David Bohnett was a freshly minted MBA in the early 1980s when he landed a job as a consultant with what was then Anderson Consulting in Los Angeles.
“It was my first job out here, and I loved it,” said the Chicago-born Bohnett, 61, seated among the midcentury modern furnishings in a conference room at the David Bohnett Foundation’s Beverly Hills office.
The Anderson job fit his academic background, combining computer science with business.
“I had a variety of clients, a lot of hands-on systems design,” he said.
Bohnett was promoted within a couple of years and appeared to be on a fast track to the top of the company. Then came a fateful Christmas party that wound up changing the course of his life and career.
“I wanted to bring a same-sex partner, and was told no,” Bohnett said. “It was under the guise of, We’re OK with it, but the clients might not be comfortable.”
So Bohnett left the company he loved, joining a software startup founded by a friend.
“I just couldn’t be who I was and hold that job at the same time,” he said.
After taking other positions in software companies, and suffering the death in 1994 of his long-term life partner, Rand Schrader, of AIDS, Bohnett started his own Santa Monica internet company, GeoCities, which allowed people to set up their own pages and communicate via email and chat rooms. Yahoo Inc. purchased GeoCities during the dot-com boom in 1999 for a reported $3.57 billion, with Bohnett reportedly netting about $300 million in the deal.
“We all have those pivot points in our careers,” he said. “But you never want to feel like you are not wanted, and not accepted, even if things turn out as well as they have.”
He launched his foundation with a $40 million endowment shortly after selling GeoCities, and its conference room reflects his continuing fascination with technology. The founder and managing member of Beverly Hills’ Baroda Ventures, Bohnett decorated the room with his collection of technological firsts: first-generation versions of the transistor radio, Sony Walkman, and iPad, among many others.
Leaving Anderson set him on a course that would define his career – one in which he’s spent much time and money promoting and defending lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Bohnett called for full marriage equality during a political fundraiser at his L.A. home back in 2000. Among numerous other efforts, he was reportedly the single biggest backer of efforts to stop Proposition 8, a 2008 California initiative that would have restricted marriage to heterosexual couples. The measure passed but was knocked down in federal court.
His years on the forefront of the gay rights movement came full circle in 2015 when the Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality in its Obergefell v. Hodges ruling. Bohnett remembers the day very clearly, describing the scene that took place at his home in Southampton, N.Y.
“It was a big deal, and I was there by myself, texting with friends,” he said. “The phone rings, and there was no caller ID. I picked it up, and the voice said: ‘David, this is Joe Biden. I know how hard you’ve worked on this. I just want to say thank you, on behalf of the country.’”
Biden, who Bohnett counts as a friend, is a frequent guest at the Southampton estate. Locally, Bohnett resides in West Hollywood.
The Supreme Court decision signaled to Bohnett that times had changed. For that reason, he said, he now encourages the gay community to “help everyone lift their heads up and see how our struggle fits into the larger context of the broader human rights struggle. I think we are better served if we are champions for social justice for all.”
Bohnett’s commitment to backing social justice and philanthropic causes has included stints as chairman of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and as a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; amfAR; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and USC, his alma mater.
Bohnett has also been board member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association since 2003. During his tenure, the orchestra has bolstered its youth education efforts.
“We started our first youth orchestra site, and now we have four,” he said proudly, referring to music director Gustavo Dudamel’s Yola program, patterned after a groundbreaking youth orchestra program in the conductor’s native Venezuela.
Bohnett compares the program to another favorite effort, USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which helps prepare underserved kids living near campus for higher education.
“We’ve made a long-term, sustained commitment,” he said. “This isn’t like adopting a puppy – you can’t just decide I don’t want to do it anymore. You can’t do these things as one-offs, it’s got to be part of your DNA, part of your culture.”
Deborah Borda, chief executive of the Philharmonic Association, who plans to step down in September to take the helm at the New York Philharmonic, said Bohnett is the right person to lead the orchestra through this transitional period.
“He is a great leader, but a quiet leader,” she said. “He leads through knowledge, compassion, and forming consensus. He’s a very special person and very beloved in the community.”
Borda added that Bohnett maintains an impressive commitment to both art and social justice.
“He’s always looking for imaginative ways to make an impact on both sides of the equation,” she said.
Mike Stacy, chief executive of Dallas online ticketing firm ID90 Technologies, which has received capital from Baroda, said Bohnett’s tough but fair style of leadership also shines in his business life and inspired Stacy to join the company in 2011. He added that Bohnett helped guide the firm through some dark days when it ran into some financial and operational difficulties, noting that ID90 is now cash-flow positive.
“He was that steady voice – it didn’t get very high and it didn’t get very low,” Stacy said. “Ultimately, he is just very fair. … If there are other entrepreneurs out there, I would highly suggest that they get in touch with David. He’s definitely an entrepreneur, and that’s great to have as an investor.”
Bohnett also channels his energy into the foundation’s leadership development initiatives at graduate schools of public policy at UCLA, New York University, and the University of Michigan, through which students are given fellowships in the mayor’s offices of Los Angeles, New York, and Detroit, respectively. The programs tackle issues of homelessness, transportation, and the environment, among others. The foundation has also helped establish a program at Harvard University for elected officials who are gay and might need additional government leadership training.
“The thing I am focused on is preparing people to address those real-world challenges,” Bohnett said.
His foundation has also launched more than 60 cybercenters across the country where members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community can receive computer and internet training along with other resources.
Bohnett remains excited about the future of technology, particularly in Los Angeles.
His Baroda Ventures, a $100 million fund focusing on early stage internet tech investments, has backed XDrive, NetZero, LowerMyBills, Stamps.com, DogVacay (recently sold to Rover.com), and has a major position in SteelHouse Media in Culver City. The firm also has investments in Beverly Hills’ FilmOnTV, and the fund AmplifyLA. Past investments have included WireImage Inc., sold to Getty Images. The company has four full-time employees.
“Silicon Beach is a real thing now,” he said. “There’s a whole ecosystem and infrastructure; there are funders; there are multigenerations of companies. None of that was here when I started, and I’m happy to have been part of that.”
It is a marked change from his early tech days in Los Angeles.
“When we started GeoCities in 1994, we had to do everything ourselves,” Bohnett said. “We needed hundreds of people to build and scale and manage the company. Fast-forward to where we are today: It’s like plugging in the light socket. Two or three people can do what it took 30 people to do before. I think the pace of innovation will only continue to increase, because so much friction has been removed in the whole startup creative process.”
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