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AOL Zealot and Long-Time Exec Uses Bully Pulpit as Entrepreneur for Change

Ted Leonsis, Vice Chairman, America Online

You think you don't have time to be a mentor? To establish a charitable foundation? To support nonprofits helping today's at-risk kids become tomorrow's entrepreneurs? To teach at your alma mater about entrepreneurship and launch companies and angel invest?

Ted Leonsis, 50, vice chairman of America Online, thinks if he has time to do these things, you do too. Oh yes, he's also the majority owner of the NHL's Washington Capitals hockey team and the WNBA's Washington Mystics women's basketball team. He's minority owner with future purchase rights in the NBA's Washington Wizards basketball team, the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., and the DC/Baltimore TicketMaster franchise. Last, but certainly not least, he's a husband and father.

Leonsis, who was honored in May 2006 by NFTE Greater Washington at its 9th Annual Entrepreneur Gala, has had time to call Michael Hendrickson, his Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund mentee, at least once a day for the past five years and e-mail Ken Holden, a developmentally disabled adult in Florida, daily since 1999.

He's had time to create a foundation that, beyond writing checks, seizes opportunity and challenges old assumptions about grantmaking to achieve higher impact.

And, he's had time to run a company that gives back on a scale commensurate with its success - more than $23 million in cash and in-kind in 2005.

Overcoming Obstacles

Leonsis understands the power afforded by his stature and influence to get others engaged - and relishes using it, especially if it can help children overcome obstacles to achieve their goals.

He knows from experience what a lot of kids are up against. His father, a Greek immigrant, waited tables. His mother was a secretary. "I grew up in a very tough, very diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn," he says. "If you weren't focused and self-motivated, you could easily get into trouble."

Leonsis started his first business in 1976 - selling red, white and blue snow cones in honor of the nation's bicentennial - while completing a double major in American studies and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he is now serves on the board of directors.

Then, there was the plane crash. "After I survived the emergency landing in 1983," he says, "I made a list of 101 things to do before I die. The list included several goals in philanthropy."

Fast forward a few years. Leonsis sells his first startup for $60 million. He sells his digital marketing firm, Redgate Communications, in 1994 for $40 million in AOL stock (stock then split seven times) to AOL co-founder and CEO Steve Case. In 2000, he establishes the Leonsis Foundation. It was a good place to stash AOL stock - and a great platform from which to start chipping away at those 101 things to do before I die.

"The foundation gives you discipline," says Leonsis. "By having a Web site and being active, you get a lot of people coming to you. You hone in on the areas you want to support."

"Ted wants to help people broaden their horizons and find ways to succeed that they may not otherwise know about," says Leonsis Foundation Executive Director Ellen Folts. For instance, the foundation funded the pilot for One Economy Corporation's Digital Connectors Program, which pays budding entrepreneurs ages 14 to 21 a stipend to teach housing project residents where they live how to use computers. The program has expanded to 11 cities nationwide.

"Last year we gave just over $400,000, more than the minimum five percent. But the dollar amount isn't really the story because, for Ted, philanthropy isn't about organizations. It's about people."

When Leonsis thinks of Hoop Dreams, he thinks of Michael Hendrickson, now graduated from Hampton University and working for Verizon. Hoop Dreams was started in 1996 by D.C. public high school teacher Susie Kay and has helped more than 800 kids from some of the city's most disenfranchised neighborhoods go to college. Along the way, it also provides internships and SAT preparation.

"To tell you the truth, when Ted told me he wanted to get involved, I was thrilled but a bit scared because we hold our mentors very accountable," says Kay, who quickly learned with Ted she had nothing to worry about. "Ted is so entrepreneurial. He worked with Michael not only through the whole college process, but keeping him there, getting him internships, lobbying for him and opening doors just the way a father would."

"If a great idea comes along, he's flexible and creative," says David Domenici, executive director of the See Forever Foundation, sponsor of the Maya Angelou Charter High School in Washington, D.C. "He's supportive on a long-term basis, unlike many funders who say, 'We'll fund you for a year.'"

"I know Ted will be there till the end," says Anthony Shriver, founder and chairman of Best Buddies International, which enhances the lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing opportunities for one-to-one friendships and integrated employment. Ted is not one of these guys who donate and you have to keep being nice to him hoping he'll stick around. Ted gets it."

The Company Role

He also gets it from a company perspective. AOL supports NFTE and Junior Achievement and a raft of other groups that nurture the Steve Cases and Ted Leonsises of tomorrow. With Leonsis's support and encouragement, AOL brings the power of technology to education and philanthropy.

AOL Aspires is AOL's national philanthropic initiative to help kids envision brighter futures. "In many ways, that's the birth of entrepreneurship," says AOL Vice President for Community Investment Rich D'Amato.

AOL at School provides free, age-appropriate information-filled portals to students, teachers and administrators. AOL helped found Network for Good, one of the earliest and largest online donation portals, and was an early investor in the e-Philanthropy Foundation, which promotes the ethical use of the Internet for nonprofit marketing and fundraising.

"Ted talks about becoming fully actualized as a person and how science has shown that people connected to the community are happier," says D'Amato. "That's not so different from a company, which can better recruit and retain talented people by enabling them to be engaged in the community."

"I like to help the entrepreneur," says Leonsis, who never hesitates to use the bully pulpit to further a cause he believes in. "It's easy for me to talk to someone about supporting a charity or becoming a mentor because I do it.

"I can say, 'I'm supporting it in this way. You should do the same thing, and I don't want to hear you're too busy. That hands-on connection allows me the credibility to twist arms the right way. That's what I have most to offer."

It's a measure of how sincere and likable a guy Leonsis is that he truly believes this.

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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