Column: How iFoster Helped Save the Semester for College-Bound Foster Youth

Serita Cox

Serita Cox is the co-founder and CEO of iFoster, a nonprofit that aims to ensure that every child growing up outside of their biological home has the resources and opportunities they need to become successful, independent adults.

Column: How iFoster Helped Save the Semester for College-Bound Foster Youth

My first indication that COVID-19 was going to dramatically impact foster youth came on March 11 and it came from Los Rios Community College District, the second largest community college district in California, with over 75,000 students. The school sent an emergency email that they would be closing their four colleges and six educational centers, and moving to online classes for the rest of the semester. And they feared that many students, particularly foster youth, did not have the technology (laptops and an Internet connection) to make this change and risked failing their semester.

They were right, based on our experience of more than 10 years trying to connect youth in care to the things they need to succeed in school and in the workplace. In 2016, iFoster participated in a University of Southern California study that found that 95% of rural foster youth, and 79% of urban foster youth, did not have access to a computer and the internet where they live. Up until now, technology access was viewed as a "nice to have," but not necessary for foster youth to function in today's society.

March 11 changed that. Los Rios' email brought into stark focus that the relatively few foster youth who made it to college were at risk of failing and dropping out because they lacked the tools they needed. With only 8% of foster youth ever achieving a college degree, losing even one due to our failure to adequately provide for them is a travesty. We had to act.

iFoster co-founder and CEO Serita Cox

Photo: iFoster

In the 11 weeks of sheltering in place that soon followed, iFoster, John Burton Advocates for Youth, and the California Foster Youth Ombudsman's Office ran point on a mission to keep those youth connected, literally and figuratively. It involved almost 700 organizations and child welfare agencies, and resulted in the procurement and distribution of 6,630 smartphones and laptops.

This is the short version of how it all happened, and I hope it helps folks in other states plan for similar efforts this fall. If this can be done during stay-at-home orders in the country's most populous state, it can be done in any state, county or locality.

By the end of the day on March 11, we had the foundation of a plan figured out. We needed to start identifying college foster youth who needed the technology to survive academically, and then we needed to figure out how to pay for and actually acquire the phones and laptops, at a time when the demand for these was surging with every student in America basically learning from home.

The next day brought two big wins for this operation. First, California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office sent out directions to their 115 colleges that their foster youth would get the technology they need, and asked the administrations on those campuses to start getting rough estimates together for how many students qualified. This was the first of several key outreach efforts the got the ball rolling to actually define the universe of need.

Second, the philanthropic sector quickly got the importance of the goal here. Long-term funders of iFoster's digital divide programming – Foster Care Counts, Walter S. Johnson and Ticket to Dream – stepped up with the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, John Burton Advocates for Youth, California Wellness Foundation, LA Tech, Foundation for Community Colleges, Tipping Point, and a generous anonymous donor. These early investments were followed by an executive order from the Governor of California and public funding from California Department of Social Services

By March 13, initial forecasts started pouring in from community colleges across the state. On March 16, the first specific requests identifying individual foster youth students and their needs came in. Before the first schools closed, laptops and smartphones for foster youth began arriving on college campuses for distribution. All of this happened prior to the statewide shelter-in-place order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 19.

But many schools had already sent students home, and foster youth around the state were left to frantically figure out how to remain in class remotely and from afar. We needed to build a massive outreach machine that could through sheer volume find most of the youth in need around the state.

A member of Mira Costa Guardian Scholars program catalogs a shipment of laptops and phones for foster youth who will need them during the pandemic shutdown. Photo: iFoster

Key foster care organizations in California have been sharing resources and partnering on programs for years across child welfare, K-12 education and college. It was this foundation that was able to immediately react and invite new partners to the table to implement a plan.

