Hack to the future

Tech whiz, mom, entrepreneur, crazy—Sacramento Hacker Lab founder Gina Lujan is all these things. And a bag of microchips.

photo by wes davis

For more information on Hacker Lab, visit www.hackerlab.org.

Gina Lujan was 23 when she begged her family to pitch in for her first computer.

“It will change everything,” she insisted. “I’m going to be superrich. I’ll be successful.”

Lujan’s father-in-law stepped in to buy the coveted PC, but it would be two years before she put the machine to use. It wasn’t until the high-school dropout found herself pregnant again that she decided to launch a holistic, herbal-medicine website, cobbling together a page by stealing HTML from other sites.

She still cracks up at the memory.

Herbs!” says Lujan with a laugh. “I didn’t have a business plan. I didn’t know the principles of business, it was stupid.”

Naive maybe, but not stupid: Two decades later, Lujan has, at least in part, made good on that promise of success.

It was almost the path not taken, but now her new tech outfit, Hacker Lab, is evidence of her achievements. The 10,500-square-foot Midtown-based coworking business—where programmers, designers, engineers and entrepreneurs rent space and collaborate—has grown exponentially since its 2012 launch. It hosts classes and meet-ups and provides support for startups and youth education, and has also caught the attention of Congresswoman Doris Matsui and City Hall.

And this week, Hacker Lab co-sponsors the inaugural Sacramento Techweek, a nine-day series of events that kicks off on May 10.

But even with success come questions. Such as: Is Hacker Lab sustainable? Is Sacramento finally ready to become a tech town? And:

Is Gina Lujan crazy?

The 41-year-old mother of six has never been one much for convention.

“I had five kids by the time I was 22,” Lujan says. “I was the poster child for welfare—for what happens when you come from a certain element without guidance and support.”

That first website, however, did change everything.

“From that point, everything I did was successful because of technology.”

Startup fever

Many of Lujan's accomplishments are on display during a quick stroll through the cavernous Hacker Lab on I Street. The two-story space, once a tattoo studio, now houses private offices, conference rooms, a tiny kitchen and a chilly control hub where computers and servers emit a constant buzz of activity. There's a bowl of fresh fruit and a pot of coffee by the front door and a giant “scrum” board where companies use colorful sticky notes to post goals and achievements. Nearby, a giant calendar advertises classes on HTML and Linux, “civil hacking” and “rapid game prototyping.”

Here, the term “hacker” doesn’t refer to a person or group who accesses or changes a website or program through nefarious means. Instead, this definition celebrates innovation and creativity of all sorts.

Big companies, such as Vision Service Plan, rent space, and there are numerous startups, too. In addition, approximately 85 people are signed up for a monthly membership, and anyone can drop in, pay a $10 daily fee, sit at one of Hacker’s big communal tables and tap into the Wi-Fi.

Urijah Faber, the mixed-martial-arts master whose gym neighbors Hacker Lab, also has an office there. In the back, a large warehouse area bears welding equipment, electronics and 3-D printers. One client manufactures giant, mechanical support arms for the federal government. There are plans to set up a fabric mill and, someday, a small corner nook will turn into a place for members to bead, sew and craft handmade goods.

Lujan spends hours here: Her schedule runs the gamut of activities, from teaching and meeting with clients, to cleaning the bathroom.

Eric Ullrich, who joined Lujan and co-founder Charles Blas in March 2012, says it’s this ever-evolving DIY ethos that first attracted him to Hacker Lab.

“We don’t have a lot of meetings. We just get things done,” he says.

And that, in turn, means good things for Sacramento, he adds.

“It’s about building a community,” he says. “It’s about building strong relationships and trying new things and seeing what works.”

Lujan has always been one to throw things out to the universe just to see what will stick. Call it impulsive, call it insanity. Call it whatever, Ullrich says. It works.

“Gina is definitely crazy,” he says. “She’s crazy—and she gets shit done.”

Looking back, the idea for Hacker Lab was the next logical step after Lujan relocated to Sacramento in late 2011. She needed a spot to run her online graphic-design firm and wanted to find a place like the one she’d created in the Berkeley-based Blue Door Lab Coworking Space.

Although such co-ops are on the rise, popping up nationwide, from MakerBar in Hoboken, N.J., and Brooklyn, N.Y.’s NYC Resistor to Noisebridge in San Francisco, local options proved scarce. At the time, Capsity was closed, undergoing renovation; ThinkHouse Collective sounded, well, quiet; and The Urban Hive was great, but too aesthetically clean for her grittier tastes. And so she put an ad on Craigslist: “Attention hackers and founders and enthusiasts, looking for hackers and makers and start-ups.”

By March 2012, Lujan had opened Hacker Lab above Pangaea Two Brews Cafe in Curtis Park with Blas, the “first sane person” who’d answered her ad. Within weeks, the pair was hosting “hackathons” at a nearby coffee shop—gatherings in which developers and innovators pitched ideas to compete for prizes. They quickly outgrew the location, and Hacker Lab, now with Ullrich on board, pulled in investors to put a deposit down for a new lease in Midtown.

