Passionate Leadership: Candy Deemer and Synergy Academies

April 8, 2013

Candy Deemer, LASVP PartnerSynergy Academies is a charter school system that reaches 1,200 K-12 students in South LA. Inspired by their amazing work, LASVP Partners have put their time and talent behind the organization, giving almost 500 hours of strategic assistance since our initial investment in 2010.

Energy, passion, and love of education. Founding LASVP Partner Candy Deemer brings all of this to her role as Co-Lead Partner with Synergy Academies. As a writer and executive coach with years of marketing and management experience, Candy can add fun, creativity, and keen insight to any conversation. Together with her Co-Lead Partner, Richard Landers, Candy has led the way for SVP to help Synergy Academies make the most of their communications.

Candy learned about Synergy by participating in meetings for LASVP’s grant rounds where she was impressed with the level of success Synergy had and their high standards of excellence. Using the knowledge she gained through volunteering with our former Investee Bright Star Schools, Candy was prepared to jump in and take the lead. As Co-Lead Partner, Candy acts as a liaison between SVP Partners and the Synergy leadership team.

She has developed tremendous respect for Synergy Co-Founders Meg and Randy Palisoc, and can attest that “they are wonderful people who work very, very hard for their students. They aren’t afraid to tackle any problem.” With LASVP’s passion for improving education in Los Angeles and Synergy’s entrepreneurial spirit, our investments of money, time, and talent have paid off. “It’s a really strong two-way working relationship,” Candy says. “Synergy is interested to have LASVP’s help and our partners have the skills to assist them with their goals.”

Throughout our time supporting Synergy Academies, SVP Partners have provided strategic assistance with board development, financial planning, organizational strategy, marketing and branding, IT infrastructure, and executive coaching. Candy has coordinated and managed the various projects and matched fellow Partners who have the skills needed to accomplish a project’s goals. Through Candy’s leadership, SVP Partners assisted Synergy as they have grown and expanded from grade school classes in a local church to having elementary, middle, and high schools, all of which are co-located with traditional LAUSD schools.

So what’s been Candy’s most rewarding experience with Synergy? “Seeing how they have come along in the way they present themselves.”  From branding and identity, to executive coaching, to building presentations, Candy has loved the “fun and creative” aspects of assisting Synergy. “They weren’t getting the full bang for their buck [with their communications] when we first started with them,” she says. But now, the way they present themselves through their Trade Secrets Tours and presentations “does a great job of showing how Synergy achieves such extraordinary academic results. People get it now and they get excited about it.” Synergy’s effort to share their success with other educators is gaining traction and teachers are traveling from other states to take the tour and meet their teachers.

Overall, Candy believes that SVP Partners added the greatest value by helping Synergy “think through their strategy as an organization–how to lead a growing organization, how they present themselves to the world, and thinking about what’s next in terms of ‘sharing out’ their best practices with other schools.”

To learn more about Synergy Academies, you can visit their website at and RSVP for their next Trade Secrets Tour coming up on May 22.

To find out more about becoming an SVP Partner, click here.

Synergy Academies: Empowering Parents to Help Close the Gap

February 6, 2013

Synergy AcademiesInspired by their amazing work in South LA,  LASVP Partners have put their time and talent behind Synergy Academies. Since our initial investment in 2010, LASVP Partners have given over 465 hours of strategic assistance to Synergy in areas such as executive coaching, IT infrastructure, financial planning, and board development.    

What makes Synergy Academies’ outstanding academic results even more impressive is that most students arrive at Synergy underprepared.  According to Synergy Co-Founder and CEO Meg Palisoc, “Almost 100% of our kindergarten students every year [begin by performing below the standards] in everything.  They’re already behind at age 5…they don’t know their letters, numbers, shapes and colors in English or Spanish.”

It’s impossible to point to a single cause for the achievement gap between middle-class white students and low-income African-American and Latino students; there are a myriad of socioeconomic factors at play that lead to inequalities in school preparedness. While some may believe that parental apathy is to blame,  Meg says that most Synergy parents want to do all they can to help their children succeed, but suffer from a lack of useful information.  “There needs to be more out there to help educate parents in our community…they’re really crying out for help.”