College foster youth support programs like Guardian Scholars reached out to their students to identify need. County child welfare departments, including the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, tasked their county social workers and probation officers to review their caseloads and find out which of their youth needed tech. Foster care liaisons at school districts across the state did the same, as did foster family organizations, court appointed special advocates, transitional housing providers and independent living programs.

With the process of finding recipients underway and financial commitments lined up from foundations, corporations and eventually the state, we then had to go and acquire the phones and laptops. And with demand for these products skyrocketing because of school closures, this is where California's existing infrastructure for connecting foster youth to technology paid off.

iFoster has provided over 6,000 laptops to foster youth since 2012 funded by very committed philanthropy. In the fall of 2019, just prior to the pandemic, iFoster launched a pilot program with the California Public Utilities Commission to provide all current and former foster youth between 13 and 26 with a smartphone that included unlimited voice, text and data that operates as an internet hotspot.

Having those types of arrangements was critical to mobilizing in an emergency. We did not have to cold call on manufacturers to source and ship laptops and phones – we already know and work with some. We did not have to completely invent pots of funding – we could augment ones that already existed.

It was this combination of having an existing collaboration, as well as scalable iFoster laptop and internet programs, that allowed California to respond so quickly to the connectivity needs of foster youth when the pandemic hit.

While outreach took an army of thousands, the process of getting the right technology to each youth was centralized at iFoster. We are a small virtual organization of nine employees, and we had to staff up quickly.

Year two of our "TAY AmeriCorps program" – where we train and hire current and former foster youth to be peer resource navigators to other foster youth – was scheduled to start in March. We brought on 25 foster youth in the Bay Area and Los Angeles who we felt could work effectively from their homes.

TAY AmeriCorps member Jezabel works on iFoster's intake team, establishing a list of youth who will receive laptops and phones. Photo: iFoster

We work in teams. Our bilingual intake team answers phone, text and emails requests and ensures that every application has all the information required for approval. They hand off to our VAT team (verification, activation and tracking), which ensures there is no duplication in requests and validates with each youth or their caregiver the tech they need and their shipping address.

As foster youth move frequently, ordering and shipping devices happen within one business day of validation. Our ordering team works closely with our third party logistic company, Rakuten Super Logistics, who fulfills and ships orders. Rakuten manages inventory, order priority and shipping flow.

Phones require activation on the Boost telecom network, so our VAT team work feverishly to activate phones once they ship to ensure that every phone is ready to go when a foster youth receives them. Finally, our VAT team follows up with every recipient to provide shipping and tracking information and to ensure that every youth knows who to contact if they have any issues with their tech or with any other resources they may need.

Clear roles, responsibilities and standard operating procedures are critical. However, it is the dedication of a team of transition-age foster youth and their supervisors managing them virtually that make this work.

All told, this was a collaboration of 686 partners that included the state, 50 county child welfare departments, thousands of child welfare workers, college support teams, caregivers, mentors and foster youth themselves. We have collectively proven that bridging the digital divide for foster youth is a solvable problem, and one that can be replicated, before distance learning starts again this fall.

One of the thousands of current and former foster youth who received a phone through the partnership sent a photo of her new lifeline. Photo: iFoster

For those interested in stealing our playbook, I sincerely hope you do! We are planning to produce a more formal how-to guide on the project soon. But in terms of top-line recommendations, here are the four things to focus on…

Build off philanthropy: In this crisis, the first and fastest funding came from philanthropy. However, to achieve scale, sustainable funding must come from the public sector.

Diverse network to identify demand: Understanding who needs what is not an easy task. There is no centralized data system that tracks foster youth tech needs. However, every foster youth has their own support network they rely on.

Unlimited Data is Key: The phones and laptops are only as valuable as the hotspot. Without that element, it will be hard for many of our foster youth students to connect from where they are.

Centralized Distribution: It took a lot of partners to make this all work, but the actual process of receiving products and sending them out to youth had to be a tight operation with strict procedures in place.

