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March 14, 2013

Valley Girls


Photo Credit: Thomas Prior

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Every New Year's, the house would get together, talk about our goals, and keep each other accountable. The goals always had altruistic components," says Celestine Johnson, a 28-year-old Santa Barbara native who lived in Rainbow Mansion from 2008 to 2010. She recalls one roommate who wanted to create a device to eliminate debris floating in space. Johnson, who was working in Apple's corporate social responsibility group at the time, moved into what she calls "nerd mansion" after answering a Craigslist ad specifically seeking a passionate female in her early 20s. "We didn't care about their creditworthiness," says former NASA chief technology officer Chris Kemp, who helped found the house in 2006 and played a key role in picking new housemates. "We were more concerned about what people were doing with their lives." He and Johnson, acquaintances through Rainbow Mansion, have kept in touch, and Johnson, now a creative director at venture capital firm Innovation Endeavors, facilitated her company's investment in Kemp's cloud-computing startup, Nebula, this past fall.

Former roommates describe the six-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bathroom house as "creative chaos," with movies like Planet Earth or something from the James Bond catalog playing on a giant projector screen (there is no TV) in an enormous living room where housemates and visitors lounge on mix-and-match furniture, a handmade paper-towel-roll tetrahedron hangs from the ceiling, and DIY telescopes, as opposed to beer cans, litter the floor. Today, Bresee is one of three women in the group of seven residents, including a Tesla engineer, Stanford graduate student, and several startup entrepreneurs. On any given night, visiting friends or friends of friends, mostly male, might crash in a huge upstairs playroom with beds that functions as an entrepreneur hostel. Men outnumber women in Silicon Valley by up to 60 percent, and living in such a male-dominated environment has its stresses. "I wear silk long underwear to bed, and it's a little transparent. When I get up to make breakfast, if I hear someone rustling around, I throw on a T-shirt," says Bresee. "I do feel awkward throwing tampons away. The trash can is open. But hey, now my roommates know I'm on my period! Not a big deal."

Those awkward moments are occasionally more public. "I'm fairly feminine and pretty girly," says Johnson, who remembers opening the door to the mansion during a hackathon, one of the hours-long group software-creation collaborations the house often hosts, to greet a male guest. "He couldn't take it and just ran away," she says. "Most of the guys in Silicon Valley are welcoming, but some are just very, very nerdy." Bresee admits the gender dynamics in the house can feel "off" at times. One night, everyone was watching a TV show she wasn't enjoying, something about a college football player. "The culture in the house is very open and jokey, so when there are more guys around, the jokes become more lewd," she says. "I was the only girl in the room, and someone made an off-color joke" — something about sex, she doesn't remember exactly what. "I just said, 'Guys! We really need to work on this ratio.'" (She received an immediate apology from the offender.)

Making female roommates comfortable in the house is something Rainbow Mansion residents care about. "We were always trying to keep a good gender balance," says Jessy Schingler, who helped found the community (and cofounded La Choza, the ranch in Costa Rica, as well). She lived at Rainbow with her boyfriend, Robbie, now her husband, a NASA employee cum entrepreneur, for three years. The couple had shared a group home with friends in Washington, D.C., and liked the arrangement so much they sought to re-create it when they moved to the West Coast in 2006. Despite the always-full house, Schingler says that finding privacy for a romantic interlude was never problematic. "Robbie and I could always have a date in our room or go out for dinner," she says. This enmeshed form of group living "never felt like it was hindering our ability to have quality time together." In fact, it was the opposite: "Seeing your partner interacting with other people and talking about what they're passionate about gives you an awesome perspective on who that person is." Among the housemates, random hookups are uncommon, roommates say. Bresee herself isn't in a serious relationship, but she finds bringing home guests of the opposite sex straightforward. "You can't really just hide away. You have to introduce them to the whole house. But it's fun! The last time I brought over a date, we hung out and played cards and music as a group." She likens the atmosphere to that of an adults-only summer camp.

Laura Deming, an 18-year-old who dropped out of MIT and moved to California in 2011 after receiving a fellowship to study age-related diseases from PayPal founder and hedge fund manager Peter Thiel, lives in a shared house in Menlo Park with four guys. Two of her roommates, Stanford computer scientists, are involved in a startup called Athena, which is attempting to visually graph all of human knowledge. "There's always someone to talk to, even if I come home at midnight," she says. They're working on their computers until 4 a.m.!" Deming cites the salons they host, with "people who work hard and want to build something," as a highlight of the arrangement. "It's a great way to get your creativity flowing."

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