Today, those 10,500 square feet embody everything Lujan wanted when she arrived in Sacramento: a place to promote new concepts, share resources, educate and innovate. A place not just to hack, but to create, craft and push boundaries. A place to foster connections.

She attributes its quick growth to equal parts planning, timing and sheer luck.

“We all had this vision of what we thought Hacker Lab could be,” Lujan says. “It’s all been very serendipitous, from finding co-founders to building [a] community, to finding space.”

But for as quickly as it came together, Lujan’s path there was rocky.

‘You've got everything against you'

Gina Lujan founded Hacker Lab in 2012 after she couldn’t find another suitable co-working space in Sacramento.

photo by wes davis

Born in Los Angeles, Lujan spent much of her childhood bouncing between family members. Her mother, only 16 when she got pregnant with Lujan, was “unstable,” Lujan says. Her father, dealing with his own issues, didn't fare much better. And then there were the incidents of sexual abuse at the hands of people close to the family, Lujan says. Those events repeatedly pushed her to flee.

“I ran away from home for the first time when I was 8,” she says now. “I ended up living with so many different aunts and uncles; they were all wonderful, but I was a broken child, and when anything would bother me, I’d just run again.”

By age 10, Lujan had moved in with an aunt on her father’s side. The house was out in Rolling Hills, an affluent city in the Palos Verdes area about a half-hour south of Los Angeles. The aunt, concerned for her niece, tried to introduce her to some hobbies, signing her up for ballet classes and buying her etiquette books and blank journals.

As the weather warmed up, she decided Lujan needed to get out of the house.

“She told me, ’You’re going to school. You’re not hanging out with me all summer,’” Lujan remembers.

And so she enrolled her niece in a computer camp that had just one objective: Learn coding by creating a computer video game. If your game didn’t work at the end of the camp session, you didn’t pass.

Lujan took to it with a passion.

“I coded that whole game out. Looking back, I didn’t realize for a long time that’s where it all started for me.”

It would be years, however, before Lujan connected the dots between that experience, her first computer and everything that came after.

By 14, she’d followed her mother and stepfather to Sacramento, but within a month, ran away again. She dropped out of school and ended up in a group home and then, later, a small camp down by the river. Frightened, she finally called the only friend she’d made since moving to town.

“I’m scared,” she told her. “Come get me.”

The friend and her boyfriend picked her up, but couldn’t offer a place to stay. Instead, they entrusted her to the care of a 25-year-old college student who, like Lujan, wasn’t happy with the arrangement.

“We didn’t like each other.”

At least not at first. The pair eventually married and had two children. Lujan’s oldest daughter was born when she was 16; her son arrived a year later.

Living in an apartment at G and 14th streets, the couple started buying and selling salvaged cars at auction. They split when she was just 19, but before then, she says, her ex-husband had helped to reinforce a sense of resiliency—a drive to get by with whatever means necessary.

“He told me, ’You need to be an entrepreneur. You don’t have an education, you’re a minority and you’re a girl: You’ve got everything against you.’”

And so Lujan worked hard.

Later, her second husband worked for a recycling firm, and Lujan, pregnant again, figured out she could sell the truckloads of slightly damaged, unwanted goods that it would otherwise dump: Pallets loaded down with designer purses and baby clothes and cleaning supplies. She carted them off to a flea market, netting $500 in just the first day.

Finally, her father-in-law bought that computer which prompted the herbal website and, eventually, the online graphic-design firm.

By 2008, she and her third husband, Reuben Lujan, had moved to Oakland where, Lujan realized, she needed a new office.

“It was me, working from home with three teenagers, a dog, a hamster and a cat and a husband who’s a musician,” she says. “I couldn’t get anything done.”

And so, not finding a ready-made alternative, Lujan opened the Blue Door Lab Coworking Space. Soon, Lujan was immersed in the Bay Area’s tech culture.

She started attending hackathons, where she pitched ideas to investors. Lujan and a friend even talked of opening a “bootstrapping” space—a place where fledgling tech companies would be prepped for business incubators.

“I had startup fever,” she says. “I loved tech, I loved the culture. I just wanted the experience.”

The power of community

On a recent Wednesday, Lujan is nursing a persistent cold. She's sniffling, achy and getting by on just hours of sleep. She can't let a few sneezes get her down, however, during Hacker Lab's bimonthly lunch meet-up at a Midtown restaurant. Throughout the course of the meal, she jumps out of her seat to greet regulars with a hug. There's a Rancho Cordova-based video-game maker and myriad other software and hardware engineers and developers. In all, a dozen turn out to chat as they dine on hamburgers, salads and bowls of chili.

Lujan orders a cup of tomato soup, a platter of fries and a Sprite—“This is the only thing that sounds good right now”—and makes a point to talk to everyone. Conversations are loose. The purpose, she says, is simply to gather and socialize, maybe share tips or offer support.

It’s Lujan’s signature style: endless hugs and wide smiles and genuine interest in those around her.

“I want to know more about you,” she says to a new visitor, interrupting herself midconversation to switch gears. “I want to know more about what makes you you.”

