Brian Weinstein and Jessica Pliska have helped thousands of students through their nonprofit Opportunity Network since they launched it 20 years ago in a single New York City high school.
With a board of directors that includes heavy hitters from entertainment, law, accounting, and beyond, OppNet’s primary mission is plain in its name: opening doors of opportunity for underrepresented students and getting them on a path of networking through high school to college and beyond. For their work, Weinstein and Pliska are being honored as Variety’s Philanthropists of Year.
The pair, who met as college undergrads, both burned with idealism and recognized their privilege could be leveraged for a game-changing idea. As young professionals (Weinstein at a law firm, Pliska as a marketing consultant), their idea for OppNet was simple: to level the playing field for underrepresented students through mentorship, a curriculum built to help
them achieve academic and career success and guiding support from a wide-ranging professional community.
“It was not hard, and unfortunately, still is not hard, to see how deeply inequitable structures in education are,” says Pliska. “It was a place where I really felt we could have impact and we could have impact early.”
In 2003, Weinstein was ready to launch their vision. “I walked across the street in midtown Manhattan to my college classmate and we shook hands, and started brick by brick, one class at a time, to address this issue,” says Weinstein, whose day job is president and COO of Bad Robot (“Alias,” “Lost,” “Westworld,” “Cloverfield,” “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Star Trek: Beyond”)
“We just had an idea. And it wasn’t like a venture fund where you can go out and raise money from a proper entity; we were just by hook or by crook,” says Weinstein, whose grandfather helped instill in him a passion for social justice issues, and whose wife, Norah Weinstein, is co-CEO of children’s nonprofit Baby2Baby. “So for me, the biggest moment was when Jessica left that career track, opened up our office in her apartment and said ‘Let’s go.’”
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That was in 2005, after they received some donations and grants — enough to make the whole operation viable.
“For Jessica and for me, it was just a fairness and equity issue dating back decades,” he adds. “I recognized two things, really early. One was that the networks and connections that drive the systems of our nation were better suited for certain people than others, that there were underrepresented students who were systematically blocked from those systems and those sets of opportunities, and we wanted to right that wrong. The second thing is that we love people, we love helping people, we love making connections. I love speaking to and getting to know others.”
From that simple beginning, OppNet has grown into a philanthropic force with high-profile celebrity supporters, thanks in part to Weinstein’s Hollywood connections.
“I got involved with OppNet over a decade ago because I was drawn to the mission, and I’ve stayed because of the unmatched quality of its impact,” says Daniel Craig, who, along with his wife, Rachel Weisz, has been an OppNet supporter since 2013 and a board member since 2016. “It’s a team of deeply committed changemakers. And when you meet OppNet students, you can’t help but be optimistic about our future — you won’t find a more inspiring group of young people making their mark on the world.”
Opportunity Network started modestly — Weinstein and Pliska snuck out of their jobs at lunchtime to develop, pitch and grow their idea. “I’ve always felt we have responsibilities to look outside of ourselves,” explains Weinstein, who’s logged stints at CAA and was an intern in the Clinton White House.
Two decades later, with a staff of 70, “we’re in 25 cities, serving almost 50,000 students working in partnership with organizations,” notes Pliska, who served as CEO for 17 years, in 2019 transitioning from that role to launch the organization’s Leadership Giving practice, where she leads strategic fundraising, external corporate and private foundation partnerships, and major individual and family philanthropic investments. Board members include top executives from billion-dollar foundations, media conglomerates, private equity, tech, law, energy accounting and other heavyweights of capitalism — many of them people of color and hands-on in diversity equity and inclusion issues.
What all these people have in common is the capacity to open doors for the OppNet students.
“One thing we learned early on is that there’s no question that you can learn something from anyone,” says Pliska. “But when we brought in executives of color, who not only could share their career experiences, but could talk about it from their perspective of their lived experiences, it just opened the door in a very different way.”
Org supporter Will Packer, CEO and founder of Will Packer Prods., says, “The mission feels truly purpose driven. There are so many organizations out there that have mastered the art of performative service. Meanwhile, here’s this group of genuinely passionate people quietly changing lives.” Packer has been involved with OppNet since 2017.He has worked with students both in group career workshops and in one-on-ones with students interested in showbiz careers. He’s also a founding member of one of OppNet’s leadership committees, and has also leveraged his networks on OppNet’s behalf, introducing the org to BET, now a longtime corporate partner, and to Sunny Hostin, another longtime OppNet supporter, who hosts OppNet events and sits on the same leadership committee as Packer.
While Hollywood celebrities and corporate stars give their time and energy to OppNet, the students are the true focus and make the program work.
