How AnnenbergTech Turns L.A. Geeks Into Philanthropists

Major metropolitan shifts require massive investment and leadership at the highest levels. But it's hard to get workaholic tech industry folks involved in true civic engagement. Heads down on the Next Big Thing in non-descript industrial parks, startup crews drive in early, stay at their desks, and head home after dark. Good for investors, lousy for locals.

That's where the Annenberg Foundation, one of the country's largest family grant-giving organizations with assets over $1.4 billion, comes in. It's now focusing on the tech industry with AnnenbergTech, which introduces those in the industry to the concept of local citizenship, and—when they strike it really rich—to philanthropy. PCMag spoke with Cinny Kennard, Executive Director of Annenberg Foundation, to learn more. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Cinny, in 2013, you were instrumental in bringing President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping together to Sunnylands for the 'Sunnylands Summit' at the Annenberg Retreat. So getting a bunch of tech types to leave their cubicles during daylight must have been a breeze. (Laughs) Yes, AnnenbergTech has managed to convene executives at Snap Inc., Riot Games, and Upfront Ventures to participate in roundtables and dinners with one another, as well as engage them with the nonprofit community to coordinate efforts to make L.A. a better place to live and work.

But how did you persuade the Annenberg Foundation's directors that tech was the next frontier for its work? I came back to L.A. after working in Washington, D.C. for a couple of years as SVP of Programming at the Smithsonian Institution, and I was amazed. L.A. had become a different city by the time I returned. I was taken to Playa Vista, where many tech companies are now based, and then I slowly realized that it wasn't an isolated area. Tech was spreading out across the whole city, down to El Segundo and north past Hollywood. So when I sat down to talk to Wallis Annenberg, I asked her: 'What does the Annenberg Foundation look like for the 21st century? How do we interface with this new L.A.?' And we came up with AnnenbergTech.

Explain what AnnenbergTech entails. It has three main pillars: Thought Leadership, our AnnenbergTech Leadership Series, bring[s] together L.A. tech with thought leaders who have broken new ground at the intersection of philanthropy and industry. Capacity Building [provides] grants such as the...LA2050 Annenberg Challenge and Annenberg AlchemyTech, a six-month pilot program focused exclusively on equipping nonprofits with digital expertise, experience, and providing guidance on building tech projects. And Pilot Partnerships [are] high-impact, tech-focused philanthropy programs.

You launched AnnenbergTech on the same day that Snap announced its IPO, right?It was entirely coincidental, but a good day to show how much the city had changed!

Indeed. So let's talk about the Annenberg Challenge for Innovation in Technology. What were you looking for in terms of tech-led projects worth funding? We've partnered with the LA2050 Grants Challenge, spearheaded by the Goldhirsh Foundation to reward organizations which will transform L.A. for the better in ways ranging from content creation for social impact, to community development, digital literacy, and awareness building and education. We wanted to support organizations in the community to leverage technology to address solutions to the city's most vexing problems.

Can you focus on a couple of the projects that really moved you?Definitely. Two really stand out: Everyone On, which provides internet connectivity and devices to families in public housing; and mitú Accelerate LA, which trains digital content providers to create compelling content from not-seen-enough Latino point of view. Beatriz Acevedo, founder and president at mitú, is a force of nature and its audience now reaches 100 million in the US. Everyone On is instrumental in solving the problems inherent in the digital divide, particularly in tracking the positive outcomes from increased connectivity to all. These are both particularly meaningful to our work and future vision of L.A. and the role tech can play.

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