David C. Bohnett was born today, April 2, in 1956. He is an American philanthropist and technology entrepreneur. He is the founder and chairman of the David Bohnett Foundation, a non-profit, grant-making organization devoted to improving society through social activism, mainly supporting LGBTQ causes.
Bohnett founded the pioneering social networking site GeoCities in 1994; the highly successful site went public via an IPO in 1998, and was acquired by Yahoo! in 1999. Bohnett currently invests in technology start-ups via Baroda Ventures, a Los Angeles–based venture capital firm he started in 1998.
Bohnett was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Hinsdale, an affluent Chicago suburb.
Bohnett was interested in business at an early age, selling Amway products and delivering newspapers. In high school he became fascinated by computers, and chose to attend college at the University of Southern California – where he received a BS in business administration – because it was one of the few universities at the time with a computer science program. He put himself through college by waiting tables, guiding tours at Universal Studios, and other service jobs.
In his youth, Bohnett experienced the isolation and pain of being gay, first in his conservative suburban hometown, and then in 1978 in college when his first lover, from a small-town Indiana Catholic family, committed suicide. Bohnett became active in gay rights at graduate school at the University of Michigan, beginning in the fall of 1978 as a hotline counselor at the Jim Toy–founded University of Michigan Lesbian and Gay Male Program Office, now called the Spectrum Center. As an openly gay MBA student, he volunteered to go to freshman psychology classes and, looking like an average Midwesterner, said to the students, "I'm gay, ask me anything." He received his MBA in finance from University of Michigan's Ross School of Business in 1980.
When he returned to Los Angeles after graduate school, he became involved with GLAAD and the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, came out to his parents, and in 1983 entered a long-term relationship with fellow activist and openly gay judge Rand Schrader, 11 years his senior. When Schrader died in the AIDS epidemic in 1993, Bohnett, like many surviving same-sex partners prior to marriage equality, was left with no legal spousal benefits and a significant estate tax bill. He did however receive $386,000 from Schrader's life insurance. Bohnett had been a staff information systems consultant at Arthur Andersen from 1980 to 1983 and, unable to be openly gay in that world, he had left to work at software companies instead. As his career in software was progressing, and shortly after Schrader’s death, he searched for a way to tie together the software and activist sides of his life. Around this time the World Wide Web was just starting to be introduced, and he felt compelled to be a part of it.
In 1994 Bohnett's business and software expertise, and his interest in giving people a voice and a chance to meet people of similar interests, led him to develop GeoCities.com, with John Rezner as co-founder and chief technical officer. GeoCities was the first social networking site on the internet, an early forerunner of MySpace and Facebook. It allowed users to engage in a variety of innovative activities – create their own free webpages, organized into communities of interest; connect with others online; express their passions, creativity, and individuality; and engage in e-commerce. The site grew very rapidly, receiving millions of users who set up webpages; at its peak it ultimately reached 38 million pages, created by individual users. GeoCities was the first large Internet venture built on user-generated content, and in 2008 TechRadar cited it as #2 in its list of "20 websites that changed the world."
By 1997 it was the fifth most popular site on the Internet, with over a million users. The company went public in 1998, nearly doubling its initial share price in its first day of trading; Bohnett used the increased funding to add various features including a search engine, numerous tools and templates which made page creation easy and which completely bypassed any need for HTML coding, and social tools which made it easy to interact. GeoCities also hosted business sites, sites for world news, and shopping sites. By December 1998 it was the third most visited internet site, and had 41 theme-based interest categories called "neighborhoods", whose topics ranged to areas as varied as fan fiction, fine dining, arts and literature, campus life, computers and technology, investing and finance, individual sports and recreational activities, education and philosophy, politics, family, kids' interests, chat and romance, the environment, travel, home life, cooking, health, fan pages, entertainment genres, women, and multiple international-interest pages. Yahoo! Inc. purchased GeoCities during the dotcom boom in 1999 for $3.57 billion, and Bohnett netted about $300 million.
