By Joel P. Engardio
It’s easy to forget that hippies and gays were originally despised as invaders and displacers when they first arrived in San Francisco. Does this mean a time will come when tech workers are celebrated in The City’s folklore?
From the Gold Rush to the Summer of Love, a constant in San Francisco history is a flood of newcomers who challenge and change the ways of those who came before them. Millennial tech workers are the latest transplants blamed for disrupting neighborhood character along with the political and economic status quo.
Yet 31-year-old Sushanth Ramakrishna’s path as immigrant from Bangalore, India to founder of a San Francisco start-up shows tech’s promise as a force for good.
Ramakrishna isn’t creating another Snapchat for young people to hook up. His app, Seniorly, is devoted to helping seniors find affordable and supportive communities when they can’t live on their own anymore.
Plus, Ramakrishna’s co-founder Arthur Bretschneider, 30, is an actual San Francisco native.
They don’t fit the media-fueled “tech bro” stereotype. Both are married. Bretschneider is a father of two boys, ages three and one. Neither lives in the Mission. Ramakrishna is a renter in the Marina and Bretschneider is a homeowner in Russian Hill. Evenings and weekends they attend the Hass School of Business at UC Berkeley while working full time.
Their office is at the top of a rickety staircase in a Chinatown walk-up shared with an acupuncture clinic and the Sing Tao Daily newspaper, where rent is thousands of dollars less than the South of Market tech corridor.
Late nights in the office, Ramakrishna frequently talks to his parents in India using Facetime.
“They like to check on me,” said Ramakrishna, who was at Salesforce as a lead member of technical staff before quitting to pursue his start-up. “They ask me why I work with ‘old-age homes’ and I tell them I’m on a mission to help seniors live happily.”
The all-millennial staff at Seniorly – and one member of Generation X – shares a passion for building a product for their elders.
Bretschneider’s grandfather was a Presbyterian minister who took care of older congregants in his own home before building communal senior housing throughout California and Oregon.
Marlena del Hierro, 27, is Seniorly’s gerontologist. She makes sure the homes listed on the Seniorly app cover all possible needs. That includes identity, so gay or Mandarin-speaking seniors have options that won’t leave them feeling isolated.
“I knew from a young age I wanted to work with elders and be their voice,” del Hierro said.
Kurt Brown, 43, is Seniorly’s content lead. He is old enough to have an aging mother who requires assistance.
“We need to figure out how to take care of our seniors because they will soon outnumber us,” Brown said.
Seniorly vets every property with in-person visits. Online videos show the facilities and interviews with the owners. All housing is also linked to a database of state licenses and citations. Seniorly is free for users and charges housing providers a referral fee.
While Seniorly’s user-friendly search options make a difficult but necessary life decision less stressful, Bretschneider and Ramakrishna said they have bigger goals to address the “harsh reality” of aging.
“We have to fundamentally change how society looks at aging and how the government spends money on it,” Bretschneider said. “How can we pay for surgeries for 90-year-olds but not pay to help them take a shower? We should be focused on giving people a great quality of life during their last 15 years of life.”
For Ramakrishna, the work is personal.
“I left India at 18 for a better life in the United States. I left my parents and only get to see them every two years,” Ramakrishna said. “Helping other people’s parents helps me feel better about myself.”