Chef Roy Choi, foundation exec Tara Roth bridge social media with social action

April 13, 2017

Speakers, from left: Professor Raphael Bostic, Tara Roth and Roy Choi (Photos by Tom Queally) More photos available on Flickr »

By Matthew Kredell

Social media has shaken up business and philanthropy. In its latest event in the Leading from the West series, the Bedrosian Center on Governance at the USC Price School of Public Policy brought in chef Roy Choi and philanthropic foundation executive Tara Roth to discuss how building a community online translates to real-life engagement.

Raphael Bostic, USC Price professor and holder of the Bedrosian Chair in Governance, moderated the conversation titled “Taking it to the Streets: Cyber Communities and Real World Impact” on March 23 at USC’s Bovard Auditorium.

“What strikes me is that you’re tremendous social pioneers,” Bostic said. “You’ve taken ideas and really implemented them with the explicit design to get different people into the mix and the conversation.”

Sparking civic activism

Dean Jack Knott, right, with the speakers (Photo by Tom Queally) More photos available on Flickr »

As innovators in Los Angeles, Choi used Twitter to build a food-truck empire, while Roth turned to crowdsourcing to engage Angelenos in philanthropy.

As president of the Goldhirsh Foundation, Roth runs the My LA2050 Grants Challenge that empowers the community to vote on which projects the foundation should support with its $1 million in annual grants.

Early on at Goldhirsh, Roth realized that putting on great events would reach about 500 people, while with crowdsourcing they could reach 8,000 people in the same amount of time.

By having citizens learn about the applicants and help choose the winning submissions, Roth believes LA2050 has sparked many civic-minded Angelenos to find out more about how they can get involved and become better city activists.

“You tapped into a physical hunger,” Roth said to Choi, “and we tapped into a hunger that Angelenos wanted to feel connected, wanted to be involved, wanted to have agency in their future, and wanted to do something about that but didn’t know how.”

Fueling a paradigm shift

Roy Choi’s LocoL food truck serves guests at USC, following the Bedrosian Center event. (Photo by Tom Queally) More photos available on Flickr »

Choi revolutionized the street-food industry with his Korean taco truck Kogi. Starting in 2008, he and a business partner used Twitter to disclose the location of the trucks, and it became a game for followers to track them down.

“There were all these horrible stereotypes of what street food was, and we saw it go through a whole transformation,” Choi said. “Before, hanging out in a parking lot, the reaction was that you’re up to something. Now people started hanging out in parking lots, getting to know each other, creating a community. All of a sudden, we start breaking down walls of what we thought of each other, what we were told about each other, and what we imagined each other to be.”

After exploding in Los Angeles, the food-truck industry went global.

With his new restaurant LocoL, Choi wants to revolutionize fast food the way he did food trucks, by putting a better quality of food in inner cities and hiring from within the neighborhood. The first locations opened in Watts and Oakland last year. His goal is to open a thousand LocoL locations, each one feeding and supporting an under-served community.

“Imagine what we saw with food trucks going from roach coach and dirty, to gourmet and billion-dollar industry,” Choi said. “I want to do the same thing with poverty in the inner city. Right now, people say food desert, welfare, section-8 housing. In 10 years, I want it to be flipped, and those things no longer are talked about because the economy exists.”

Choi noted that he could never have started Kogi in the middle of Manhattan.

“Los Angeles is so big as a city, so wide open, the weather so good, everyone chilling and doing their own thing, that you can start a revolution without getting caught,” Choi said.

Roth added that Los Angeles provides people with the freedom to be whoever they want, the spotlight to have it noticed, and the short attention span to take chances.

“If there’s a benefit to the size of Los Angeles, it’s you can try anything and, if you fail, you can reinvent yourself and no one really cares,” Roth said. “This is a place where people reinvent themselves all the time. It’s liberating, and it leads to people saying, ‘Let’s take a risk. Let’s try.’”