Roberto Ortiz and his business partners had one dream crushed by the pandemic and another tempered by fire.

The first dream was a tech startup idea called Gather Wholesale, which aimed to more effectively link restaurants with wholesalers and farmers.

That idea was killed in March when the COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread social distancing directives and limitations on the food service industry.

“Restaurants were closed,” Ortiz said. “We had this difficult reality check that we either had to pivot or die as a business.”

Around that same time, the San Francisco Mission District apartment building in which they had an office caught fire.

No one was hurt in the blaze, but Ortiz did have a bit of an epiphany while literally shifting through the ashes of his fledgling company.

Welcome co-founder and CEO Roberto Ortiz.

“The next day we go and try to save anything we can find from the wrecked apartment and on the floor were business cards from our previous business surrounded by ashes,” Ortiz said. “If that wasn’t a sign, then I don’t know what would be.”

Over the next few weeks, Ortiz and his partners — brothers Jerry and Tiger Shen — devised a new plan to develop a high-end virtual events platform to fill the space left by the pandemic-driven demise of in-person meetings and conferences.

The platform, dubbed Welcome, launched this month with $12 million in Series A funding led by Kleiner Perkins, with participation from Y Combinator, Webb Investment Network and Kapor Capital, the Oakland-based firm focused on bringing seed money to startups run by people of color, women and other historically underrepresented groups.

“(Ortiz) cares a lot about building a diverse team, about building a diverse culture, about building a product that gives back to the community and having a product that democratizes access,” said Kapor co-chairperson Freada Kapor Klein.

Kapor Capital’s Freada Kapor Klein.

Ortiz, who was raised by a single mom in north Philadelphia, first met Kapor Klein while speaking at an event hosted by her organization’s Summer Math and Science Honors Academy, which offers STEM education programs and other resources to students of color.

“Roberto is very much about giving back and understanding the opportunities that were provided to him and making sure to reach back to others who would otherwise be excluded from the tech ecosystem,” Kapor Klein said.

Also, Kapor Capital will work closely with the Welcome team to build out a way for nonprofit groups to avail themselves of the platform, which it has already donated to All Raise, a nonprofit that works to advance women’s equity in tech, she said.

The company’s main market, however, is the high-end virtual event space targeting Fortune 500 companies and large organizations like Bain Capital Ventures, an early client.

And while the company wouldn’t share pricing information, Ortiz said Welcome is “the Ritz-Carlton of virtual events.”

The platform is designed to host large-scale online gatherings that can have the feel of an Apple product launch, said Ortiz, whose background includes stints at Lockheed Martin, Google and Yahoo.

YouTube video

Welcome allows event organizers to incorporate high-end, prerecorded video with livestreams and on-screen graphics.

The platform is billed as something akin to an interactive TV broadcast studio that supports breakout rooms, a pre-stage green room function for presenters and the ability to invite event attendees “on stage” during panel discussions and presentations.

A Welcome team is also available to train clients on how to best use the platform, Ortiz said.

And while the company was launched in order to help companies host their events during a pandemic, its founders believe there will be a long-term demand for products like Welcome.

“Now COVID is spiking, it’s changing and transforming industries day-by-day and week-by-week,” he said. “Companies and organizations and individuals see the power behind virtual. You don’t have to travel, you don’t have to host these big event spaces.”

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Local News Matters on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.