This collaboration continues to grow, with government funding adding to philanthropy. Not only will college foster youth have the technology they need to distance learn for as long as they need, but we are well on our way to ensuring that every high school foster youth will also have the tech they need, and there is every indication that our K-8 foster youth students will as well. As of June 12, this partnership has connected a total of 7,599 foster youth from 51 counties with tech, and we are still serving between 500 and 700 youth every week.

Fall is coming and distance learning will be a reality again. We are confident that other states, counties and localities can replicate what we've accomplished in 11 weeks of COVID.

We at iFoster are here to help. We are willing to provide technical support to any team nationwide who wants to ensure their youth go back to school with the technology they need. We will share our standard operating procedures, documents, templates and provide intros or allow others to leverage the partnerships we have already built to device wholesalers and telecom partners.

This column first appeared in the Chronicle of Social Justice.

Serita Cox is the co-founder and CEO of iFoster, a nonprofit that aims to ensure every child growing up outside of their biological home has the resources and opportunities they need to become successful, independent adults.

From Pitch Meetings to Power Lunches: LA’s Exclusive Membership Clubs 🗝️

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Summer's here, so it's time to zhuzh up your work environment. Discovering the best membership and social clubs in Los Angeles for meetings can boost networking and collaboration, offering exclusive venues and premium amenities tailored for professionals and creatives to thrive amidst the city's vibrant backdrop. These clubs provide a sophisticated setting for productive gatherings and meaningful connections in LA. Here are some top private member clubs perfect for meetings and productive work sessions.

The Jonathan Club

Club Details: The Jonathan Club, one of Los Angeles' original membership clubs, has been a cornerstone of the city's elite social scene since its founding in the mid-1890s. Its legacy is intertwined with the growth and development of LA itself, most notably through a pivotal meeting held at the club that sparked the idea for a southern campus of the University of California—what would eventually become UCLA. Today, the Jonathan Club continues to offer its members an unparalleled experience of exclusivity and refinement. With locations in both DLTA and Santa Monica, members enjoy access to premium amenities and spaces and a calendar with hundreds of social events and workshops throughout the year, providing ample opportunities for networking, personal growth, and leisure activities.

Membership Details: Initiation fee is around $50,000, and admission typically requires that you be invited or know someone who is already a member.

Spring Place

Image Source: Spring Place

Neighborhood: Beverly Hills

Club Details: A mix between co-working space and social club, this Beverly Hills hotspot is a more exclusive version of similar clubs. Spring Place Beverly Hills spans three floors and offers a stunning art collection. The interior is filled with tons of natural light and has an intentional design that fuels members to harness some of their best work. Members also have access to luxurious dining and nightlife pop-ups that happen at Spring Place.

Membership Details: There is a non-refundable initiation fee of $500 and then local membership for people under 30 starts at $300 per month, while monthly membership for locals over 30 is $600.

Griffin Club

Image Source: Griffin Club

Neighborhood: Cheviot Hills

Club Details: Located in Cheviot Hills, Griffin Club LA is a sporty club with ample shared workspace. Following a $20M renovation in 2020, the club now boasts seven LED-lit tennis courts, four LED-lit pickleball courts, two recreational lap pools, a 25-meter family pool for kids, an adults-only resort pool, and childcare services. It's the ideal destination for a clientele looking to mix work with competitive sport.

Membership Details: Membership is by invitation only and is subject to approval. Membership prices at the club vary. A family membership entails a $12,000 initial fee plus a $450 monthly fee, while a junior membership only entails a $2,000 initiation fee and a $205 monthly fee.

Soho House West Hollywood

Image Source: Soho House West Hollywood

Neighborhood: West Hollywood

Club Details: Soho House West Hollywood provides a stylish and exclusive work and meeting destination, featuring chic meeting rooms and workspaces with panoramic views of Los Angeles. Combining luxury amenities with a creative atmosphere, it offers an ideal setting for networking, collaboration, productive sessions, and an amazing Sunday brunch!

