Internet pioneer pushes social change through investing, activism

In today's hyper-speed world of technology entrepreneurship, David C. Bohnett ranks as a grand old man.

Bohnett, 55, founded GeoCities, the pioneering social networking company that made his fortune, back in 1994 — virtually Internet prehistory. He took GeoCities public in 1998 and it was sold the following year to Yahoo for more than $3 billion in Yahoo stock.

After 10 years of indifferent and shortsighted management, Yahoo consigned GeoCities to the Internet's memory banks by shutting it down in 2009.

Yet it was the original sale, which netted Bohnett personally something in the neighborhood of $300 million, that funded the next act of his life, as an investor in start-up Internet companies and a supporter of social philanthropies. (He's also a prominent donor to Democratic Party candidates and committees.)

"I was very fortunate Yahoo bought GeoCities," he told me one day recently at the headquarters shared by the David Bohnett Foundation and Baroda Ventures, his investment partnership, inconspicuously tucked away in south-of-Wilshire Beverly Hills.

We met to talk about Bohnett's support for a group campaigning to amend 1978's Proposition 13, which he has described as an anachronism and an "unmitigated disaster" for California's fiscal health that has crippled schools, universities, fire and police departments and other public institutions.

Bohnett's interest in revising Proposition 13 is part of a broader agenda that places him among a breed of philanthropists who are working not merely to improve social conditions but the mechanics of government itself.

This brand of activism is not new, but it may be experiencing a resurgence in response to the dysfunction of traditional government institutions on both the national and state levels. That's surely the motivation behind the Think Long Committee, the group of business and political leaders brought together by the Nicholas Berggruen Institute to draft a blueprint for rebuilding California's busted governance and budget processes.

Bohnett's not involved with Think Long but says he supports its efforts to promote a dialogue on California's future. His own philanthropic concerns are both broader and more specific. They include handgun control, on behalf of which the Bohnett Foundation has contributed nearly $2.3 million to such organizations as the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and Los Angeles civic and cultural development: Bohnett is chairman of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a member of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art board.

Gay and Lesbian issues are high on the agenda for Bohnett. The foundation's grants for groups offering social services for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community total more than $13 million, not including nearly $3 million in funding for 63 David Bohnett Cyber Centers nationwide providing technology access to LGBT users.

Bohnett donated more than $1 million to the unsuccessful effort to defeat the anti-gay marriage initiative Proposition 8 in 2008. "That was money well spent," he told me. "We lost, but we didn't lose by as much as we would have."

For Bohnett, a Chicago-area native who moved to California to attend USC and today lives with his partner, entertainment producer and commentator Tom Gregory, 51, that effort underscored how the state's proposition system works against efforts to promote social change. Not only do proposition campaigns "bypass our government," as he put it in a 2009 dialogue with businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, they suck up fortunes that could be better spent on directly improving social conditions. (The Proposition 8 campaign consumed $83 million, he observes.)

When it comes to Proposition 13, Bohnett's immediate goal is to give the public a better understanding of how it has shifted more of the property tax burden to homeowners and away from commercial property owners.

In both categories, property can't be reassessed except upon a sale. The problem is that ownership transfers of commercial and industrial properties can be disguised in infinite ways not available to homeowners.

The California Tax Reform Assn., which has received $115,000 from the Bohnett Foundation, has documented numerous such maneuvers resulting in major commercial and industrial property owners paying pennies per square foot in property taxes while the average homeowner pays dollars — how Mammoth Mountain ski resort avoided reassessment after its 1997 sale, resulting in $20 million a year in lost revenue to Mono County, for example.

"David understood that the way to change the debate was by presenting empirical evidence that identifies the problem," said Lenny Goldberg, the tax reform association's executive director, who favors a "split roll" allowing different treatment of commercial properties to keep up with ownership changes. The Bohnett Foundation's grants helped pay for the association's 2010 report on the commercial assessment loophole statewide, and a follow-up focusing on Silicon Valley.

"The most important thing to accomplish is to start a dialogue," Bohnett said. "But people seem to be afraid to talk about it."

To Bohnett, the incremental advance of a social or political issue resembles the birth of a technology start-up.

"The first thing you have to do is create a proof of concept," he said. In the case of same-sex marriage or amending Proposition 13, "you have to prove to the world that it can be done without the world coming to an end."

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Bohnett's chief interest as an investor is in social media and social marketing. The portfolio of Baroda, his investment partnership, includes Ntro and Lifecrowd, which aim to bring together strangers based on shared interests, and Fab.com, which is a variation on merchandising websites concentrating on high-concept design goods from headphones to handbags. Tug on the common thread, and you come back to GeoCities, a social media site founded before "social media" existed as a catchphrase.

What was new then was the World Wide Web. A former ham radio enthusiast, Bohnett quickly perceived its potential to connect people with one another. GeoCities provided its members with free personal Web pages but required them to be organized around communities with shared interests.

"Most GeoCities pages weren't about the person but about the topic," he recalled. "Facebook is more about people than it is about subjects," he said, projecting a hint of disappointment. "You can trace more of what GeoCities was in what Wikipedia is, because that's about collaboration on subjects."

From some angles, Bohnett's investing and his philanthropy look like an effort to re-create GeoCities' ability to strengthen diverse communities, whether online or on the ground, whether the effort is creating technological links for LGBT users or underscoring homeowners' common interests in modernizing Proposition 13.

"It's a portfolio of philanthropic and political activism and the business side of me," he said. "It's all interconnected."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. His latest book is "The New Deal: A Modern History." Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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