Susan Mernit Takes the Reins at The Crucible
The longtime entrepreneur, community builder, and tech leader expands the legacy of the Oakland-based industrial arts school.
Susan Mernit finds endless inspiration in The Crucible’s youth programs. “When you see 10-year-olds pouring molten metal,” she says, “it’s amazing.”
Photo by Terry Lorant Photography
This summer, in her first week as the new executive director of The Crucible—the famed industrial-arts center in Oakland—Susan Mernit signed up for a hands-on class in blacksmithing.
For a serial entrepreneur as steeped in technology as she is, the study of an old-timey trade like blacksmithing might seem like a bizarre anachronism. But to Mernit, the class made perfect sense.
“The Crucible connects people with how things were made hundreds of years ago,” she says. “Even if you use the latest technology to create your work these days, it’s a huge value to be connected to the original traditions. There’s no substitute for the physical experience of different art forms.”
As The Crucible’s leader, Mernit is excited about building on the cross-disciplinary, barrier-busting, and thrillingly edgy nature of the organization. “There’s a super-strong artistic community here,” she says. “It’s a place for people to learn, create, and dream. I want to help everything work better, not change it.”
A Kindred Spirit
Founded in 1999, The Crucible is the largest nonprofit industrial arts–education organization in the country. Some 5,500 kids and 12,000 adults come through its doors each year, attending workshops, summer camps, team-building events, and much more. Its extensive offerings include classes in such traditional disciplines as glass blowing, metalsmithing, enameling, mold making, stone working, and welding. But the organization may be best known for its pioneering work in the field of “fire arts.” Over the years, The Crucible has offered a mind-bending range of fire-based activities: It has featured classes on fire dancing and fire eating, presented fire ballets and fire operas, and hosted the annual Fire Arts Festival, which has drawn thousands of revelers to experience an intensive, Burning Man–style celebration of art, flames, and community.
And while Mernit may not come across as your typical hipster “Burner”—though she is plenty hip, mind you—she is uniquely qualified to lead an organization that plays such an important cultural and educational role in Oakland. In fact, her dedication to her adopted hometown has been a driving force in her career, which has notably included founding two grassroots enterprises with missions to serve the residents of the East Bay’s largest metropolis.
“I think of Oakland as a city of innovative people who are problem-solvers,” says Mernit, who moved to The Town in 2008. “I am drawn to the city’s grit and diversity. I think of myself as someone who questions authority, and I’m kind of a troublemaker. So Oakland, with its many nonprofits and its long history of social movements, is the perfect fit for me and my interests.”
Mernit began her career working in new media for publishing companies on the East Coast, where she grew up. In the late ’90s, AOL recruited her to be a vice president of Netscape, and she relocated to Mountain View, where the company was headquartered. She spent the next eight years in top positions for some of the highest-profile businesses in Silicon Valley, including a stint as senior director at Yahoo!
“I was entranced by tech and the big companies in the Valley,” she says. “But then my life started to change: I got laid off from Yahoo!, my son had grown up, and it just felt like the right time to move to Oakland and explore my options.”
After leading an Oakland-based tech enterprise (which did not survive), she decided to launch her own start-up in the aftermath of the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African American man, by a BART police officer. “I felt that the coverage of his murder was unbalanced, and I really wanted to start an online news site for a range of diverse viewpoints,” she says.
Thus was born Oakland Local, an independent digital publication committed to giving a voice to those who are traditionally not heard. As she was growing the site, Mernit became increasingly aware of how many small businesses in the area did not have their own websites. It occurred to her that therein existed a great opportunity: If she could teach low-income teens of color to build websites, she’d be imparting skills to underserved youth while also helping local businesses.
The result was—and still is—Hack the Hood, a thriving nonprofit that introduces young people to the tech industry through intensive 168-hour “boot camps,” opening doors to career paths that otherwise would have been closed to them. As Hack the Hood’s cofounder and its first CEO, Mernit oversaw the organization’s phenomenal growth since its inception in 2013; today
it has a staff of 14 and serves 230 kids. She stepped down from her leadership role when she joined The Crucible but continues to sit on Hack the Hood’s board of directors.
“Susan’s vast experience is inspiring, and I really like that she founded a nonprofit that serves the Oakland community,” says The Crucible’s founder, Michael Sturtz. “With [our] 20th anniversary approaching in 2019, Susan’s arrival is timed nicely to lead The Crucible into its next 20 years.”
While Mernit intends to build on the legacy The Crucible has established, she’s also developing a vision for its future. In the shorter term, her goals include increasing the organization’s youth programs, setting up residencies for artists, and expanding its highly successful bike program, which includes free community bike repair and education.
“There is so much going on here, so much to learn,” Mernit says. “The Crucible is a welcoming place where people of all ages can come and play and create, which is wonderful, because playing and creating are two of the most positive and hopeful things anyone can do.”