George Hofstetter, 19-year-old entrepreneur, inspires Youth Summit crowd at Sonoma State

“I didn't know I could be an engineer until I saw another black man behind a computer screen coding,” George Hofstetter saidat an event organized by Sonoma State University's Black Student Union and the Sonoma County Black Forum.|

George Hofstetter has created apps, founded his own technology company and worked with Colin Kaepernick, Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf and Megan Smith, the ex-United States chief technology officer and assistant to President Obama. In his spare time, the tech entrepreneur, civil rights activist and Menlo College sophomore enjoys kickboxing, robotics, horseback riding, jiujitsu, picking up program languages and public speaking gigs.

The 19-year-old is remarkably accomplished and still has much to do. This was evident both during and after his riveting speech on Saturday morning at Sonoma State, where Hofstetter was keynote speaker for the daylong 2019 Youth Summit. Hosted by the university’s Black Student Union and the Sonoma County Black Forum, the summit drew several hundred high school students and eighth graders to meet professionals and cultivate networking skills and friendships.

“OK, we gotta go!” said his manager, Gerri, who also happens to be his mother, as she coaxed her son from a clutch of admirers and toward the parking lot, where the family’s minivan awaited. They would like to have lingered, but George had a TEDx talk to give in Silicon Valley.

“He’s been doing this since he was 13,” his mother said.

That was the year George attended a three-day Hackathon Academy hosted by Qeyno Labs. Although he couldn’t write code at the time, he went with a friend, and a new world opened up to him.

“I knew I could be in the music industry,” he told his audience. “I knew I could be in the sports industry. But I didn’t know I could be an engineer until I saw another black man behind a computer screen coding.”

Over those three days, Hofstetter helped design a social networking app called Connect The Dots, which gives African American private school students “a safe and inclusive environment to share their experiences with discrimination,” he said.

Deeply inspired by that experience, Hofstetter hurled himself into the world of tech. By the time the next Hackathon rolled around, he’d taught himself four computer languages, and was creating another app, born of a question he’d heard at his first Hackathon: Could an app have saved Trayvon Martin?

As Hofstetter recapped for his audience, Martin was a black 17-year-old killed in 2012 by George Zimmerman, a self-?appointed neighborhood watchman.

Living in East Oakland, Hofstetter explained, he had his own issues around police brutality.

“Trayvon looked like me, and looked like all my friends,” he said. “So I began fearing for my own life, and the lives of my friends.”

He also worried that his 9-year-old brother, Jarrod, “would have the same feelings of anxiety around police officers.”

After interviewing sociologists, psychologists, civil rights attorneys and the chiefs of police from Oakland and San Leandro, he created an app called CopStop, “which lists your rights as an American citizen, if you are stopped by the police,” he said, “and how to behave around law enforcement officers” - advice gleaned directly from law enforcement officers, he added.

That project earned him an internship with Mayor Schaaf, which is how he ended up at a tech conference where he found himself in conversation with Megan Smith, the Obama assistant who encouraged him to visit Google, where he participated in a pilot program called Shadow a Googler.

While at Google, he became acutely aware of the company’s disproportionately small numbers of African Americans and Latinos, which inspired him to act.

He founded his own company, George Hofstetter Technologies, Inc.

“I was in a different world when I was 19,” said Regina Brennan, a retired Santa Rosa High School history teacher who was a co-coordinator of the Youth Summit. “I’m inspired by him and I’m over 60!”

CopStop, available on the App Store for iPhones, caught the eye of Kaepernick, who asked Hofstetter to speak to some 300 young people at a Know Your Rights Camp in south Florida last October.

Speaking to that crowd, he shared the trauma he felt following the death of Trayvon Martin, who appeared in his iconic hoodie on the screen behind him. But then, Hofstetter said, “My fear became my inspiration.”

During that talk, he noticed a woman sitting up front who began weeping while he spoke. He later learned that she was Sybrina Fulton - Trayvon Martin’s mother.

When they met, “She gave me the biggest hug,” he recalled. “And that was all the motivation I need to keep creating.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88.

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