Price nonprofit grad dedicated to promoting diversity in STEM fields

June 19, 2018

By Matthew Kredell

Nannearl LeKesia Brown, MNLM ’18

The start of Nannearl LeKesia Brown’s path to becoming a master’s student at the USC Price School of Public Policy was a bit unique — especially because she wasn’t looking to earn another master’s degree. Brown had just completed a Master of Engineering at the University of Virginia, but in doing so, was struck by how underrepresented people of color and women are in the technical fields.

She was the only black woman in the engineering program, a fact that nagged at her after graduation. After much introspection, Brown came to believe that her life’s purpose was to empower women and black and brown people in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and business.

Brown thought the way to tackle the issue could be to start a nonprofit, but she had no expertise in the sector. While searching the internet for certificate options, she came across USC Price’s Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program.

The MNLM director at the time was Associate Professor Nicole Esparza. Brown took the unorthodox step of buying Esparza’s doctoral dissertation on homelessness, which affected her so much that she quit her Washington, D.C.-area technology consulting job, moved out to Los Angeles and started pursuing another graduate degree.

“I never realized that social issues have so much data behind them,” Brown said. “It felt like one of the reports I had done for one of my engineering classes, which sparked my interest even more.”

Enriching environment

There were six people in Brown’s first-year cohort in MNLM and, unlike with her engineering program, all were women, with five being women of color.

She also gained a broad understanding of the field, both practically and theoretically. In Adjunct Faculty Claire Peeps’ course on board governance and leadership, she got an introduction to many of the nonprofits and foundations in the Los Angeles area. In Associate Dean John Sonego’s course on Fund Development for Nonprofit organizations, she learned that asking for money shouldn’t make you feel less than another person. From Assistant Professor Jennifer Miller, she learned how economics apply to the nonprofit sector.

USC Price awarded Brown a Graduate Summer Internship Fund scholarship to serve Teens Exploring Technology, a nonprofit helping high school boys of color to develop tech startups.

“LeKesia came into the Price program laser-focused on her goals, but wide open to possibility,” said Peeps, who serves as executive director for the Durfee Foundation. “Her professional background in engineering and her passion for STEM education set her up well for USC’s graduate training in nonprofit leadership and management. She’s wired for social enterprise and driven by social justice. She will be instrumental in advancing equity and inclusion in tech.”

Putting lessons into practice

Brown, right, volunteers at the nonprofit Black Girls Code.

While Brown completed the program on a two-year track, she became so close with her first-year cohort of Danielle Carrillo, Melody Klingenfuss, Kiahnna Patton, Kaitlyn Hennessy and Brooke Pinnix that they started NPLA Consulting, to offer the knowledge they acquired from the MNLM program to the nonprofit field in Los Angeles and beyond.

“We worked so well together in the group projects that we didn’t want to let that synergy go,” Brown said. “Going through the program, we recognized inefficiencies in the nonprofit sector and just want to help organizations get to what their mission truly is the best way we can.”

Brown also is serving as the Los Angeles City Lead for Black Tech Women and volunteering for Black Girls Code. And she has begun to start her own nonprofit with colleague, called Tech Cypher, although it won’t be her primary job.

A realization Brown had in Peeps’ course is that there already are a lot of good nonprofits, especially in Los Angeles. So rather than focus all her efforts on starting her own nonprofit, she is pursuing a career on the social entrepreneurship side of technology.

“I’m really passionate about user experience and what technology can do for people, especially disenfranchised groups,” Brown said. “My plan is to do that full time and be involved in nonprofits and on boards outside of work.”