A concerned mother of one underprepared kindergartner asked Meg, “Is this a problem, that my child doesn’t know these things?”

According to Meg, “I told her, ‘At your child’s age, she should be capable of knowing [letters and numbers]…don’t worry, that’s why we’re here; we’re going to work together with you.’  I didn’t want to make her feel bad, but I also wanted to educate her about her child’s developmental capabilities.  When I asked if her child had gone to Preschool, she said yes, she had been going since she was 2 or 3.   She had even asked the Preschool teacher if she, as a mother, should be teaching her child letters and numbers and colors.  The teacher said, ‘No, that’s a kindergarten standard, let the kindergarten teacher do that.’”

The mother didn’t question this bad advice.  After all, it came from a person in a position of authority; a person who she logically assumed had more knowledge than she did about how a child should be educated.  “Obviously her child struggled,” says Meg, but the dedicated and caring teachers at Synergy helped the student catch up. They accomplished this with the indispensable support of the child’s mother, who, armed with advice from Meg, was now aware of what she could do to help.

You can learn more about Synergy Academies’ recipe for success by joining one of their upcoming Synergy Trade Secrets Tours. If you want to help Synergy’s work to help students and families thrive, you can register your credit cards and grocery club cards (Ralph’s Club Card, Target REDCard, etc.) so that a portion of your purchase will be donated to Synergy or make a donation.

Celebrating SVP and Looking Forward to 2013

February 6, 2013

LASVPIt was great to see everyone at the first Partner Meeting of the year on January 31st. It was a good follow up to our New Year’s Resolution Party as we’re all looking for ways to share our ideas and talents to make a difference together.

We kicked off the meeting by taking a look at the highlights from 2012, including:

    • Welcoming 11 new Partners
    • Completing and gaining board approval for our new strategic plan
    • Approving our final reinvestments with GrowingGreat and Synergy Academies
    • Helping our 3 Investees strengthen their organizations and serve more LA-area residents
    • Successfully organizing and hosting our 5th Annual Social Innovation Fast Pitch
      (Watch the highlight reel.)

We recognized our Founding Partners for their years of dedication and support in building stronger communities with Los Angeles Social Venture Partners. We’d like to thank the following Partners for all they’ve done and all they continue to do to support LASVP:

Additionally, we recognized those Partners who have been part of the LASVP family for five or more years. Their continued commitment to LASVP and belief in the potential of Los Angeles is exactly what makes our Partnership great. Thank you:

We are also very proud to recognize Betsy Densmore as the LASVP Partner with the most reported volunteer hours in 2012! Betsy is a member of the LASVP Board of Directors, was the Lead Partner on the Social Innovation Fast Pitch, represented Los Angeles at the SVP Conference, and aided in recruiting efforts. But maybe the most amazing part is… Betsy does all this while living in Orange County! We are tremendously lucky to have such an outstanding and dedicated person in our Partnership.

Looking forward to 2013, we received an update about our Investees and opportunities for Partners to volunteer with them.

GrowingGreat is looking for Partners to identify 5 new schools to receive their healthy eating education program in the 2013-2014 school year, and to work with them on business development, school launch plans, and a long-term geographic expansion strategy. LA Diaper Drive is looking for connections to sources for diaper donations and aid with their governance and operating policies and procedures. With Synergy Academies, we’ll finish up the projects we have underway and support the ramp up of longer-term HR projects to make sure they’re well-positioned as we wrap up our investment in 2013.

We’re also very excited about our upcoming Education Investment Cycle! For the last two months, the Education Investment Committee has been doing some fantastic and fascinating exploration in the education arena of Los Angeles. Taking a look at STEM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), Early Childhood Education, Advocacy, and Collective Impact, the team found a variety of opportunities for LASVP and shared their new knowledge with one another.  And, after some debate, they have recommended that for this upcoming cycle we should focus on a Collective Impact approach to issues in education. (See the slide deck for further detail.)

We still have several key questions to answer about how we’re going to make investments using the Collective Impact approach, but we’re excited to dig in and learn all we can. LASVP Partners can join the team anytime.

We’re off to a good start this year! We have some fun projects and interesting learning opportunities on the horizon. We have great people in our Partnership and we’re hoping to find more.  2013 is our year, SVP!

