When she moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2008, former Microsoft lead program manager turned serial entrepreneur Tara Tiger Brown was told LA had no startup culture. To prove everyone wrong, she built represent.la, a map that plots the location of the city's startups, accelerators, incubators, co-working spaces, VCs, consulting firms, and hackerspaces.
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As an open-source project, the site is constantly annotated and used by startups and entrepreneurs to find each other. And Brown is looking east; this summer, she's relocating again, this time to Tokyo. PCMag caught up with her in L.A. before she left to talk about social-enterprise digital startups, climate change tech solutions, and whether she's making a map for her move to Japan.
You're a rare person in that you see a socio-economic problem—L.A. tech isolationists, STEAM education, climate change—and decide to launch a tech startup to fix it. Do explain.
(Laughs). Well, growing up in Canada, I was always in some kind of leadership position, and it seemed to come naturally. My dad was an entrepreneur, so I saw him running his businesses, from startup phase onwards, so I was familiar with that.
But, at first, you took a more traditional path. After college at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, you spent eight years at Microsoft as a software program manager. You're even a registered patent holder.
Well yes, I did, and I am—but, on the patent issue, I'm totally the other way now—completely in favor of open source. But after a while, I just got to the point where I was bored being a cog in a wheel; I knew it wasn't my destiny. I started going to the early user-generated tech conferences—various Bar Camps, SXSW—meeting all the early startup founders before they became famous. And I was meeting disruptors that were really thinking about social issues, and talking about tech.
Then you became a parent, and the ills of the world became suddenly more pressing?
It happens. That was a huge shift for me—starting to understand how the education system works [and] really getting more involved in environmental activism and so on.
So, let's cut to you and Los Angeles. In Forbes, you shared your initial misgivings at moving here from San Francisco in 2008. How do you feel, in terms of tech culture, about being here almost a decade later? Do you find yourself defending L.A. to our northern neighbors?
You know, L.A. has really proven itself at this point; it definitely got better at marketing itself, in terms of the tech industry. People don't realize how big L.A. is and how many startups there are now. Until recently, the entertainment industry got all the airplay. Having the pillars of SpaceX, Tesla, Snapchat, and Tinder has made it a lot easier for the outside world to pay attention to L.A.
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Tell us the story behind represent.la
In 2008, I was trying to find out what to do next. I was consulting for Shazam and doing other gigs, trying to decide whether to set up a startup or join one. I found myself at an "unconference" one day and, this is pretty analog, but we made a foam core board with a rough drawing of L.A., putting sticky notes of where things were, including all the different startups.
It was cool; I took a picture of it and posted it on Flickr. But then a few of us got together and started re-plotting it digitally, using Google Maps, and we launched it as an open source project. Five years later, people still continue to publish their startups. We published our code up there; universities started using it, the mayor's office uses it, [and] over 20 other cities replicated it in their areas for startups to find each other.
Like all good open source projects, it has a life of its own now.
Yes. I guess I'd like someone to take it over who wants to maintain it properly—eventually.
So, the map grew and you made your way in L.A., launching LA Makerspace and KitHub. You've done stints on the Advisory Board at YouTube Kids and even worked as Lady Gaga's technical advisor, right?
Actually, I consulted for Lady Gaga's mom at the Born This Way Foundation; they needed a technical lead to get all their digital assets together. I met Cynthia Germanotta—Lady Gaga's mom—through Connie Yowell, when I was involved with the Digital Media Learning Research Hub at UC Irvine. During my time with the foundation, I learned a lot about bullying, and how it is not properly addressed in schools. I've incorporated that knowledge into my work and how I work with kids.
Talking of kids, you recently tweeted about the link between poor air quality and failing school grades. How is your startup KitHub using tech to address this?
I started looking into environmental monitoring a while ago and found there was a severe lack of knowledge about what the air quality data actually means. Plus, it's a real public health crisis. When we set up KitHub, I'd already been working with librarians and other educators around the world, who were asking if we could produce "kits for learning"—like our underwater microphone kit and How To Make A Motorized ArtBot—similar to those we'd developed at the nonprofit I founded, LA Makerspace.
We've also partnered with Safecast for their Air Quality Monitoring kits, so kids can start to understand what's happening around them and, as they grow up, they'll be more aware of it, know what the published "air quality" data actually means, and hopefully do something about climate change as adults.
Before you leave for Tokyo, share your top tips to a tech entrepreneur planning to make it big in L.A.
Contrary to popular belief, L.A. is a friendly town—if you're in tech—and so others in your sector will be a good source of guidance. Startups tend to cluster in geo-specific areas—and many co-locate in co-working offices, at least at first. For example, anything to do with the City of L.A. is in DTLA, near their offices, as are many environmental startups, for that reason too. Little communities are springing up all over. The most important thing it to avoid a long commute. Try and live where you work, or vice versa.
Final question: Have you already started a represent.la style map to guide you in negotiating life in Japan?
Not officially, but I might—to start plotting where my tribe of vegan/tech/hackers/coffee-lovers hang out. Probably at the FabCafe in Shibuya.
Can you say what you'll be doing in Tokyo?
Apart from learning Japanese, I will be focusing on building a technology-driven educational program to bring environmental awareness to schools and afterschool programs.
We'll follow up with you to see how that's going before the year is out. Until then, sayonara.