Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 28, 2012

New prize for teens aims to spur community service

Local investor, former candidate for governor, offers $20,000 in contest

by Chris Kenrick

Calling all innovative, altruistic teens: You could win $20,000 if your community-service project rises to the top in a new contest.

A small local foundation is awarding two $20,000 cash prizes to California high school students — and another two to college students or professionals 28 or younger — who come up with "creative solutions to community problems."

Applicants must have a prototype — anything from a software app to a new service or process, such as an innovative literacy program — and must submit a two-minute YouTube video showcasing the innovation.

Entries will be judged by a six-member panel, which includes people who work in local nonprofit organizations.

"We want to empower the best and brightest young minds in California to be entrepreneurs for their communities," said Steve Westly, a former senior executive at eBay and Democratic politician whose foundation will award the prize in December or January.

Applications are due by Nov. 2.

"Our goal is to help bring their ideas to life and encourage them to start nonprofits and companies that will benefit California and beyond," Westly said.

Westly, who was California's state controller from 2003 to 2007 and ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for governor in 2006, is now a Menlo Park investor focusing on clean technologies.

With $10.5 million in assets and annual disbursements of about $750,000, the Westly Foundation focuses on programs that "improve the trajectory of underserved and at-risk children in California." Most of the awards have gone to local nonprofits.

Westly and his wife, Anita Yu, started the foundation in 2000.

"A lot of talented young people go down a linear path — off to law school or business school — because they might not be aware that they can start things at a young age," said David Viotti, executive director of the Westly Foundation.

"We want to encourage young people to take some risks and test their ideas. We're in an environment that's supportive of that," he said.

He rattled off a list of young nonprofit leaders who are models for what he's seeking: Chris Balme, founder of Spark, which arranges one-to-one career mentorships for low-income students; and Christa Gannon of Fresh Lifelines for Youth, which provides mentorship and training to at-risk youth or those already in the juvenile justice system.

He also pointed to Anand Gupta, a 2010 Gunn High School graduate recently awarded $100,000 under the fellowship program of PayPal founder Peter Thiel in the second year of his "20 Under 20" program.

Gupta, 20, will work with fellow recipient Tony Ho, 19, on a service that enables doctors and researchers to get quantitative analyses of biomedical images.

Westly said his wife came up with the idea for the prize for teens.

"We've both watched how awards like the Goldman (environmental) Prize, and even the Rhodes Scholarship, seem to do two things: motivate people's best behavior and highlight the great things people do that don't always get the attention they deserve," Westly said.

"I think we often send the message that you have to be an adult to really change things — think Martin Luther King or Gandhi — but we believe people of any age can have a profound impact."

Besides Westly, Yu and Viotti, members of the selection committee are Kamba Tshionyi, executive director of All Stars Helping Kids; Ted Lempert, president of Children Now; and Nereyda Salinas, managing director of Stanford EdCareers.

More information is available at http://westly.org/.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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