Partners Only: If you missed the Partner Meeting and want to know more, you can view the slides from the meeting here, take a look at the master calendar here, or contact Diane or a member of the Education Investment Committee with questions.

Congratulations to Synergy Academies

December 4, 2012

synergy-academiesSynergy Academies has been an LASVP Investee since 2010. With the opening of their high school, Synergy Quantum Academy, in 2011, Synergy Academies now reaches 1,200 K-12 students in South LA.

At Synergy Academies the values of hardwork, encouragement, and accomplishment are just some of the ways the staff and student “scholars” are creating an equal opportunity learning experience in South Los Angeles. As a charter school, Synergy accepts all types of students with a range of abilities and learning backgrounds who come from impoverished and underdeveloped inner-city areas. The Synergy student body is predominately composed of African American, Hispanic, and Latino students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Historically, these students would have found themselves in a school that was performing significantly lower than their counterparts in affluent communities. Despite the struggles these scholars face, “The Synergy Creed” brings the learning community together.

The Synergy Creed:
At Synergy, we’re all in this together because together we are better.
We bring out the best in each other and in ourselves, every day in every way.
~Randy Palisoc, Co-Founder

Synergy Academies had another outstanding year of academic achievement. The California Department of Education recently released the 2012 Academic Performance Index (API) Reports, which are used as part of a school’s accountability progress reporting to determine whether a school is meeting performance standards. The target for all schools in California is a score of 800.

This year, Synergy Charter Academy (Elementary School) achieved a chart-topping 934 and remains one of the highest performing schools in Los Angeles. Schools with similar demographics also made progress toward the 800 benchmark, but are still performing in the low to mid-700 range, with some schools in area performing close to 650. Synergy Kinetic Academy (Middle School) met their school wide target scoring 805 and is out performing schools with similar demographics by approximately 50-70 points.

Over the last three years, LASVP Partners have provided support to Synergy through strategic planning, branding, marketing, IT, financial planning, executive coaching, and funding. And we’re seeing a great return on the investments of time, talent, and money that we have invested.

Congratulations to everyone at Synergy Academies for not only another outstanding year of academic achievement, but also for keeping their commitment to creating stronger schools, stronger students, and a stronger community.

If you would like to support Synergy Academies, you can connect a STEM field professional with the school who can speak to the students about their job experience, register your credit cards and grocery club cards (Ralph’s Club Card, Target REDCard, etc.) so that a portion of your purchase will be donated to Synergy or make a donation.

Partner Q & A: Ron Sinha

October 31, 2012

Ron SinhaRon Sinha has been an Associate Partner at LASVP since 2011. In addition to his work with LASVP Investee Synergy Academies, Ron helped coach Tamika Butler of Young Invincibles to victory at this year’s Social Innovation Fast Pitch.

Q: How were you introduced to LASVP?

Ron: I was introduced to Diane Helfrey by a high school teacher of mine from back in the day, Ari Engelberg, who happened to work at Bright Star Schools, one of LASVP’s early investees. Upon moving back to LA, I had mentioned to Ari that I wanted to stay connected in the social sector here and he thought LASVP would be a good start. After that, I talked to Diane and attended some events and knew that it’d be a great group of people to work with.

Q: Why did you join LASVP?

Ron: Back in Boston, I worked in social impact strategy consulting / research, and loved it. I wanted to stay involved in a volunteer capacity in that type of work out here since the job I moved back for was in a completely different space! I think connecting high-performing organizations with the resources they need is key to propelling the sector forward, and LASVP works in many ways towards that goal.

Q: What do you think is the biggest barrier to creating social change?

Ron: The misallocation of resources, ranging from financial resources to human capital.

Q: What social issue are you most passionate about?

Ron: It’s a tie between economic empowerment and youth education.

Q: What do you look forward to on the weekends?

Ron: Acting, writing, movies, running and hanging out.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s been like to work on a volunteer project with one of our Investees?

Ron: Interested in unique and effective models around education, I jumped at the opportunity to leverage my analytical skills on a project with one of our investees, Synergy Academies. I am working with a few other partners and members of the school staff to analyze and improve the school’s internal finance tools, and to build a performance dashboard that can ultimately be used by the school’s board to drive operational decisions. In addition to providing me with the opportunity to apply my quantitative mind to the sector, this has allowed me to gain exposure to a high-performing school in the area and the fantastic staff and students that make it what it is.

