You Don’t Need to Go to Arizona to Find Silicon Desert

Why Riverside’s Culture of Community Could Make It the Next Palo Alto

cawellnessbugThere’s a place in California far from Silicon Valley where startups are gaining ground. No, I’m not talking about the “Silicon Beach” of Santa Monica and Venice. I’m talking about the Inland Empire, home to a small but determined—and growing—community of startups. Call us the “Silicon Desert.”

While it’s true Arizona has laid claim to that moniker, I would argue that there are many reasons why the Inland Empire is, perhaps, a more natural fit. Many people don’t realize it, but we’re the 13th-largest metropolitan area in the United States. And while real estate costs are rising, rent is still a bargain compared with coastal communities. We border Los Angeles and Orange counties, where there’s a growing pool of venture capital, and we’re home to some very good universities full of smart and talented students with great ideas.

Though the Inland Empire is more traditionally known for its regional warehousing and industrial jobs, higher-paying professional and business service jobs produced a third of all job growth in the area in 2015. According to one study, the IE is the second-fastest growing region in the country for high-tech jobs, beating out Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Our “baby” hub is centered in Riverside. It’s still new and experimental. We have a couple of nonprofit accelerators, Riverside I/O and Riverside ExCITE, that started separately but recently joined forces. Rebeccah Goldware, chief of staff at University of California Riverside, is the accelerator director. These are co-working spaces that also offer training, meet-ups, incubating, and have partnered with the city to figure out how to support local startups, which include Twubs, a Twitter management tool and TextPixel, which creates and snail-mails real photos from texts.

I’m a graphic designer specializing in visual branding and design and for almost two years I co-ran a free monthly branding meet-up at Riverside I/O, bringing in a wide variety of speakers. We grew to about 150 members. Riverside accelerators also support entrepreneurs in residence, including Gunnar Hurtig, a professor at UC Riverside’s Graduate School of Business.

Hurtig’s team includes people developing a range of technologies that aim to improve the health and well-being of communities, including one to match patients and health care providers and another to prevent bacteria from killing grape vines and nut-bearing trees. Another entrepreneur in residence, Jay Goth, is the executive director of InSoCal CONNECT, a nonprofit focused on growing startups. I had the opportunity to meet Jay during a co-presentation I gave for 1 Million Cups Riverside, a forum for pitching tech ideas, and was impressed with his vision.

Unlike Silicon Valley, the Silicon Desert is family friendly. I live about 20 minutes from Riverside in Eastvale, an area that was mainly dairy farms and agriculture until the 1990s. Now it’s a residential melting pot. Nearly a third of the population is Latino, and there are also sizable communities of Asians, African Americans, and a lot of blends. By ethnicity I’m Indian, but I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya and my husband and I are an interracial couple. We feel comfortable raising our children here. Similarly, the tech startup environment here is very friendly and casual. None of my clients have an issue coming to my house for a meeting. People don’t expect you to have an office, and I can be very transparent about how I run my business.

This reminds me of what people used to say about Silicon Valley—that it was an affordable place, a blend of many cultures, and an easy place to live. Now the Inland Empire is that place. Our kids are in the same schools and we see one another at the supermarket and at community events. Work and life flow together in a way that I think well situates us to attract the same kind of energy that fueled Silicon Valley’s boom.

Of course, the Inland Empire is not without its challenges. There are also some pretty conservative business people here, and overall the Inland Empire is not known for being especially accommodating to start-ups, consistently ranking poorly on surveys of all small businesses. That does appear to be changing. The related issues of education and poverty are also a challenge. More than a quarter of all children in the Inland Empire are living in poverty. And nearly half of the region’s adult population has no more than a high school education, versus 39 percent for the rest of Southern California, according to a regional study.

I’m currently working on my masters in Social Impact at Claremont Lincoln University, and the coursework culminates with an action project. If the technology that I’m building succeeds, it will bring affordable branding and design services to nonprofit organizations that are committed to social change. There are so many nonprofits doing great work right here in the Inland Empire, and my goal is to develop this as a model for our Silicon Desert.

Faeda Elliott is the founder and creative director at Insquired, a tech-driven graphic design firm.

This essay is part of a Zócalo Inquiry into what makes a healthy neighborhood, produced in conjunction with the California Wellness Foundation’s Advancing Wellness Poll.
Primary Editor: Sara Catania. Secondary Editor: Lisa Margonelli.
*Photo: Faeda Elliot (center) at a meetup in Riverside with Jermaine Richards (left), co-founder of The Branding Lab, and presenter Zak Nicola/Courtesy of the author.


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