Membership Details: Two current member referrals are needed, plus an online application, and a recent photo to confirm your identity. Quarterly memberships start at $675.25, but if you’re under 27, you can pay $337.75 quarterly. However, if you want access to every house, membership costs $5,250.00 annually, or $2,650.00 if you’re under 27.

Little Beach House Malibu

Image Source: Little Beach House Malibu

Neighborhood: Malibu

Club Details: The Little Beach House Malibu is a small, local club for the creative community of Malibu and the surrounding coastal areas. The club is known for its magnificent dining room, bar, sitting room and terrace. It is the perfect place for a truly memorable work meal.

Membership Details: Malibu Beach House is not included in the Soho House membership. If you are an existing member, you can apply for “Malibu Plus” for an additional $2,190 a year, or $1,095 if you’re under 27.

San Vicente Bungalows

Image Source: San Vicente Bungalows

Neighborhood: West Hollywood

Club Details: San Vicente Bungalows is an exclusive, members-only social club located in West Hollywood, California, offering a luxurious and private environment for its high-profile clientele. The club is renowned for its strict privacy policies, elegant decor, and high-end amenities, catering to celebrities (and royals) and industry elites seeking a discreet space to unwind and socialize.

Membership Details: You must be nominated by a current club member to apply. Applications are evaluated monthly and annual dues start at $4,200 plus a $1,800 initiation fee.

The Aster

Image Source: The Aster

Neighborhood: Hollywood

Club Details: The Aster, located at the iconic intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, redefines the modern members' club with its emphasis on warmth and hospitality, blending public hotel amenities with private club exclusivity. Featuring bright, airy spaces and top-notch facilities such as an outdoor pool, recording studio, and rooftop bar, it offers a fluid environment for work, relaxation, and socializing.

Membership Details: Memberships start at $3,600 per year and be acquired by filling out an application. In addition to uploading a photo, hopeful members also have to write a small bio while highlighting their interests, skills, profession, and hobbies.


Image Source: NeueHouse

Neighborhood: Venice/Hollywood/DTLA

Club Details: NeueHouse in LA is a chic private workspace and cultural hub designed for creative professionals, offering sophisticated workspaces, a dynamic calendar of cultural programming, and luxurious amenities. Situated in three bustling neighborhoods across LA, it provides a collaborative environment where members can work, network, and unwind in style.

Membership Details: You have to apply for the Salon membership, which includes questions like “dream dinner guests (dead or alive?)." Annual dues for Salon memberships are $3,000 plus a $200 joining fee. You can also inquire about the Gallery membership for flexible workspaces and offices for individuals or teams, starting at $595 per month, with various options depending on your needs.

🧬🔬AI-Driven Drug Discovery

🔦 Spotlight

Terray Therapeutics is at the forefront of AI-assisted drug discovery and development, operating a cutting-edge laboratory in Monrovia, California. The facility, roughly two-thirds the size of a football field, functions as a data powerhouse, generating over 50 terabytes of raw data daily, which is an amount of information equivalent to 12,000 high definition movies, through its miniaturized automation processes.

Terray Therapeutics exemplifies a new wave of innovative companies harnessing artificial intelligence to revolutionize drug discovery and development. The key to their approach lies in generating vast amounts of high-quality experimental data to train their AI systems. This data-driven strategy enables rapid experimentation and pattern recognition, allowing the AI to make informed predictions about potential treatments. Terray's generative AI can digitally design drug molecules, which are then synthesized and tested in their high-speed automated laboratory. The platform measures the interaction between these molecules and target proteins, with both successful and unsuccessful results feeding back into the AI system.

This iterative process creates a powerful feedback loop, continuously refining the AI's predictive capabilities and accelerating the drug discovery process. Terray's tNova platform integrates chemical experimentation and computation at an unprecedented scale, producing massive amounts of precise, purpose-built data that becomes increasingly valuable with each cycle of design and experimentation. This unique blend of experimentation and computation allows Terray to efficiently explore a vast molecular space, potentially solving complex problems in drug discovery faster and more effectively than traditional methods.

