Eric Eisner

The Educator

As founder of the Young Eisner Scholars program, Eric Eisner ’73 is helping kids from the roughest neighborhoods reach their full potential

By Tim Fernholz

Fall 2013

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Eric Eisner ’73 dreams big. He sees no point in waiting around, fingers crossed, hoping pundits will fix the system. “Let’s sell education,” the former Hollywood dealmaker and Young Eisner Scholars (YES) founder says, “the same way Nike sells sneakers to kids: Make it glamorous. Each YES scholar, home for Christmas in his Columbia jacket, is the living advertisement for kids in his neighborhood.”

Eisner is sitting in a windowless bungalow on a middle school campus full of windowless bungalows in Lennox, Calif., a troubled neighborhood adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport. Here, 92.2 percent of the children are on free or assisted lunch programs. Through YES, Eisner works to give promising students here, and in other low-income communities, the chance to experience world-class educational instruction by linking them up with the city’s top schools. 

Eisner moved to L.A. in the mid-’70s after graduating from Columbia Law School, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar. In 1980, he was tapped by David Geffen for what became a 10-year stint as president of the Geffen Company, producing hits such as Risky Business, Beetlejuice, and M. Butterfly. By the early ’90s, Eisner was able to retire, and when a friend working with inner-city children in L.A. asked him to get involved, Eisner agreed. But first, he told her, he wanted to meet some of the students.

Eisner began visiting five students each week to get a sense of why some kids excelled despite such difficult circumstances. “We would geek out about physics and astronomy,” says Chris Bonilla ’16, one of the first students to meet with Eisner. (Bonilla began his studies at Columbia Law School this fall, four years after graduating from Columbia University.) “It’s not so cool to be [seen as] a ‘nerdy kid’ at these schools,” he adds. “Hearing about Eric’s success, and him pushing me, really boosted my self-esteem.”

As Eisner realized the untapped potential in the students he met, he began assisting them in earning scholarships to the best high schools and colleges in the country—with YES funding SAT prep and covering costs that financial aid misses. Through a variety of Eisner’s corporate connections, YES also helps find internships and jobs for upperclassmen and graduates.

Fourteen years after Eisner’s first sit-down with students, YES employs seven staffers and maintains a yearly operating budget of $850,000, of which 83 percent goes exclusively to programs. The organization now works with more than 250 students at four L.A. middle schools and at five schools in Harlem. (Eisner recently reunited with an old Law School friend, Harold S. Handelsman ’73, who plans to open a YES branch in Chicago.) YES seeks out the most driven students at each location, offering spots in the program based on test scores, recommendations, and the all-important interview with Eisner. “Dynamic people have had an enormous impact on my own life,” he says. “I guess I’m drawn to the process of being influential in the lives of young people.”

While Eisner’s success can inspire students, a bigger influence, he says, is their peers in the program, who come back for visits during breaks from schools like Columbia and Stanford.

“The glamour radiates from successful students with whom other kids can identify,” Eisner says, recalling the first time a prep school sent an articulate YES scholar—resplendent in her school uniform—rather than a middle-aged admissions director, to recruit new applicants. “Those kids were mesmerized,” he says, “and I thought: ‘Of course, they’re looking at the dream.’”

Tim Fernholz has written for Quartz and The Atlantic, among other publications.

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