For a Grateful Leonard Bogdonoff ’13, SUA Was a Success Accelerator
There was a time when Leonard Bogdonoff ’13 couldn’t have imagined being an SUA alumnus, much less being asked to address the university community at one of its premier events. As he recounted his journey from struggling high school student to tech entrepreneur at the 17th annual Celebrating a Vision of Peace gala, Bogdonoff reminded attendees of the power each of them has to contribute to a young person’s success.
Always a special night for SUA, this year’s Peace Gala felt particularly meaningful as 176 community members were able to celebrate in person at the Athenaeum. The event was also streamed online with SUA supporters attending from around the US and countries including Brazil, Guatemala, Ireland, Israel, and Vietnam. The Oct. 9 event raised $797,908 for the student scholarship fund.
Calling the evening a “heartwarming” experience, Bogdonoff said he was honored to be part of it. “I recognize the technology field is a small subset of alumni today,” he said, “but I do feel the range of fields that graduates pursue speaks more for how SUA’s educational opportunities prepare students to establish a new path in the world.”
“I can wholeheartedly say if it was not for the financial support I received through the scholarships made possible by donors like you, I would have neither graduated college nor married my wife, Jihii (Jihii Jolly Bogdonoff ’11)… I would have never met my business partner, who I happened to meet nine years ago during my study abroad. And I would not have had, or have, the countless lifelong friends who I cherish beyond all else and depend on daily.”
Following SUA President Edward Feasel’s welcome, Bogdonoff opened his remarks by posing a question a professor had once asked him: “If you had to spend the rest of your life pursuing one of the following three virtues, which would you choose? Your options are fame, wealth, and power.”
Bogdonoff’s path to his own answer has not been a straight one. Despite the support and opportunities provided by his parents, Akiko and Jesse, Bogdonoff struggled through his high school years. He was arrested for juvenile misconduct and eventually expelled. At the same time, his family faced financial setbacks that resulted in bankruptcy.
Bogdonoff’s family had donated to SUA’s founding, and after they moved from San Francisco to Southern California, his mother began working on campus. With the encouragement of his parents and the SUA community, Bogdonoff applied and was accepted to SUA’s seventh class, but his challenges with academics continued. Completing assignments on time was difficult, in part because writing was a struggle.
After two semesters, he left SUA and enrolled in a community college. Bogdonoff said an SUA alumnus who knew his situation made “continuous efforts to encourage me and challenged me to deepen my own sense of purpose about my life.” His grades improved and the next year he was able to return to SUA.
Bogdonoff’s return to campus was more successful. His grades improved steadily, rising enough for him to become eligible for scholarships. “It was only because of the generous academic scholarship SUA offered, made possible by donors that I was able to continue my college degree,” he said.
“My time at SUA was marked with numerous cornerstones that shifted how I thought about myself and the impact I could make in the world,” he said. “I had countless professors who helped recognize strengths in myself that I had never seen, and encouraged me by coming up with opportunities to develop them inside and out of class.”
One example: Though SUA had no courses in design or software development, a professor aware of his interest asked him to build a website. He began finding resources and learned about design and software, which helped him prepare for the career he pursued after graduation.
The support of SUA faculty and staff helped him embrace his unique learning style and learn to effectively structure his thoughts, which improved his writing. “Paper after paper, I got more confident with writing, which culminated in my capstone project on a then-obscure online community called Reddit,” he said, “for which my professor allowed me to deeply research the business of online products, the history of internet communities, and the startup tech industry.”
After graduating in 2013, Bogdonoff moved to New York and began working as a software engineer at Conde Nast, where he worked on the New Yorker, and then as an innovation specialist with the US federal government. He followed those assignments with a stint at a machine learning startup, and moved on to Google, where he was part of a team responsible for serving fonts and typography rendered on billions of devices a day.
During the pandemic, Bogdonoff began building a video tool. He launched a company, Milk Video, and this year participated in Y Combinator, a prestigious startup accelerator through which he raised a $1.5 million seed round from investors and founders of many successful companies.
His New York company now has five full-time employees and is serving customers ranging from public corporations to startups with billion dollar valuations. Bogdonoff said his “experience as a student engaging with people from around the world gave me the confidence to meet new people, research unknown fields with ease and even win trust from strangers to collaborate and eventually raise money to start a venture-capital-backed business.”
While starting a company has been a long-time dream, Bogdonoff said his “deeper goal is to contribute directly to the many fields that are not financially rewarded for the value they create in the world,” and to support SUA’s growth to help it “become a household name for generations to be associated with fostering humanitarian peacemakers, cultural leaders from around the world, and timeless educators.”
Returning to the question he posed at the start of his remarks, Bogdonoff said that while all three of the goals—wealth, fame, and power—have become synonymous with selfishness, they can be reframed to maximize the good they can do for others.
“For example, wealth is not the cultivation of riches for buying more houses or cars, but a way to amass value and direct it to the areas in society that are not financially rewarded for the value they create,” he said. “Similarly, fame is not about short-term recognition or special privileges, but instead the aspiration to spend your life making contributions to the world, which will be valued for generations to come.
“And in the light of value creation, I believe power is less about political ambition, manipulation, trade-offs, and corruption, but instead can be harnessed by people with conviction behind their beliefs to fix things they see as wrong in society’s broken cultural frameworks, especially for the sake of those who can’t fix it for themselves.”