and experiences doesn’t just fit the profile of a good neighbor, it can be an argument for innovation as well. “You need to have stuff in there that has nothing to do with you in order to trigger things,” says Philbin. “That’s a basic tenant of creativity: diversity of thinking. Sitting at dinner parties next to people who have nothing to do with the field you’re in can be one of the most enriching experiences you can have. I think the tech industry more than any other industry is known for not mixing it up.”

A new kind of responsibility

When the writer Jonathan Gold died this Summer, he left a 
legacy of rich prose chronicling the city’s diverse food culture. Gold provided us a prism through which to see, understand and experience the rare diversity present here. “I am trying to get people to live in the entire city of L.A.,” he told an interviewer once. “I’m trying to get people to be less afraid of their neighbors.” He also left behind some important truths:

One individual can make a difference to many Food criticism at its best serves as an incubator of talent Los Angeles is better when diversity is championed, not homogenized

We’re often asked who in our company handles corporate responsibility. The answer is everyone. And, truly, that’s what we feel the future will be about.

We’re often asked who in our company handles corporate responsibility. The answer is everyone. And, truly, that’s what we feel the future will be about.

Two major brands—Ben & Jerry’s and Patagonia—have won loyalists across generations not just for the excellent products they produce, but the sustainable and mindful way in which they produce them and how careful they are about thinking of the why of it all. Neither have corporate social responsibility departments. They, of course, don’t want to run the risk of exposing CSR to turbulence should other parts of the business not hit their targets. But, far more vitally, they are founded on—and attract top-notch talent because of—a belief that social responsibility should be on the mind of every employee.

In their annual World Value Index, the creative agency enso polled Americans on the statement, “Businesses can be a force for positive social and environmental challenge.” More than 80% of the respondents believed that to be the case. But any optimism around that fact was tempered by another statistic—only a little over 30% of those polled trusted business leaders to do what’s right.

Gentrification is one of many issues facing our big cities, but it’s one that companies need to be better about addressing and mitigating. This isn’t about finding comfortable ways of appeasing locals for the sake of some positive PR. It’s about being more adept at stemming the turbulence that accompanies change and harnessing it in ways that benefit the community, enrich your own brand and benefit its health in the long term. The opportunity is there and the need has never been more pressing.

THE WETRANSFER WAY


We believe creative thinking is the driving force for humankind.

Our vision is to enable the effortless transfer and transformation of ideas.

Our mission is to bring ideas to life through a collection of beautifully obvious tools.

People first, creativity second, technology third.

Are you with us?


We donate 30% of our ad inventory to support the arts and organizations fighting the world’s biggest issues. What can we do to help you? If we teamed up what could we do together? How does your business balance profit and purpose? What does your business do to support your local community? What could make a real difference in your neighborhood? What’s getting in the way of your business getting involved in local and/or global issues? Which other brands do a great job standing up for the things they believe in? What can we learn from them?

Get in touch to discuss how we can work together. Email: ideas@wetransfer.com

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