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LOS ANGELES – Several students sit at a table, laptops in front of them, as they listen to instruction during a class about building their own virtual reality environment. About 25 feet away, several others sit in front of desktop computers while receiving instruction on a motion graphics project.

Before SoLa Impact's The Beehive opened its doors on September 18, 2019, such classes likely would have been difficult to access for under-resourced students in South Los Angeles. Now, thanks to The Beehive's 92,000 square-foot opportunity zone campus, which includes the SoLa Tech and Entrepreneurship Center, it isn't.

Efforts like this to bridge the technology gap are why SoLa Impact Chief Impact Officer Sherri Francois – who also serves as Executive Director and President of the Board for SoLa Impact's non-profit affiliate, the I CAN Foundation – has been named the Rams' first pLAymaker. She was surprised with a $5,000 check from The Los Angeles Rams Foundation last Friday at The Beehive.

"I am so grateful for the acknowledgement," Francois said. "I know that I'm in a space with many, many, many other phenomenal organizations, phenomenal people who are trying to make change here in LA. But to be specifically recognized as the first playmaker is an extraordinary, extraordinary feeling. I am very thankful to the Rams for the acknowledgement. I'm very thankful for the recognition for the community as a whole, and some of the needs of the community. There are plenty of folks that kind of what I call, 'talk the talk,' wanting to help, wanting to be there, but there are fewer that are actually 'walking the walk,' and the Rams have been there, and they are really showing up for not only the youth and young adults here in the facility, but the community as a whole. And so it feels wonderful, and surprising."

In her role, Francois oversees SoLa Impact's social impact strategy, operations and development. She leads the execution of SoLa Impact's strategies to improve the lives of SoLa tenants, and provide educational opportunities for underserved youth in the company's South LA community. In 2018, she established the SoLa I CAN Foundation (I CAN).

Francois led the development of South LA's first technology and esports learning center to spur a new generation of technology entrepreneurs in the area. Together, SoLa Impact and I CAN work to provide skills-based technology programming, scholarships and career development opportunities for under-served Black and brown Angelenos.

Among the many inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic was the digital divide between well-resourced and under-resourced communities. The I CAN Foundation wants to be a vehicle to change that.

"The I CAN Foundation was built on what we call a simple premise: 'If you can see it, you can be it,' which is why it's written there on the wall," Francois said. "We want all of our friends, youth, students, what we call our tech scholars, our SoLa scholars, to see it and actually believe it, because unfortunately, there's just not enough access. And what I mean by that here in South LA, (is) access to education and opportunity. So we're really working hard to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty that exists here, and to also bridge the enormous digital divide that exists here and give our kids the opportunity to become the next tech leaders, the next sports entrepreneurs, the next tech professionals, and really just beginning to plant the seed that they can do it. They can be their own bosses, they can be the next leaders in this community in LA, nationally, beyond. That's really why we created this, to give them that opportunity to really thrive, because we always say it's not about ability, it's about opportunity. And so that's why we built this out."

One of the phrases Francois and I CAN use often is that they are creating "game changers" – empowering local youth by not only giving them a voice, but also giving them the necessary skills to go out and create change, address social injustice, address equality, and address issues where there aren't enough Black and brown people in positions of leadership on the boards that make up prominent companies.

"So for me, for us, SoLa Foundation, creating change is all of that," Francois said. "It's really wrapped up and giving an opportunity to go out and stomp on all of these preconceived notions that because our kids, our youth, our community come from an under-invested community, that they cannot thrive. Absolutely, not only will they thrive, but they're going to be the next game changers for our community, and I really believe for the nation as a whole."

When it comes to inspiring change in our own communities, Francois pointed to the Rams as an example, in terms of organizations believing in it and stepping up to help.

"It takes a village. We can't do it alone," Francois said. "The reason why we're able to create all of this here is through support of the Rams and other donors who understand the need. There's so many wonderful organizations that are doing great work to make change, but it takes everyone literally everyone to believe and understand that it can be done and want to want to support it. So it really stems to me from that initial support. So that recognition, that check will go a long way, and it starts there."

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