The tech boom of the ’90s catapulted the rapid spread of information, produced early stage social networking, and made huge fortunes for Internet entrepreneurs on the leading edge of the digital economy. The consciousness of inequality and devastation was also rapidly broadened, giving rise to the evolution of large-scale philanthropy, from a post-retirement ambition into a privilege made possible by the Internet phenomenon of generating billions of dollars in a short period of time.
David Bohnett dove into philanthropy immediately after his company, GeoCities, sold to Yahoo Inc. in 1999 for a reported $3.5B. The ramp up to his generosity reaches back to his graduate school days at the University of Michigan. “I earned an MBA following an undergraduate degree at USC. I worked as a hotline volunteer and campus activist for the university’s LGBT Resource Center. Since then, my drive to be in service of the greater good – with the intent to inspire others to do the same – has been marked with a mix of technological innovation and the hands-on cultivation of relationships within the context of community building,” explains Bohnett.
Ironically, it was the intolerant business culture toward the gay and lesbian community that served as the catalyst for Bohnett to pursue the entrepreneurial track of technology and finance. This led to GeoCities and, ultimately, the formation of the David Bohnett Foundation. The mission of the foundation, stated plainly on its website, is to “improv[e] society through social activism.” Distilled to its essence, the goal is to offer people an opportunity to have a fair shake in society; Bohnett defines this as hope. “Whether it’s community beautification or a municipal rail system, it’s about the hope that things can get better. This concept carries over into other parts of our lives.” Los Angeles children are the benefactors of this philosophy through the foundation’s contributions to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, including funding for its Youth Orchestra LA program (YOLA). To help broaden the access, awareness, and diversity of YOLA, Bohnett was directly involved in recruiting Gustavo Dudamel as the Los Angeles Philharmonic Music and Artistic Director.
Says Bohnett: “A strong musical emphasis provides structure, discipline, and tools for getting along as individuals in a larger group. This helps our underserved youth become successful members of our community.” The success of the program relies on the involvement of the students and family. Advanced students become mentors, and the parents sign contracts that they will care for the instruments, monitor their child’s practice, and actively participate in the program. YOLA is devoted to providing free quality instruments and music education to children with the greatest needs, scarcest resources, and fewest options. The program uses music as a means for social change.
Directly aligned with Bohnett’s technology background and love for the Los Angeles Philharmonic is project “VAN Beethoven Mobile Tour.” From September 11 to October 18, coinciding with the Immortal Beethoven Festival at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a customized truck fabricated with Oculus virtual reality technology will tour the city, offering Angelenos an opportunity to experience a three-minute immersion in an LA Phil concert performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Tricked out with seating and carpet from the actual venue, the vehicle allows participants to escape into a stimulating visual, 360-degree, 3D, private experience of an LA Phil concert of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, from unique perspectives. VAN Beethoven will tour neighborhoods throughout LA, stopping at parks, museums, and more. A schedule of community stops is available at laphil.com/vanbeethoven.
“I had a really good idea and the discipline and strength to pursue my vision. I had faith – in god and myself. I had a commitment to tell the truth about who I am and what I feel.”
While community and social justice are the guideposts of the foundation, Bohnett explains that “the goal is to pick programs that are meaningful to me and consistent with our responsibility to use our intellect, will, and responsibility as a member of society to better our fellow man.” Bohnett’s philanthropic involvement extends beyond LA Phil, supporting the programs of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, amfAR The Foundation for AIDS Research, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and additional issues that fit within the broader categories arising from Bohnett’s own personal interests in creating a fair society such as socially responsible mass transit, voter participation, gun regulation, social services, and access to technology. His work for social justice was made possible through the success of GeoCities but was inspired by the lessons learned from trailblazing LA gay civil rights activists Rand Schrader and Sheldon Andelson, among others. After law school, Schrader was hired by LA City Attorney Burt Pines, becoming the first openly gay staffer at the City Attorney’s Office. Upon recommendation by Andelson in 1980, Schrader was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the LA Municipal Court during which time, County Supervisor Ed Edelman appointed Schrader as the chairman to the LA County AIDS Commission. Schrader, who was Bohnett’s decade-long partner, died from AIDS-related complications in June 1993. Bohnett used his life savings and the benefits from Schrader’s life insurance to create Beverly Hills Internet, the website that ultimately became GeoCities.
GeoCities is widely credited with being the model for early social networking. The inspiration for GeoCities was Bohnett’s interest in electronics, specifically amateur (ham) radio. Then came the modem, and the world was forever changed, enabling people to connect through the telephone network. Bohnett began reading about the Internet and utilizing services like CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL to experience structured applications, games, and tools. Bohnett describes GeoCities as a continuum of those services, analogous to how MySpace and Facebook are a continuum of GeoCities. Bohnett’s early years designing business information systems for Arthur Andersen laid the foundation for developing tools from scratch for GeoCities. He considers founding and building GeoCities his proudest professional accomplishment. His goal from the beginning was to create a community-based site, built on user generated content, where everyone on the Internet could contribute. Before Facebook, Bohnett’s model allowed users to create a unique Web page to connect with others through common interests.
Bohnett’s interests are as diverse as the neighborhoods he seeks to help. An avid cyclist, he often biked through Franklin Canyon Park. One day, he happened to notice the Franklin Canyon Orange Grove, one of the last native orange groves in Los Angeles. The patch of land was in desperate need of rehabilitation. The nonprofit group Food Forward had been harvesting the grove’s Valencia oranges on behalf of local food banks, but the 246 trees were in distress. Considering the grove’s deterioration of cultural heritage to be a blight on the community, the David Bohnett Foundation undertook a multiyear effort to broker a deal between the Department of Water and Power (which owns the land), and the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department: The DWP would lease the grove to the parks department for the next twenty years for $20, and Bohnett promised that his foundation would support the grove’s maintenance and harvest to benefit those in need.
Benefiting community and social causes with grants totaling more than $53mm earned Bohnett the American Jewish Committee Los Angeles’ Ira E. Yellin Community Leadership Award in 2014, which was presented to him by Governor Brown. Bohnett’s philosophy of philanthropy and investment for profit tend to use the same criteria when evaluating where to invest, but the real synergy is around leadership. He views successful philanthropic endeavors as finding what you care about and getting involved with causes with which you identify so that you can experience the benefits of service firsthand. He advises younger generations to use their career skills to empower their activism and thinks that the Millennial generation has a much greater sense of the problems in the world.
One polarizing problem that troubles Bohnett is gun violence, which he refers to as a “scourge” on society. Yet even when contemplating such grave issues, Bohnett maintains a healthy approach to balancing the philanthropic, professional, and personal aspects of his life. His secret is prioritizing the time spent with those he considers special. His advice is not complicated: Put down your phone and talk with people. Learn and support what interests them.
Confident yet humble, Bohnett is succeeding in business, philanthropy, and life “by my own definition on my own terms because I focused on three things,” he says. “I had a really good idea and the discipline and strength to pursue my vision. I had faith – in God and myself. And I had a commitment to tell the truth about who I am and what I feel.” The U.S. Supreme Court concurs with Bohnett’s views on equality based on who we are; on June 26 it ruled that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. “This is a time for great celebration for all Americans and for what we stand for as a country. Every lesbian and gay person who had the courage to come out and be their authentic self deserves some credit for the Supreme Court decision on affirming marriage equality. That fight is over; let’s now move on to direct our energies to issues of income equality and social justice.”