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UC People: Brija Johnson, inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs

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Brija Johnson sitting on a blue chair
Brija Johnson, who directs UCLA Ventures, is launching a program that will offer aspiring entrepreneurs one year of guidance from mentors and support from alumni and affiliates.

By the UCLA Newsroom

The process of commercializing solutions coming out of UCLA starts long before the paperwork and lawyers. Bringing the campus’s innovations to market, and ensuring its growth and service to the community, begins with the people who sow seeds of collaboration between Bruin networks and who see to it that these pathways continue to grow. 

One of these people is Brija Johnson, executive director of UCLA Ventures and its community of UCLA entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that supports UCLA’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The program moved under the UCLA Technology Development Group in 2023, at which point Johnson, who had been with the group as a technology scouting manager since 2021, inherited the venture program’s 209 members made up of alumni, friends and affiliates of the university. 

Since the reorganization, Johnson has hit the ground running, connecting with the teams behind various initiatives coming out of the accelerators and incubators on campus. She’s also prioritized supporting entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities. Johnson approaches this calling with an aptitude for networking, a curiosity about new technologies and a confidence in the myriad of opportunities and economic gains such programs can bring to the Los Angeles region and beyond. 

A new program Johnson is heading, Bruin Founders, will launch this spring, offering aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators one year of guidance from mentors and support from alumni and affiliates. Newsroom spoke with Johnson about the mentor-in-residence program model, plus how her unit sets the groundwork for inspiring the next generation of Bruin entrepreneurs to help advance goal 1 of UCLA’s Strategic Plan: to deepen the university’s engagement with Los Angeles. 

What can you tell us about the Bruin Founders program? 

The program will help bring in UCLA-affiliated startups and any seasoned entrepreneurs looking to support and contribute to the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem at UCLA. It’ll be a small group of these folks who will look at technologies and projects that are coming out of the university and be paired with them either one-to-one or with a very small group. Through a yearlong program, the teams behind these innovative projects will get tailored advice toward a solution — either to launch their startup or scale it in the commercial market. Any aspiring entrepreneur or innovator who has a concept or existing startup that’s gone through one of the incubators or accelerators on campus would be able to apply to the program, whether that be alumni, faculty, staff, students or anyone who’s affiliated with the university. 

How do you see the program deepening the university’s impact in the UCLA entrepreneur community, as well as broader communities within and around Los Angeles? 

I think both on a university level and citywide, there’s a lot of value to be had here. As we’re getting this program up and running, we’ll be holding spaces where folks in the community can come in and participate in events and meet some of these founders. There’s a lot of great people and technologies going through these incubator and accelerator programs. Whether we’re doing networking events or just one-off workshops, I think there’s opportunity for all.

And then for the city, the program has strong potential for creating more jobs and more opportunities. If we’re able to spin out companies from the university and keep them housed in California, then we’re creating a lot of economic value for the region. If there’s more funding being pumped into these companies — whether that’s venture capital investment or government grants or private investments — that’s driving a lot of opportunity for the workforce. 

I think it also shows an example to those in the community who might have similar aspirations that there are programs around here that are looking to provide resources and help them develop that opportunity.

What do you love about working at UCLA? 

What I love the most about being a part of UCLA and the mission here is getting to work with world-class technologies and disruptive solutions. There’s a lot of great research coming out of the university and people pioneering new and exciting methodologies and technologies that the world is looking at. Just being a part of a world-renowned university and then getting to work with folks who are extremely intelligent and who stretch me mentally and professionally, that helps me grow. 

Is there anything else you want to highlight? 

I would just highlight the group that’s already been doing the work. The folks who started it almost 25 years ago are just phenomenal people — great advisors. I’m looking forward to engaging with them more and allowing the other seasoned entrepreneurs we bring on to help staff up this program with the new perspectives and insight they’ll bring to the group. I think this is going to have a very huge impact on the ecosystem here. I’m privileged to be able to shape that. 

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