Zendesk Hailed As Model of High Tech's Civic InvolvementDecember 28, 2013
by Kevin Fagan
Lex Topher spooned in rice and beans at the Episcopal Sanctuary shelter before he stopped to think about who had just served him that chow. He peered at the counter, and there, with hairnets on, were four young women. They looked like techies in clean jeans and nice tops, or what passes for business casual in the computer world.
"I'll be darned," he said, as his tablemates speculated on where the crew was from. He walked up to ask.
"Zendesk," one of the women answered with a smile.
"Fascinating," Topher said back at his table. "Making all that money at a tech company, and they don't even have to be here."
Well, yes and no.
Under a community benefit agreement signed in 2011 by Zendesk, a customer-service software firm helping lead the tech boom on Mid-Market, the company has to perform a checklist of tasks to improve the neighborhood to receive a six-year break from city payroll taxes. This band of Zendeskers was helping to fulfill the obligation.
'Need to connect'
But when it comes to Zendesk, there's something extra involved. Its employees actually seem to enjoy the do-good work.
That's not just them talking, it's city agreement overseers and battle-hardened poverty aid managers who say the Danish company, with 300 workers locally, sets the standard for carrying out a benefit pact.
"Agreement or not, we feel like we are a part of the community and really need to connect with it and help out," said one of the four women serving at the Eighth Street shelter, Tiffany Apczynski, who directs the company's charity efforts. "It's really not a stretch for us."
Zendesk was the first company to apply for a community benefit agreement when the city began offering them in 2011 to lure Twitter and other tech titans to the long-downtrodden Mid-Market area. The firm settled in at Sixth and Market streets, common ground for drug deals, bottom-end residential hotels and other byproducts of poverty.
It has been an eye-opening ride.
Seeing Tenderloin's Need
On their three-block stroll from their office to the shelter the other day, the Zendesk volunteers passed three open-air crack and heroin deals, several discarded hypodermic needles and condoms, and a dozen homeless people hawking junk or hanging out. One middle-aged man wore no pants, lay in a pool of his urine and grimaced at the women.
"It's not like you walk by anyone with blinders on," Apczynski, 37, said as she stepped past the grimacer.
"Well, sometimes you have to," chimed in Paige Bayless, a 25-year-old Zendesk finance specialist. "This kind of thing can still be pretty shocking. But it does bring home the need and why we need to help out."
Under Zendesk's agreement for 2013, it is supposed carry out 22 categories of outreach and uplift. Those include assisting students in area schools, helping develop the Tenderloin Tech Lab for low-income users, and using Mid-Market caterers and restaurants for at least 40 percent of its events.
Similar benefit pacts were signed this year by five other tech companies with payrolls of more than $1 million to get the tax exemption. Last year, the agreement saved Zendesk $217,000 in payroll taxes.
Skepticism over benefits
Although city managers say all but one of the six tech firms are on track for fulfilling their obligations - 21Tech withdrew from its deal - the benefit plan is not drawing unanimous cheers.
Supervisor John Avalos and others have said the agreements are so loosely worded that it's impossible at times to tell whether the companies are complying with the intent of the concept.
"So far, I haven't seen that the CBAs (community benefit agreements) overall are as strong as they should be," Avalos said. "The outcry we hear about the Market Street economy is that the businesses doing well there aren't paying their fair share, and I think people expect more.
"There needs to be an enforcement mechanism to make sure a CBA is followed through correctly, that they are stronger with lots of community input," Avalos said. "We really should hold forth a high standard."
Co-founder sets example
Zendesk, however, has managed to avoid direct public hits. The city administrator's office, which oversees the agreements, calls Zendesk "a model" for them.
"Zendesk really does ingrain in its employees being part of the community and not just staying in the office," said Bill Barnes, a spokesman for the city administrator.
At least part of that ethic comes from Mikkel Svane, who co-founded Zendesk in 2007 in Denmark to put some chill-out Zen into the frenetic craft of customer service. He now lives and works in San Francisco, where the company's laid-back offices feature the usual kitchen with salads and beer along with meeting rooms sporting esoteric names like "herb" and "pen."
"We could all just be sitting in our rooms drinking tea and writing code, I suppose," Svane said as he joined a half-dozen Zendeskers who tutor students in reading at the Tenderloin Community School. "But if our workers do this, they become richer in understanding life. They open their eyes."
Tenderloin school Principal Julie Norris called Zendesk's tutoring "awesome."
"There was some real concern around here when the techies all arrived that they wouldn't fit in, but I find they are reaching out," she said. "It's really fantastic to see."
During 2013, Zendesk hosted career panels for dozens of underprivileged college and high school students, and donated 10 hand-built rocking horses and 150 toiletry kits to homeless programs. Employees logged 1,400 hours of volunteer service at nonprofit organizations including the Tenderloin Tech Lab and Glide Memorial Church.
The company and its employees also made donations including $142,000 to the St. Anthony Foundation Free Medical Clinic and $10,000 to the Tenderloin Community School's garden. It hired Episcopal Community Services Chefs, which trains homeless people in food service, for $5,000 worth of catering.
Erica Kisch, executive director of the homeless aid center Compass Family Services, said Zendesk is helping to streamline the nonprofit's hot line for help, which has been overwhelmed frequently this winter.
"Contributing to the community is the ethical, morally right thing to do, and it's in everybody's interest," Kisch said. "With Zendesk, they really do want to get involved and to contribute - and not just to follow the letter of the community benefit agreement.
"It really is just who they are."