You can read more about our Partners on our website.

Let Our Passions Lead the Way…

May 23, 2012

Diane Helfrey is a Founding Partner, board member, and Executive Director of LA Social Venture Partners. LASVP held a General Partner Meeting on May 16, 2012. Here is Diane’s recap of the evening:

It was great to see everyone at the Partner Meeting on May 16th! Board chair, Claudia Sangster got us off to a wonderful start by having everyone tell what their philanthropic passions are. Hearing the wide-ranging yet overlapping passions we have among our Partners really set the context for unveiling of our new strategic direction. Shared interests and passions are what bring us together, and what have inspired our vision to create a larger community of high-impact philanthropists who will catalyze social change in Los Angeles!

First, the stories…

Several Partners shared how LASVP has helped them amplify their philanthropic impact. Ken Deemer said that before LASVP he was “just writing a check and hoping someone does something good with it.” Now utilizing knowledge and experiences gained through LASVP, he is much more strategic about the organizations he supports and also serves in volunteer leadership roles with Environmental Charter Schools and USC’s Hybrid High. Charlie Steinmetz is also active on a variety of boards, but sometimes didn’t know how to effectively address issues that arose in board meetings. Through LASVP, he’s developed relationships with other Partners who he can call on as expert resources when he has a question. Richard Landers described how his involvement with LASVP has led him to ask what it would really take to drive education reform. His exploration has piqued his interest to explore advocacy as a means of creating systemic social change, and he invited others to learn with him.

We also heard from a highly-energized (and energizing!) Amy Johnson about the exciting work she had been doing with our investee, Synergy Academies. One of the keys to Synergy’s success is how they “teach teachers to teach.” However, many of the secrets and techniques are best known by co-founder Randy Palisoc, whose time coaching teachers became more and more constrained as they grew from 1 school to 3. Amy and Randy have teamed up to capture this knowledge in an iBook that includes videos, text and graphics, and can be used by teachers at any time. Now that’s creative!

Amy’s passion, skills, and willingness to dive in have given her the chance to make a difference at Synergy Academies in a way that will ripple out to the teachers, students, and community of South Central LA. Think of the potential if we had 500 Partners like Amy. Think of how – together – we could shape Los Angeles for the better.

How we build on this momentum, together …

These and other stories demonstrate the value of being part of a community where we can harness our passions, dig in to social issues together, learn from each other, and invest in nonprofits doing incredible work to improve the quality of life in Los Angeles. This is exactly what we want for the whole Partnership. And as board member Way-Ting Chen said, “We need to invest in ourselves as an organization” so this can happen.

Over the last year, our strategic planning process illuminated our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Our dual mission hasn’t changed, but we’ll change some of what we do in order to enhance the Partner experience and evolve aspects of our capacity building programs to be increasingly driven by Partner interests. A key insight that shaped our strategic direction was that we have been unbalanced in allocating resources toward our dual mission. Understandably, in our early years, dramatically more resources have gone toward nonprofit capacity building than to philanthropy development. Even though we learn a ton through hands-on experience, we concluded that focusing on the needs of our Partnership is critical to our next level of success. We believe that when Partners are consistently equipped with the right knowledge, skills, support, and networks, we are better able to add value by building relationships with, advising, and make connections for the nonprofits we support.

We are excited about our focus, our future, and our potential to have a greater impact – together.

If you missed the Partner Meeting and want to know more, there are several things you can do. You can 1) view the slides here, 2) join conference calls that will be scheduled in the next 1-2 months to discuss the strategic direction, 3) contact Diane with questions, or 4) join one of our working groups that will develop our implementation plans.

Snapshot of a Change Maker: Meg Palisoc

May 21, 2012


One amazing change maker that LASVP has gotten to know over the past few years is Meg Palisoc,  co-founder and CEO of our Investee Synergy Academies.  Find out more about Meg’s journey and how LASVP has helped along the way:

Public education is supposed to provide equal opportunity for all, but the low-performing, over-crowded, and under-resourced schools in low-income areas like South Los Angeles show that the reality falls short of the ideal.

