Time to tango: Sara Isenberg’s last dance with Santa Cruz Tech Beat
After eight years running the central news and information site for the local tech industry, Sara Isenberg is ready for a reboot that includes hitting the road to pursue her passions tango and tennis.
Eight years ago, Sara Isenberg had an idea. She wanted to start a website that would follow and document the activities of Santa Cruz’s small but robust high-tech industry. And from that idea, Santa Cruz Tech Beat was born.
A few months before the pandemic, she had another idea: Maybe it’s time to do something else.
This month, Isenberg is acting on that second idea, and stepping away from the first.
“I’m walking away,” she said. “And I’m not doing it lightly. I’ve actually evaluated a lot of options and this is the one that seems right to me.”
Since its inception, Santa Cruz Tech Beat has served both as a means for players in the local tech industry to talk to each other, and as a lens through which those outside the industry could understand and make sense of it. The site and her accompanying newsletter have gathered and published everything from company news announcements to interviews with local executives to job listings.
But with no successor lined up to pick up the mantle, it’s possible that the era of Santa Cruz Tech Beat is at an end.
Isenberg insists this isn’t a story of burnout. She points no fingers at tech, at Santa Cruz, or at the grind of producing the material for the site: “It’s really just because I’m ready for a new adventure. I mean, I am so ready. It’s really just about my personal life. I’m ready for a change.”
She has, in fact, been planning this exit for a long while. In late 2019, she began to feel the tug to follow other passions in her life. Her original plan was to slip away from her duties in the summer of 2020, after a graceful handoff to someone else. Then came COVID-19, and everything got scrambled. The pandemic changed the plans of the person lined up to take over the site. It also changed Isenberg’s exit strategy. Travel plans were canceled, and inertia won the day.
“Actually, I’m just enacting the plan a year later,” she said. If anything, the year in animated suspension made her more resolute to move on at the proper moment.
“I think the pandemic has caused a lot of people to look at themselves and evaluate (their lives). From what I read from others and experienced myself, the pandemic has been an opportunity to be mindful about what we all want from the rest of our lives.”
“To me, (Tech Beat) has always been a bridge between the university, the industry, and the community around tech,” said Margaret Rosas, who works at the Santa Cruz-based data analytics company Looker and was an early supporter of the site. For Rosas and others in the local tech sphere, Tech Beat filled a vacuum, a communications hub dedicated to tech, similar to the role Silicon Valley Business Journal fills in Silicon Valley.
“We just didn’t have that industry rag that was like, ‘hey, what if I want to know what’s going on in Santa Cruz tech, where do I go?’” Rosas said. "(Tech Beat) became this kind of one-stop-shop where you can plug in all these different things.”
Isenberg has no journalistic training, and she states outright, “I’m not a journalist.” She comes, in fact, from the tech world, having worked in the computer industry for decades, including at Santa Cruz Operation. Tech Beat came about in 2013 when her son went away to college and, anticipating an empty nest, she was looking for something new to engage in. “My only thinking at the time,” she said, “was to do (Tech Beat) until my son was out of college.”
At the time, city leaders in Santa Cruz were eager to engage and support the growing tech industry locally, but they knew little about it. Isenberg figured she could help then-Mayor Hilary Bryant and others connect with local tech leaders through a newsletter. Bryant became an early subscriber.
“I would meet with city leaders and say something like, ‘Oh, there’s this new company called Looker,’ and they would say, ‘Oh, tell me about that,’” said Isenberg. “There were a lot of civic people and business leaders who really didn’t know there was a tech industry here.”
Early on, Santa Cruz Tech Beat not only connected tech startups to the greater community, but it crossed town-gown barriers as well by informing many in the private sector about what was happening at UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay in the realm of biotech and other areas. Startups like Looker were just getting off the ground, and other big players in local tech, such as Amazon’s Santa Cruz office, had not even been established.
The tech ecosystem in the Monterey Bay area has grown in various directions since then, from the rise of new forms of agriculture tech to aerospace/aviation, as represented by the Santa Cruz-based Joby Aviation.
Isenberg said that her news site has uncovered a master narrative when it comes to tech in Santa Cruz: “The overall message is that now Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay, in general, have proven that we can be a viable region to start and grow tech companies. I don’t think that was clearly the case eight years ago. But it’s clearly the case now.”
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In her life after Tech Beat, Isenberg plans to pursue other lifelong passions, namely tennis, which she has played regularly for more than 30 years, and Argentine tango. Her canceled 2020 travel plans all had to do with tango festivals. “I’ll keep playing tennis for as long as my body allows it,” she said. “But the real excitement for me is the tango travel.”
As for Santa Cruz Tech Beat, it’s unclear if the site will continue after Isenberg’s exit. But if it does evaporate, Looker’s Rosas said the tech industry will feel its absence.
“To me, the valuable thing has always been (Isenberg’s) curation. She’s been curating for a lot of people for a lot of years, collecting things from all these strings,” Rosas said. “So we’re going to miss having that curated stream of what’s happening in the industry. And now it just puts the burden on everyone in that community to go figure stuff for ourselves.”