By 1998 Bohnett's success with GeoCities allowed him to begin investing in other technology companies, and he founded Baroda Ventures, a Los Angeles–based venture capital firm which makes early-stage investments in tech-related ventures. Baroda's investments focus mainly on consumer internet, e-commerce, mobile, SaaS, and digital media industries, with a particular interest in companies based in Los Angeles. Some of Baroda's investments have included SteelHouse, Retention Science, ID90T, Surf Air, DogVacay, and Gamesville.
Bohnett has become actively involved in many of Baroda's investment vehicles. These include NetZero, Stamps.com, Xdrive, LowerMyBills.com, Wireimage, OVGuide, FilmOn, and Online Partners (the parent company of Gay.com). In each of these he has maintained a significant investment stake, directorship, and active involvement with the entrepreneurs and management team. He has also been a board member of NCR Corporation.
Immediately after selling GeoCities to Yahoo! in 1999, Bohnett turned his attention to activism. He created the David Bohnett Foundation, "a nonprofit grant-making organization focused on providing resources for organizations pursuing societal change and social justice through activism," with an initial endowment of $32 million. According to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, he "invests where he can actually improve lives, empower individuals and build viable communities in meaningful ways." To serve as executive director and strategist for his foundation he hired Michael Fleming, who had been a media leader for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The David Bohnett Foundation is devoted to improving society through community-building and social activism, and it provides funding, state-of-the-art technology, and technical support to relevant innovative organizations and institutions. As of 2018, the foundation had donated more than $109 million. Its current primary funding areas are:
The Fund for Los Angeles, which supports a broad spectrum of arts, educational, and civic programs in Los Angeles
LGBT-related causes, AIDS services and research, Voting rights and voter registration, Gun violence prevention, Animal research, and animal rights.
The foundation also funds graduate-school civic internship and leadership programs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (an LGBT-related program), the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. In Detroit, New York City, and Los Angeles, the graduate students receive positions in the mayor's office, and their stipends and tuition are paid for by the Bohnett Foundation. These paid student interns have been involved in policy analysis and implementation, assisting speech writing, evaluating department heads, reducing homelessness, and other initiatives. Several former Bohnett mayoral fellows occupy management positions in the cities where they had interned, and in 2014 Stephanie Chang, a Bohnett fellow from the University of Michigan, became the first Asian-American woman elected to the Michigan state legislature.
Bohnett was also a founding member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). He focused its strategy on lobbying entertainment and media companies to produce positive representations of gays. His motivation in supporting positive media portrayals was in part to help people feel more comfortable about coming out.
Bohnett was a trustee of amfAR (The Foundation for AIDS Research) 2006–2017, and was honored with an amfAR Award of Courage in 2006. He donated $1 million to amfAR's 2014/2015 Countdown for a Cure drive for an end to AIDS by 2020.
In the film industry, through his foundation Bohnett funded the restoration and DVD of the landmark 1977 film Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, which featured interviews with 26 gay men and women. It was the first feature-length documentary film about gay identity made by gay filmmakers, and there was no viable print of it remaining. The restoration and DVD were done for the film's 30th anniversary; the restored and remastered film premiered in 2008 and the DVD was released in 2010. Bohnett also made a major financial contribution to the 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, about homosexuality and its perceived conflict with Christianity. He was the executive producer of Political Animals, a 2016 documentary about the struggles of openly gay politicians.
His LGBT rights political activism and support has included being a pioneer proponent for same-sex marriage: In the fall of 2000, at a political fundraiser at his home in Los Angeles that included a number of U.S. senators, he called for full equality for gays and lesbians, including same-sex marriage, and in 2004 he co-funded the Civil Marriage Collaborative to support marriage equality. He has supported major initiatives and donations to boost openly gay political leadership. The Bohnett Foundation has in particular been a major and long-term supporter of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, especially its LGBT Leadership Fellows aimed at training LGBT leaders for state and local governments; as of 2017 the Bohnett Leaders Fellowship at the Victory Institute has sent 118 LGBT leaders to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government program since 2002. The David Bohnett LGBTQ Leaders Fellowship alumni have included Kyrsten Sinema, the first openly bisexual U.S. congressperson, and Annise Parker, one of the first openly gay mayors of a major U.S. city (Houston).