VCs and A-List Celebrities Merge at This Year's Upfront Summit in Downtown LA

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

Paris Hilton talking at the Upfront Summit 2022.​
Courtesy of Upfront Ventures

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After taking last year off due to the pandemic, the Upfront Summit—the blowout venture capital conference staged by Santa Monica-based venture firm Upfront Ventures—was back with a bang this week. And befitting one of Los Angeles’ biggest VC industry events, the stars were out in full force at the Banc of California Stadium—including an Oscar-winning actress, multiple Grammy Award-winning musical artists and a Super Bowl-winning NFL quarterback.


The event kicked off Tuesday morning with a conversation with Issa Rae, the creator and star of the hit HBO series “Insecure,” who discussed her efforts to invest wealth back into her native South Los Angeles. An active angel investor, Rae has backed the likes of coffee chain Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen and skincare startup Topicals. “I definitely want to be known as someone who provided opportunities, but also created an infrastructure for others to do the same,” she said.

But it was Wednesday’s agenda that was packed with most of the event’s celebrities. First off was Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson; joined onstage by his brother, Harry, the pair plugged their brain-training startup, Limitless Minds, by talking up the importance of mental conditioning in athletic training regimens. Russell Wilson—who also co-founded the Jeff Bezos-backed mobile gaming app Tally—added that he chooses to back companies much like he would choose a team to compete alongside.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback and Limitless Minds' Russell Wilson at the Upfront Summit 2022.Seattle Seahawks quarterback and Limitless Minds' Russell Wilson at the Upfront Summit 2022.Courtesy of Upfront Ventures

“Who you have around you—I think that's a really critical part of allowing your mind to be at the highest, the most prestigious level it could possibly be,” Wilson said.

Next up was Oscar winner and “Big Little Lies” star Laura Dern, an active venture investor who discussed how her personal values of uplifting women and protecting the environment inform her investment strategy. Dern has backed the likes of organic baby formula startup Bobbie as well as UNest, a North Hollywood-based savings app for parents.

Dern said she’s passionate about inspiring other women to invest, since she felt excluded from conversations about money when growing up. “I was raised always talking about art, but I think as a girl, no one was talking to me about money,” Dern mused.

Laura Dern speaking at the Upfront Summit.Actress Laura Dern speaking at the Upfront Summit 2022.Courtesy of Upfront Summit

Iconic rapper LL Cool J was also in the house to discuss his lengthy career and what he looks for when working with founders. As an angel investor, the rap mogul has backed the Black-led workflow management software Forethought through multiple rounds.

LL weaved a typically colorful analogy when discussing who he chooses to collaborate with in the venture world, as well as the VC industry’s need to diversify its ranks. “I don’t care what color the cat is—I just need a cat who can catch rats,” he said. “I just need a cat who is competent, and there are competent cats of all colors. So let’s get all the best cats and make this industry look more like the world.”

The Wednesday afternoon session saw socialite, influencer and cryptocurrency advocate Paris Hilton take the stage on a Web3-focused panel moderated by her husband, M13 co-founder Carter Reum. Hilton said she was drawn to crypto after having dinner with Ethereum’s founders in 2017; she subsequently minted her first NFT in 2019, and has since become a prolific mover in the space. The “Simple Life” star is also eyeing the metaverse after launching a virtual playground called “Paris World” in collaboration with game platform Roblox. “Paris thinks anything we're doing in real life, we'll [soon] be doing in the metaverse,” Reum quipped.

Grammy winner Alanis MorissetteGrammy winner Alanis Morissette (left) on stage at the Upfront Summit 2022.Courtesy of Upfront Ventures

The summit was closed by seven-time Grammy winner Alanis Morissette, who discussed how she views her creative process. While short on venture investments, Morrisette described herself as a “chief empathy officer.”

“Whether we’re doing artwork, or coming up with an activism plan that will dovetail with a tour, it has to be something I’ll jump out of bed for in the morning—or else it’ll fall flat,” she said.

Amid a hectic day of panels and networking at Upfront, Morissette lauded the importance of resting and reseting one’s mental state when pursuing any endeavor. “Some of the best ideas I come up with are when I walk away from something that’s being asked,” she noted.

One A-list star who billed on the conference’s agenda yet absent on Wednesday was Natalie Portman. The Oscar-winning actress skipped the event due to illness, Upfront said.

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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.

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Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.

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