SMASH and SEED: The Kapors’ gift to diversify the next generation of science and tech leaders

“Diversity in STEM enhances discovery and provides a catalyst for social change by enabling an equity of experience. Our ultimate goal is to diversify the next generation of STEM leaders and empower them to achieve their academic and professional aspirations. We aim to change the face of science and technology.”
— Chancellor Carol T. Christ

For venture capitalist and social policy researcher Freada Kapor Klein ’74, wasting human potential is profoundly illogical. A recent $5 million gift to support diversity in STEM at Berkeley builds on her decades-long commitment to ensuring equal access to opportunity by leveraging the power of science and math.

“At a time when every mom and pop shop has to have some kind of tech capability — and tech is such a creative space — we want it to look like America,” says Kapor Klein, whose deep experience in addressing equity issues includes co-founding, in 1976, the first organization in the United States to focus on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

At UC Berkeley nearly 20 years ago, Kapor Klein and her husband, Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, created SMASH (the Summer Math and Science Honors academy) — a program for high school students that has since been replicated at 10 university sites across the country. The Kapors’ recent gift builds upon the program’s success by providing scholarships for SMASH alumni to attend Berkeley and participate in SEED (Stem Equity and Excellence in Diversity) Scholars, an honors program focused on supporting and inspiring historically marginalized populations majoring in all areas of STEM. Like SMASH, SEED Scholars provides opportunities to explore the social justice aspects of pursuing a career in STEM. At events such as “Science, Society, and You” — a series of conversations facilitated by graduate students — SEED Scholars participants confront the complexities of prejudice in STEM fields.

Photo of Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Klein, arms around each other, smiling at the camera

Freada Kapor Klein ’74 and Mitch Kapor

“Having conversations at the nexus of science and social justice empowers our students, regardless of their background, to feel comfortable bringing up issues that are either not spoken of in STEM circles, or are spoken of only in whispers,” says Ira Young, director of SEED Scholars. “They learn how to be bold in that area, in bringing about change. Our students develop a voice and excel in science at the same time.”

Topics such as how it feels to be othered, how to conduct yourself when you’re an “only” in a lab, and the myth of the model minority are discussed as part of SEED Scholars’ holistic support, which lays the groundwork for what Young defines as a lifelong relationship with a community of groundbreaking peers.

For the Kapors, providing scholarships and programmatic support for SEED Scholars was a logical extension of their work with SMASH. By making SMASH students aware of the scholarship to attend the SEED Scholars program at Berkeley, Kapor Klein is directly contributing to the diversification of STEM at her alma mater — and eventually the tech sector. Further, the gift made sense in the context of Kapor Capital, the Kapors’ socially-conscious venture capital firm.

“At Kapor Capital we get pitched every week by entrepreneurs — and a lot of entrepreneurs of color — who are coming up with ways to leverage tech to solve real problems in their communities,” says Kapor Klein. “What SMASH tries to do is to not just teach computer science and other STEM fields, but to expose our scholars to all the different ways they can leverage a STEM education in their future careers.”

Photo Freada Kapor Klein and Haile Shavers, standing close together and smiling at the camera

Freada Kapor Klein '74 and Haile Shavers '18

For SMASH alumna Haile Shavers ’18, the program and her relationship with the Kapors made a critical difference in her experience pursuing her cognitive science degree at Berkeley and launching her career as a developer at the business messaging company Slack.

“I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable as I did, coming into a big university, and also wouldn’t have had as many connections as I do in terms of academia and industry,” says Shavers, reflecting on what life would have been like without SMASH. “When SMASH ends, that’s not the end of the relationship that we have with SMASH and Mitch and Freada. She’s a big advocate of me wanting to grow as a Black woman, as an engineer, as an overall human.”

While the gift provides scholarships specifically for SMASH alumni, all SEED Scholars students will be invited to participate in events at the Kapor Center in Oakland. The Kapors and SEED leaders are enthusiastic about the many possibilities for creating connections among rising and more established leaders in STEM and business.

“This gift signals a great opportunity for SEED students and the program as a whole to tap into the substantial Kapor network,” says Jamie Cate, faculty director of SEED Scholars.

Kapor Klein has always relied on data to inform her social justice work. Completing her Ph.D. in social policy research required that she process information about 20,000 research subjects, which in the 1980s meant learning to run a program that could deal with a massive amount of data stored on tapes. She has a deep appreciation for the power of technology to serve progressive values, and she brought that understanding to her work at Lotus, the flagship computer company founded by her husband and business partner. At the time, her goal was to make Lotus the most progressive employer in the United States.

The Kapors’ recent gift to Berkeley reflects their visionary approach to social change that is also pragmatic and data-informed. Their investment includes support for SEED Scholars to build its capacity for programmatic evaluation, something they are deeply committed to with SMASH. Kapor Klein credits her days as a Berkeley undergraduate with exciting her passion for rigorous and actionable research. Clearly, the Kapors are dedicated to the healthy evolution of the initiatives they support and to the success of the many lives they touch.

“When the project connects with the students’ lived experience, with what they see and what they can do, they feel empowered to make a difference while having a great career. That is so motivating and just life changing,” says Mitch Kapor. “We’ve seen that so many times. Extending that from SMASH academy into the undergraduate experience through the SMASH-SEED connection is just a logical extension of what we’ve been doing for decades.”

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