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March 14, 2013

Valley Girls

people on computer

Photo Credit: Thomas Prior

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For her part, Bresee loves feeling supported by a houseful of like-minded friends and finds Rainbow Mansion's group approach to everything from cooking to grocery shopping useful. Every week or two, roommates do a Costco run. The enormous refrigerator is almost all shared space, with six shelves for vegetables, meat, milk (glass bottles of skim, 2 percent, and whole milk are delivered to the house), and yogurt, and a separate drawer for butter and cheese. Leftovers are neatly stored in Tupperware containers labeled with sticky notes. On the top shelf, roommates stash anything of their own — say, doggy bags from meals out — but Bresee says she rarely has any food she considers off-limits to others. House meetings take place on Wednesday nights, to discuss logistics and concerns. Day-to-day upkeep and chores, a list of about 12 tasks, like managing the house social calendar and taking out the trash, are formally assigned and do not rotate. A housekeeper visits twice a month to keep things tidy. Dinner, cooked together in the open granite-counter kitchen, is often a big batch of Asian vegetables with quinoa or a Thai curry, or on "lazy nights," just Annie's Mac & Cheese with broccoli mixed in. Roommates eat in the formal, book-paneled dining room, a crystal chandelier hanging above an enormous rosewood table encircled by mismatched chairs. When the meal is underway, someone will throw out a topic for debate: the existence of free will, the military's role in society, or a creative approach to building an aqueduct.

Aside from near-constant social and intellectual engagement, living in the house comes with myriad other perks. Formal, salon-style discussions feature a rotating cast of bold-face-name guests, including Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, former Pakistani ambassador Akbar Ahmed, and NASA research director Pete Worden. David Weekly, a tech entrepreneur, angel investor, and former roommate, taught computer science classes in the dining room, which Johnson says she attended along with about 15 other people. Housemates often bake one another treats, like a much-remembered sweet potato cupcake with a marshmallow topping. And hackathons, some focused on altruistic topics like improving water access and sanitation around the world, are frequent. One of Bresee's favorite guest speakers, the first person ever to circumnavigate the globe on a yacht via both Cape Horn and the Northwest Passage (on two different trips), impressed her with an anecdote about how he'd been so far from land at one point that he'd been able to communicate with NASA's International Space Station satellite. There's plenty of parking for roommates outside, and a koi pond, moat, and bridge at the house's entrance. The occasional wild turkey wanders into the backyard, which is a stone's throw from Stevens Creek Park, a popular hiking destination. With all these amenities on offer, the slightly below-market rent (Bresee's share is $950, plus $200 for utilities) is beside the point.

The roommates entertain more raucously, too. Schingler recalls giant semiannual parties with more than 100 guests, which made the housemates unpopular among their immediate neighbors, couples and families. "It was a filthy-rich neighborhood. We didn't exactly fit the demographic," she says. "We were always referred to as 'the renters.'" Conflict occasionally arises within the house as well, though not in a confrontational Real World style. Housemates say they can't remember specific arguments, but "sometimes, roommates don't mesh," says Schingler, citing a few situations when bad apples were asked to move out. "If we had a person who only spent time in his or her room, or didn't participate in the culture of the house, there's an opportunity cost for us. We're giving up a room to some-one who isn't giving back." (She says the offenders were ultimately "OK with leaving.") Barring such problems, housemates generally stay for a year or two (the last of the original 2006 roommates left last spring), arriving with their clothes, tech equipment, and art. Bresee brought several large-scale oil-and-acrylic paintings she'd done, including a still life, a portrait of her parents, and a nude of a female friend from back home.

Demand for slots remains brisk. When another room recently opened up in Rainbow Mansion, 37 people applied, nine of them women. The concept has gained so much traction that Schingler is starting a new group of entrepreneurial mansions called Embassy Network, what she calls a "distributed housing network for people who want to make a positive impact on the world." She just took over a former monastery in San Francisco with one of the city's oldest bowling alleys in the basement, and says she envisions an international community, citing interest from Berlin in launching a similar house. "Because we travel frequently to collaborate on work and other projects, we wondered, Wouldn't it be amazing if we could stay in a house like ours, in any city we went to?" she says.

For Johnson, Bresee, Schingler, and Deming, the benefits of group living are clear. "Rainbow Mansion built a community for me, which was helpful when moving to such an inspiring but intimidating place," Johnson says. "If you immerse yourself and become inspired in the hacker houses and nerd mansions, you can make an impact in your own creative way. " They'd tell any woman to move in, too.

When Celestine Johnson opened the door to the mansion to greet a male guest, "He just ran away," she says. "Some guys here are very nerdy."

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