About Town: Social Action - The Big Pitch

Zen Sekizawa
(From left): UTA partner Dan Erlij and board member David Kramer and foundation director Rene Jones.

Teens strive to win UTA Foundation grants

Exposing high school students to questioning by talent agents might sound like an unnecessarily harsh bit of education, but it’s a yearly rite of passage for kids at University High School.

Five years ago, the UTA Foundation — which advises the agency’s clients and employees on philanthropy — adopted the West Los Angeles school, where 72 percent of students are at or below the poverty level, and some laptops are so old they run only five to 10 minutes on a battery charge. “This isn’t your father’s Uni,” principal Eric Davidson says about the once-well-funded Brentwood-area school that Marilyn Monroe attended until she dropped out.

Once every fall, four agents plus foundation director Rene Jones, a former political and nonprofit fundraiser, sit behind a folding table in a classroom listening to eight groups of three to five students pitch them on what everything from the drama club to the newspaper needs most. “It gives them a growth experience they can’t get in the classroom,” Jones says. “They dress up, present, talk to these guys in suits — it’s a whole process.”

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As pitchers, the students aren’t doing badly: They’ve talked more than $200,000 out of the 6-year-old foundation’s grants program. The agency also throws an annual benefit for the school (the most recent co-hosted by Elizabeth Banks, Adam Shankman and David Arquette) and provides year-round mentoring, scholarships and a coveted college summer-internship spot.

At this year’s Nov. 4 session, between loudspeaker announcements about picking up trash and tardiness sweeps, three theater students perform a scene from Romeo & Juliet in an effort to get stackable chairs for audiences. Another group gives a PowerPoint presentation outlining funding requests for the yearbook. “I love evidence,” UTA partner Dan Erlij says. At day’s end, students win more than $50,000 in grants for such things as guitar amps, MacBook Pros, printers and library books.

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