The OppNet fellows apply for a place and join the program after their sophomore year of high school — it’s a six-year program, based on the org’s proprietary career fluency pillars. Students attend summer workshops, resumé-building internships, take SAT/ACT prep classes, go on college tours, participate in weekly workshops to hone professional and networking skills, take part in college application boot camps, and even learn skills like personal finance planning and how to apply and get financial aid.
OppNet takes them through college graduation, and by that time, they’ve had five paid internships and built a solid base for launching into the workplace.
“I know it’s going to sound so cliché, but they really did provide me with everything that I didn’t know I needed. OppNet really made sure that I felt my voice was really being heard,” says OppNet class of 2019 fellow Dean Lin, who interned at “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah,” Paramount and Fulwell 73 and works as a development manager in unscripted television. Lin says OppNet fellows were the first people he came out to, noting he “just felt a sense of comfort because I knew that people there would see me and hear me” and wouldn’t just label him as that “gay Asian kid.”
OppNet alumna Amanda Yepez (class of 2012) is a learning and development specialist at Spotify, where she focuses on staff learning and development for talent across businesses. For Yepez, OppNet lowered barriers for entry to a university education, and opened her eyes to potential careers.
At Spotify, “I also focus on career growth more intentionally as well. I get to support engineers who identify as a part of underrepresented groups, find ways to build their career portfolio and find ways to say, ‘How can I craft a career here at Spotify, because that’s what I want to do? How can I do that?’ And a lot of it is almost OppNet style. It’s demystifying what it takes to grow here. It’s about building access. It’s about connecting them with a mentor with a sponsor do that experience.”
While Pliska, the daughter of a high school principal, and Weinstein both were committed to the cause, Pliska acknowledges that she had to do a lot of learning in her role of serving communities and students of color. She and Weinstein are quick to credit the OppNet staff for its success. That success has spawned a healthy alumni program, whose members become mentors, paying it forward.
“Our alumni are leading initiatives in their companies” to bring in interns and open up time for volunteerism and bring along talent from underrepresented communities, notes Pliska. “A huge part of our volunteer base or our alumni is coming back to volunteer with our students.”
It creates a perpetual motion machine of support. That engagement is key, Yepez notes, as many in the OppNet community “are attending institutions that are new to us, where so many of us may feel like we are the outsiders. It’s a cultural shock. It’s a social adjustment. It’s a socio-economic adjustment.” But the alumni, mentors and staff are right there with the students.
For Ethan Ambrose, that meant pursuing his screenwriting dream right after graduating from Harvard with a B.S. in neuroscience. Ambrose (class of 2020) works as executive assistant to the president of the CBS Studios/NAACP Venture, a three-person production group. The venture was made with the sole purpose of empowering historically marginalized voices in entertainment, both in front of and behind
Ambrose, who hails from a family of Brooklyn-based Caribbean immigrants, explored his creative side, too, at Harvard, where a screenwriting professor told him he had talent. He rang up Pliska and she got him in touch with Weinstein, who helped him forge a path in the entertainment business.
“And I recognize how much of a privilege that is now because that is insane for like somebody who looks like me and comes from where I come from, for the very first call that’s made on your behalf to be the president of Bad Robot,” he says, adding: “That’s a testament to just like how much OppNet is invested in their students as people, first and foremost.”
In this time of social upheaval, “for us, equity is about choice,” Pliska says. “And that was young people having the choice to pursue whatever in the world they want to do and how they want to do it. And for that, and that means information about what’s out there.”
The growth of OppNet into other cities was essential.
“The reason we decided to go into other cities was because our industry has always been really focused on college, helping students get to college. And we understood from the beginning that college is not the final destination. By the way, it’s not the destination for everybody. So we understood we needed to move the finish line and the finish line needed to be to jobs,” says Pliska.
OppNet works with organizations based in local communities all over the country.
“You cannot do this work without listening to the communities that you are serving. You cannot do this work by going into places and saying this is how we’re going to do it. It does not work,” asserts Pliska. “The people that are closest to the issues are the people who have the solutions. So our expansion in working with communities was about going to partnering with organizations and communities to say ‘What do you need? What is the best way to do this?’ ”
But the learning doesn’t stop there. Weinstein and Pliska both talk about the trust and communication they have with their staff, alumni and board members in order to evolve OppNet and keep the program sharp in order to meet the job market’s needs — and the student’s needs, growth and dreams.
“Our alumni I would venture to say is probably a proxy for our human body. They are bankers, lawyers, journalists, media executives. They are in the Peace Corps. We have a zoologist. They are doing social impact nonprofit work. They are teachers. We have a National Book Award finalist. We have a politician —it runs the gamut completely,” says Pliska. “You know, it’s working. Our students are on the paths they’ve set for themselves.”
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