For Nascent Games founder Gabriel Gutierrez, Lujan’s intellect, energy and vision impress. “She’s entertainingly crazy, phenomenal and massively bright. I’ve never met someone so tied to the community.”

But, he says, Hacker Lab is not just about socialization.

“There’s always something being discussed, an idea that’s productive,” says Gutierrez, whose company develops video games. “It’s about [saying], ’Maybe we can help each other.’”

Lujan is driven by this idea of bringing people together.

“I’m really intrigued by community spaces and how they affect the economy,” she says, pointing to the local Flywheel Arts Incubator and Forage, a San Francisco-based commercial co-op kitchen, as successful examples of collaborative workplaces.

Gina Lujan and her Hacker Lab co-founders receive occasional stipends but don’t currently take a salary. The company is sponsored, in part, by Intel and School Factory, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that supports similar groups.

photo by wes davis

“They’re really powerful. I love tech, and I love making things, but it’s the people that are the real joy.”

Lately, Lujan’s been taking that message beyond Hacker Lab. In April, she spoke on the subject at an economic-development conference in Southern California. Congresswoman Matsui toured the Lab to learn more about ways to foster STEM—the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education Coalition—in schools and throughout the community. In 2012, the Sacramento Business Journal named Lujan one of the region’s top leaders.

Matsui is optimistic about what Hacker Lab will bring to the region.

“It is impossible to predict with certainty what the next big [technology] breakthrough will be, but we can make sure that we are providing the spark of creativity and imagination within our community so that innovation is occurring locally,” Matsui said in an email to SN&R. “Gina understands the start-up culture and has done a tremendous job bringing together the tech community and getting them excited about the future and Sacramento’s potential.”

Such accomplishments and alliances are crucial to Hacker Lab’s health. The space currently operates, in part, as a nonprofit and receives sponsorship from Intel and School Factory, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that supports similar groups nationwide.

Lujan dreams of turning I Street into something of a “Silicon Alley,” populated with startups and enhanced with free fiber-optic Internet service.

It’s about creating opportunity—for the city and for its big thinkers.

“The tech scene is culture, and we want to attract that culture,” Lujan says. “If we don’t, then people [leave] and move to the Bay Area. I think we’ve proven we have talented people here.”

Sacramento Techweek founder Adam Kalsey says the time is right.

“There are mobile-development companies and app makers—everything from two guys doing a startup out of their garage to much larger companies.”

And environments such as Hacker Lab are crucial to the region’s growth.

“Community spaces have big value,” he says. “There are others in the region, of course, but Hacker Lab is big, and it’s really embraced new ideas.”

It doesn’t hurt, too, that Lujan’s just a little bit nuts.

“She is crazy,” Kalsey says with a laugh. “But all the best entrepreneurs are.”

The hustler

“Crazy” is nothing Lujan hasn't heard before.

“I’m OK with that. It’s just about thinking differently.”

Certainly crazy makes for interesting. Unpredictable. Scary even.

Lujan ended up back in Sacramento after their landlord’s money troubles forced them out their spacious East Bay home.

Now, the couple and Lujan’s 14-year-old daughter face similar worries. (Her other five kids, whose ages range from 19 to 25, are currently scattered across the nation.) Their South Sacramento rental is in flux—the landlord won’t fix the air conditioner, and, as the temperatures creep upward, Lujan ponders her options.

There aren’t many. None of the Hacker Lab co-founders take a salary, just the occasional stipend. Lujan and her husband, currently between work contracts, share one 10-year-old car.

Frankly, they’re often broke.

“Now we’re racing to get another house,” Lujan says with a sigh.

Sometimes, too, she admits, it puts a strain on her relationships. Still, such struggles aren’t a deal breaker.

“I don’t worry. As long as we keep our lifestyle to a minimum, we’re OK.”

Reuben, her husband of four years, isn’t worried, either.

“Most people, myself included, take the easy way out by getting a regular job and working for someone else just for the security,” he says. “Gina’s ambitious and headstrong—the kind of person who on Monday comes with a business plan, and by Friday, it’s up and running.”

He’s not joking. A few days after the Hacker Lab lunchtime meet-up, Lujan is still sniffling and sneezing. It got so bad, she stayed home, only to spend the afternoon in bed, pecking away furiously at her laptop as she put the finishing touches on a new startup site, a classified hub for holistic medicines.

“I had to finish it. I had to get it out into the universe.”

Satisfied, she’s now turned her attention back to Hacker Lab.

That means staying in motion.

“I am a hustler,” she says, laughing. “Since I was a kid—literally living on the streets, and then having my own kids so young. You just go into fight-or-flight mode.”

She’s excited about working with Matsui and says similar plans with City Hall could prove beneficial for the entire region. And yet, Lujan insists there’s no interest in formally partnering with anyone. Even if it meant not worrying about money.

“Hacker Lab is very grassroots, and we want to … keep that free-form spirit,” she says. “I’m in a position to make change. I feel validated, like I’ve finally done something really great, and I have something to show for it.”

“In Sacramento, people are creating apps and building robotics—all of that is … the new industrialization. This is the future.”