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November 2, 2017

Gifting a Cinematic Education to South and East L.A. High Schoolers

Entrepreneur and SCA Professor Diego Berdakin underwrites a Good Neighbor program

By Simran Bhari

Diego Berdakin has pursued many endeavours in his professional career. A successful entrepreneur and investor, Berdakin is a founder of various consumer internet-based businesses including BeachMint, a Santa Monica based social commerce company that is now part of The Lucky Group. He is also an investor in several prominent companies including Dropbox, Uber, NastyGal, and Postmates; and a partner in FabFitFun, Re/Done, iEscrow, and Weaving Capital. Yet he also makes time for the role of Professor at the School of Cinematic Arts, teaching his methodologies to students aspiring to make their own way in media business.

Berdakin has been an adjunct professor at SCA since 2012, and teaches two courses that give students tools for merging the cinema and business fields. In classes titled Digital DNA: Media Redefined and Digital DNA Master Class: Media and Entrepreneurship, Berdakin shows students how to create media content and then how to develop the content into operable businesses. In 2015, he was a finalist for the Steven J. Sample Teaching Award at USC.    

Berdakin says teaching has always been a goal of his. “I actually had grand ambitions of going into academia when I graduated college. Both of my maternal grandparents were doctors and professors back in Argentina—we were a very close family and I very much looked up to them,” he says. “The entrepreneurial and later corporate world took me on a divergent path but fortunately I didn't have to wait that long to get back on track thanks to the amazing faculty here at USC (namely, Dean Daley).”    Teaching, Berdakin says, isn’t that much different from what he does in the business world, especially since require leadership and mentorship: “There are certainly some parallels between the two. In order to be an effective leader you need to get buy-in from people and you spend a large portion of your day helping others problem solve. But on balance teaching is a hell of a lot more fun!”    

Alongside his mother and father, Berdakin is also the co-founder of the Berdakin Family Foundation, which is graciously funding the School of Cinematic Arts’ contribution to USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI). NAI prepares high school students from South and East Los Angeles (the university’s neighbors) for college. Over the next fours years, the Berdakin Foundation will underwrite a comprehensive, 4-6 week course in filmmaking as part of the School’s summer program.    

Berdakin says that his family see their support as paying it forward, recognizing how much harder it has become for immigrant families like theirs to get a foothold in achieving the American dream. “Both of my parents immigrated to the United States after fleeing a period of state sponsored terrorism in Argentina known as the "dirty war". They landed in the US with little more than their educations and found a group of friends and institutions that helped them quickly make this country their own,” he says. “This kind of income mobility has long since faded and there are dwindling support structures to help immigrants and the children of immigrants get footing in this country—the way my parents were able to. My mother, father, and I started the family foundation some number of years ago with the aim of helping underprivileged people or segments of society we feel have largely been left behind. NAI is a remarkable program and something we are very happy to support. The summer program at SCA, to which I was introduced by David Weitzner [the program’s director], has been a pleasure to support.”    

And what advice does he have for students who would like to follow in his footsteps and run their own creative businesses? Essentially that it’s the best and worst of times. “Historically, entrance to the entertainment industry has been walled off by some pretty powerful gate keepers,” he says. “As we move from the world of 4 network TV stations our parents grew up in, to the 100-1,000 satellite channels I grew up, into the near boundless distribution that exists today—things are getting increasingly democratized. There has probably never been a harder time to be an established media company whose distribution advantage is increasingly commoditized. The corollary is, there has probably never been a [better] time to be a content creator where it is now possible to build your own relationship with your audience and where content is truly "King"—not just the subset of content that you are allowed to create.”    

The bottom line, he says, is that this is an exciting time for young people who are looking to make a mark. “As cost of content creation decreases, we are moving towards a more meritocratic world where a 15-year-old girl or boy halfway around the world can compete for audience with some of the largest legacy media companies,” says Berdakin. “The best advice would be to look for non-traditional paths; we're living in a unique time/inflection point for the creative economy.”