In 2012, Rackspace chairman Graham Weston told Fast Company he would measure the success of San Antonio’s new tech ecosystem ten years after the launch of Geekdom, a coworking space where entrepreneurs could do more than just park themselves at a desk. They could collaborate with other businesses going through the same kinds of growing pains. San Antonio is now five years into Weston’s vision of creating a tech hub. How is it doing?
At a recent Enlightened Speakers’ Series event, three key figures in the San Antonio tech renaissance provided their assessments. Lorenzo Gomez III, the CEO of Geekdom; David Heard, the co-founder and CEO of Tech Bloc; and Kelly Flieger, the principal of a new high school called CAST Tech — the Center for Applied Science and Technology — all said the city has made big strides over the past five years, but still has a way to go.
Growing San Antonio’s Tech Industry
Gomez said the city has had an image problem for a long time: it has not been viewed as a technology city. He said Graham Weston wondered how to create an atmosphere that would make tech workers want to come to San Antonio — and stay there. To address the issue, Weston started three organizations five years ago:
- The 80/20 Foundation, which issues grants to nonprofits in STEM education and entrepreneurship who want to office downtown.
- Geekdom, the coworking arrangement Gomez called the epicenter of tech development, and which he explains to his mother as a “YMCA for geeks.” Geekdom has close to 1,400 members who pay $50 a month to participate.
- Weston Urban, a real estate development firm that is doing the downtown development. Gomez said their work will “break the skyline for the first time in 25 years.”
An economic impact report prepared by Geekdom says the organization’s participating companies are making progress. They’ve raised $68.8 million over the past five years, and generated combined revenues of $35.7 million. In the same time, the companies have created 658 jobs, and they expect to add 112 more over the first two quarters of this year. The salaries in tech further highlight the industry’s importance: the report says Geekdom companies pay a median salary of $65,000, while the median salary in San Antonio is just $46,300.
Rebranding A Tech City
Part of the problem facing San Antonio is its image. It’s the Alamo, the Riverwalk and shopping at La Cantera, Gomez said. It’s not a technology hub, at least in the eyes of tech workers in other cities. But that’s changing. “San Antonio does have things for young, single people to do and it has an up and coming tech scene,” Gomez said.
Heard said branding the city as a tech hub is important. His organization, Tech Bloc, provides a voice for the tech community in San Antonio and guides the city to a tech economy. He pointed out that tech workers decide where to relocate based on lifestyle, not just salary. That can be a problem, because the tech industry is not known for being connected to the political environment. That’s why Uber left San Antonio, he said, because the city council made the decision to implement new regulations on background checks and insurance fees without input from tech, and that makes it harder to lure young tech workers to town.
“Building a tech career in San Antonio is not an obvious choice,” Heard said. “Anything that makes that harder is increasing the weight of the rock we are pushing up the hill.”
To overcome its image problem, Heard said San Antonio faces three challenges, and talent is still the first. He cited the city’s drop from 40th to 45th place this year in one real estate group’s annual ranking of tech talent in U.S. cities. “We dropped because every city is working to grow their tech economy,” he said. “Cities like Nashville and Oklahoma City are doing impressive things, and even old rustbelt cities like Cleveland are investing in their tech economy.”
The second challenge is creating an environment those young tech workers want to be part of. In a ranking of 50 cities by percentage of the population made up of young creatives, Heard said, San Antonio ranks 48th. “We need density and a zone where they can live, work and play in the same area,” he continued. “We need a more walkable, urban downtown with green spaces and opportunities for young people to connect.”
The third challenge is education. Heard showed a chart correlating the amount of education with pay, revealing that San Antonio ranks 126th in per capita income in the U.S. “We are in the zone that includes Orlando and Las Vegas — vacation towns with tourists,” he said. “We need to do better, and the growth of the tech economy is one of the best ways to do that.”
Education To Support Tech Growth
That’s where Kelly Flieger, principal of the new CAST high school, comes in. CAST is the first career-oriented high school in San Antonio, and opens in the fall with 150 ninth graders. Flieger said there will ultimately be seven high schools. The second is planned for Southwest ISD and will be an integrated, applied manufacturing and logistics partnership with Palo Alto College.
“You cannot continue to educate children in the same way and expect a different outcome,” Flieger said. Her mission is to transform education, and she plans to do it through a curriculum of project-based education. The projects, which students work on in teams, simulate the work environment in the real world, and students define their roles and responsibilities. They can even “fire” group members who fall behind or don’t pull their own weight.
“Imagine being in ninth grade and hearing a local business partner say, ‘We have so much confidence in your capacity and what you know that we want you to work on something that’s relevant to us.’ That’s a game changer,” Flieger said. The school will be located only 12 minutes from Geekdom to provide students better internship and job shadowing opportunities and experience in downtown San Antonio.
“You will not see desks and you will not see rows of chairs,” Flieger said. “They do not exist in this facility.” Instead, the new school will feature student collaboration areas because CAST’s partners — HEB and Tech Bloc — say it’s important that students learn to work together. Students will be on a first name basis with their teachers, because they need to learn to speak like adults and have the mindset of project managers.
Flieger said students who study at CAST will have a world class education, and technology-supported, personalized learning will be an important part of that curriculum. Flieger said students can work on what interests them and at their own pace. “When you deliver education through a technology platform, all the students in the room are doing something different,” she said.
Teachers can pull up a student’s dashboard and see what they know and where they are having trouble. For example, if 75 percent of the school’s ninth graders are reading at grade level, technological tools can target the other 25 percent and, by offering individualized instruction, bring them up.
“Our goal is to push students into information technology fields,” Flieger said. “It will have a direct impact on what we want to see in our downtown corridor.”
Heard said that kind of education is the reason he is involved with Tech Bloc. “I do it because of my kids,” he said. “My hope is my children will go off to college, see the world, then come back to San Antonio. I want them to come back because this is where the action is, not because they want to be close to Dad.”
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