Nannearl LeKesia Brown found community and a leadership role while pursuing a master’s degree in engineering at USC. (Photo/Jordan Tucker)


Empowering women and minorities in science, tech and more

USC Price grad student moves from D.C. to L.A., where she pursues a degree in nonprofit leadership and management

July 02, 2018 Caitlin Dawson

Nannearl LeKesia Brown became a master’s student at USC even though she wasn’t eager to earn another degree.

She was the only black woman in the Master of Engineering program at the University of Virginia, a fact that nagged at her after graduation. After much introspection, she came to believe that her life’s purpose was to empower women and black and brown people in science, technology, engineering and math as well as business.

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

Associate Professor Nicole Esparza was the program’s director at that time. 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, relocated 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.”

Nonprofit leadership in L.A.

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

Brown also gained a broad understanding of the field, both practically and theoretically. In adjunct faculty member 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 that helps high school boys of color develop tech startups.

LeKesia came into the Price program laser-focused on her goals, but wide open to possibility.

Claire Peeps

“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

While Brown completed the program on a two-year track, she became so close with her first-year cohort that its members 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 colleagues called Tech Cypher, although it won’t be her primary job.

One 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.”