How do we fix this problem? Many of us have donated to local schools, voted for pro-education policies, or maybe volunteered as tutors. Meg Palisoc and her husband Randy went much farther.

“We said, ‘We’re teachers who are passionate about what we’re doing. Let’s start our own school.’”

Meg started her career in the education field, but not in the elementary schools of South L.A. She worked in higher education administration, serving as the Director of Career Services at USC’s School of Engineering. In this position, Meg noticed that there were a limited number of women and minority students getting into engineering careers, especially those from the inner-city. She learned from her husband Randy, an elementary school teacher, that inner-city students were coming into school woefully underprepared, and that the schools were not meeting their needs.

Meg realized that she couldn’t remediate 13 years of bad education at the college level. Following in her husband’s footsteps, she said goodbye to her job at USC and became a third grade teacher in a South LA public school. She was shocked by what she found. “Even the kids who came from English-speaking families did not know how to write their first names correctly,” she says.

Meg and Randy knew that educational inequalities of this magnitude required a bigger solution. But as you might expect, starting a new charter school is no small task. They worked countless hours and even took out a line of credit on their home to start up Synergy Academies. “We had these very blunt conversations with each other and said, ‘Are we willing to risk everything, including our house, for the chance to try and do something pretty incredible in South LA?’ And we decided, yeah, we were.”

That leap of faith paid off. Synergy Academies now operates three schools that serve students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and their results are incredible. In a neighborhood where academic failure is endemic, Synergy students test in the top 10% statewide. That atmosphere of success is palpable on Synergy campuses. In some public school hallways, anarchy reigns and bullying runs rampant. But the “scholars,” as they are called at Synergy, seem, well, scholarly. They are well-behaved and focused on their work, eager to learn and willing to participate.

In 8 years, Synergy Academies has grown from 120 students to 1,100 students. The organization has expanded to meet the needs of the growing student body.  In 2010, Synergy connected with LA Social Venture Partners. “LASVP came at a very good time in our organization’s history,” says Meg. “We had reached the point where we did need expertise and help to take us to the next level.”

In addition to providing capacity building grants, SVP provides hands-on help from Partners like Candy Deemer, who meets with Meg twice a month for 1-on-1 executive coaching sessions. “She’s been really instrumental in helping me grow as a leader,” says Meg. Other Partners provide help in areas like fund development, IT, and marketing. “Everybody’s so supportive. People want to see us succeed. We appreciate that. And I appreciate the honest feedback… I think it’s good to get that, because we do want to do what’s best for our kids.”

And that’s what all of Meg’s hard work and sacrifices come down to—trying to do what’s best for the kids at Synergy. Even when she’s attending the the administrative responsibilities that are inherent to her role as CEO, the students are first in her mind. Her secret to staying grounded? “I still consider myself a teacher first.”

If you want to learn more about Synergy, don’t miss their last “Trade Secrets” tour of the year on May 30th.  Find out more and RSVP here. 

Growing a Great Garden at Synergy Charter Academy

April 26, 2012

This month two of our Investees connected for a project that is reaching kids in one of the city’s highest-need areas, South LA. GrowingGreat built a brand-new school garden at the Synergy Charter Academy campus, which is shared with the students from Quincy Jones Elementary. In partnership with Enrich LA, parents, kids, and community volunteers helped build raised garden beds where students will plant and tend a variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs as part of their classroom curriculum.

On building day, GrowingGreat staff gave Synergy students and their families a hands-on lesson about healthy eating habits by serving nutritious foods. Throughout the year, the garden will serve as a learning tool to help students understand where food comes from and the purpose it serves in overall health and well-being.

Nutrition education is a crucial service in South LA, where the number one cause of death is coronary heart disease. The area is considered one of America’s “food deserts,” where there is limited access to fresh, healthy foods. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention found that in South and East LA, there is one grocery store for every 6,000 residents, compared to one for every 3,800 residents in West LA. Stores in lower income areas offer fewer healthy choices, like low-fat snacks and lean meats. The GrowingGreat garden at Synergy Charter Academy will not only serve as a great learning tool, but an important new source of local healthy foods.

You can learn more about our Investees Synergy Academies and GrowingGreat on our website.  More photos from the garden construction day can be found on GrowingGreat’s Facebook page