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • Fuze Technology, a provider of rentable portable phone chargers, has raised a $11.5M Series A led by Beverly Pacific and joined by Palm Tree Crew, Bain Capital Ventures Scout Fund, Dream Ventures, Live Nation, ASM Global, SCIENCE Ventures, Haslem Sports Group, and Simon Ventures. - learn more
  • Stanly, a platform that offers fan-to-fan and artist-to-fan communication and commerce, raised an $8M Funding Round led by C Capital and joined by AppWorks, Goodwater, and Palm Drive Capital. - learn more
  • GrayMatter, an industrial robotics company, raised a $45M Series B led by Wellington Management and joined by NGP Capital, Euclidean Capital, Advance Venture Partners, SQN Venture Partners, 3M Ventures, B Capital, Bow Capital, Calibrate Ventures, OCA Ventures, and Swift Ventures. - learn more

LA Venture Funds

LA Exits

  • Webtoon Entertainment, an online cartoon company based in LA carved out of South Korea's Naver, set IPO terms to 15m shares at $18-$21. It would have a $2.6b fully diluted market value, were it to price in the middle, and plans to list on the Nasdaq (WBTN). - learn more
  • EV maker Fisker has finally filed for bankruptcy. - learn more
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Sony Pictures Experiences Division Formed After Alamo Drafthouse Acquisition

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Sony Pictures Experiences Division Formed After Alamo Drafthouse Acquisition

🔦 Spotlight

Sony Pictures Entertainment has acquired Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in a groundbreaking deal that marks the first time in over 75 years a major Hollywood studio will own a movie theater chain. This acquisition signals a potential shift towards vertical integration in the film industry, with Sony gaining more control over the distribution and exhibition of its films.

The deal allows Sony to expand its presence in experiential entertainment, aligning with its vision of engaging audiences outside the home through unique offerings. Alamo Drafthouse's innovative dine-in movie experience, devoted fanbase, and curated programming like Fantastic Fest make it an appealing acquisition target. Sony stressed that Alamo will continue operating its 35 locations under CEO Michael Kustermann, who will head the new Sony Pictures Experiences division.

While the move provides financial backing for Alamo after its bankruptcy struggles, questions remain about whether the chain can maintain its independent spirit and personality under Sony's ownership. Alamo is renowned for creative programming like themed events, interactive screenings, and a strict no-talking policy that has cultivated a passionate community of moviegoers. Balancing this distinct identity with Sony's corporate interests will be a key challenge moving forward.

From a technological standpoint, this move opens up possibilities for Sony to enhance the moviegoing experience at Alamo Drafthouse locations through integration of advanced audiovisual systems, immersive technologies, and projection/sound solutions. In addition, Sony could create a more seamless and connected experience for moviegoers, such as through integrated ticketing platforms, mobile apps, and personalization driven by data analytics. While specific technological plans are not detailed, the combination of Sony's resources and Alamo Drafthouse's innovative approach could foster synergies and drive the development of new technologies to differentiate the theatrical experience further.

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • Apex, a satellite bus maker, raised a $95M funding round co-led by XYZ VC and CRV joined by Upfront Ventures, 8VC, Toyota Ventures, Point72 Ventures and others. - learn more
  • Regard, a developer of AI tools to help medical providers synthesize patient data, raised a $30M Series B led by Oak HC/FT at a $350M valuation. - learn more
  • Daisy, a small business tech installation startup, raised an $11M Series A co-led by Goldcrest and Bungalow. - learn more
  • Pyte, a startup that allows companies in highly regulated industries like finance and healthcare to perform computations on encrypted data without ever decrypting it, raised a $5M Funding Round led by Myriad Venture Partners. - learn more

LA Venture Funds

LA Exits