Zendesk Opens Its Doors To NeighborhoodJuly 09, 2014
San Francisco Chronicle
by Kristen V. Brown
With pressure mounting on San Francisco tech firms to give back, many a Mid-Market company has reached out to the community.
Zendesk, though, is inviting the community in.
Last month, the cloud customer service company expanded into the old Eastern Outfitting Co. building at Sixth and Market streets, tripling its space in San Francisco. Now it hopes its new 73,000-square-foot headquarters will double as a place where members of the community can hang out.
"One of the dangers of setting up in the neighborhood is you can quickly create almost a gated community," said Mikkel Svane, the company's CEO and founder. "We are good neighbors, and part of that means opening our home to our friends in the neighborhood."
To start, the company is teaming with Wu Yee Children's Services, which provides early-child education and family support services in the Tenderloin. Once a month, Zendesk will host families in its event space for dinner, games, and arts and crafts.
"A lot of homeless and low-income families live in really crowded conditions and just don't have access to fun evening activities," said Monica Walters, the director of Wu Yee. At the same time, Wu Yee's spaces aren't adequate to host such events. So the nonprofit center approached Zendesk with the idea.
Zendesk employees will volunteer at the monthly event, which will kick off this summer.
"It's a real treat for our families to have a night out and good food and some fun," said Walters.
Zendesk is also looking to open up its reception area, which has ample workspace, for kids from the neighborhood to come and do homework after school. The company is still hammering out the details, but it would like to have employees on hand to provide homework help. It already allows neighborhood organizations like the Community Housing Partnership to use its space for board meetings and events.
The new building includes an auditorium, theater and bar designed to double as event spaces for nonprofit groups and neighborhood businesses. Zendesk is also working with Spotify, Zoosk, Benchmark Capital, Silicon Valley Bank and WeWork to establish the Mid-Market Business Association to support businesses in the area.
Zendesk is often singled out by the nonprofit community as an example of how tech companies can make a positive impact on San Francisco, even as the industry has been blamed for the city's gentrification and its dwindling stock of affordable housing. Its employees are regulars on the volunteer circuit, but have also worked closely with nonprofits such as the St. Anthony Foundation and Compass Family Services on longer-term projects.
"I want to see other tech companies get more involved with building actual relationships with people that live in the neighborhood," said Walters. "It's one thing to write a check or spend one day handing out meals, but it's another to actually get to know the people here."
Zendesk, which made a successful debut on the stock market in May, is rapidly expanding.
And Svane said that building a real relationship with the community will be integral to the company's success.
"These relationships are as beneficial to an employer as they are to the community," he said. "There are so many cliches about Silicon Valley. It's all about changing the world. I'm not saying that's bad, but there are more concrete problems to solve here."
Svane has become a sort of ambassador for the neighborhood - one thing he'd like to do is host a 5K race through the neighborhood so more visitors will check it out. Zendesk doesn't provide lunch for employees because it would rather they leave the office and patronize nearby businesses. And new workers are encouraged to go on a free neighborhood walking tour run by Tenderloin stalwart Del Seymour.
"We like to think we're the center of the universe here in Silicon Valley," Svane said. "But when the stuff that's happening in the Tenderloin is right outside your door, it's hard not to embrace it."