Natalie Tran Is An Eternal Optimist
As the Executive Director of the philanthropic arm of mega entertainment and sports agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA), Natalie Tran knows how to leverage the power and influence of the CAA Foundation for good. But it’s the optimism in her genes that keeps her pushing for more.
“I really believe people’s actions can make a difference and that everyone can be of service. I’ll never get cynical about that. There’s always a solution.”
—Natalie Tran, Executive Director, The CAA Foundation
Jessica Pliska: Let’s start at the beginning. How would you describe your childhood?
Natalie Tran: I had a very special upbringing, in a culturally diverse community, surrounded by extended Vietnamese family in a predominantly Latin neighborhood in L.A. My parents came to the U.S. with nothing and made new lives. They found each other. They raised me and my sister in the same house where they still reside in East L.A. They’re retired now, but my dad was a computer programmer and my mom a graphic designer, and we spent my childhood taking advantage of free public art and museums all over the city.
Pliska: Can you tell me more about your family’s story?
Tran: My parents were refugees from Vietnam. My dad and his family left the day Saigon fell, jumping into a fishing boat in the ocean, not sure where they were going. An American tanker ship fished them out and brought them here. My mom’s family left Vietnam for France, but a distant aunt sponsored her here. My parents had good lives in Vietnam and it was all taken away, but they’re full of gratitude for what they built here and are optimistic about what’s possible, and that gratitude and optimism are in my DNA.
Pliska: Many young people whose parents are first-generation Americans, or who are first-gen themselves, struggle to feel a sense of belonging. Was that your experience?
Tran: First-generation kids experience life through different lenses. My first language at home was Vietnamese. I learned English at school and often played translator for my parents. I never felt like I truly belonged because I was always stuck between different worlds. When I was young, my parents made me delicious homemade meals for lunch—marinated pork and other Vietnamese food—but all I wanted was Lunchables like the other kids. You don’t want to be the kid with the pork belly when you’re six. You want to be like everybody else. Now, I would love nothing more than a home-cooked meal every day!
Pliska: It’s pretty powerful that now, as head of the CAA Foundation, you share a lived experience with some of the communities with whom you engage.
Tran: At the Foundation, we work to activate popular culture to create sustainable social change. We leverage the resources and network of the entertainment and sports industries to make the world a more equitable place. So, yes, my lived experience has impacted my work tremendously, because I know how it feels to be on the outside, to not understand a language, or feel lost in a system. It instilled a level of empathy I wouldn’t otherwise have. But I also know what it’s like to experience extreme kindness from strangers, or the helping hand of community nonprofits. I went to those after-school programs and I know their power.
Pliska: What an asset that must be in the work you do.
Tran: It’s still unbelievable to me that I get to come to work and serve communities that I’m from and connect to, or those that I’m passionate about supporting and learning from. If you didn’t grow up in a certain environment, how can you get proximate? When you get close to something, you get a better understanding of how complex and intersectional the issues can be and it helps you define what role you can play. We coordinate trips out into the field and spend time cultivating relationships to make sure we’re always listening and learning.
Pliska: You’ve been at CAA for many years. How did you get your first job there?
Tran: Someone I knew forwarded my resume to the CAA Foundation. Truthfully, I’d never heard of CAA and I had never been to Century City. At the time, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a studio, a network, a manager, or an agency! But my then boss took a chance on me, and now I believe in hiring people who may not have traditional experience but bring other assets. I didn’t know if I’d like it; I remember thinking, “I’ll give it a year” and that was 14 years ago.
Pliska: Why do you think you’ve been so successful?
Tran: It’s the eternal optimist in me. I really believe people’s actions can make a difference and that everyone can be of service. I’ll never get cynical about that. There’s always a solution. There’s always a way for somebody to get involved, to take action and make an impact, and that drives me to bring my creativity to finding those solutions.
Pliska: The power of a foundation like CAA’s to drive impact derives not just from resources but from influence. How does the foundation leverage its unique influence for good?
Tran: I always say people don’t call me back, they call CAA back! That influence allows us to connect at the highest levels across entertainment, sports, politics, and philanthropy. Our superpower is connecting and convening our colleagues, clients and community to leverage their platforms to be in service to others. Now we see broader impact using those powers to bring in others to lead change. We’re stretching how we think—to be more innovative, to scale public-private partnerships, to help clients make more of their platforms. We ask ourselves: “Can we share information faster? Can we move money faster in times of crisis? Can we broaden our coalition to bring in more changemakers? What systems do we need in order to do this? How can we scale our impact?”
Pliska: That’s exciting—it’s real movement-building. How did you develop the capability to do that?
Tran: By trying and experimenting! CAA is a place for real innovation. With the Foundation housed within the agency, we’re constantly inspired by colleagues who are the best at what they do, learning from them and seeing how we can apply their approaches to our work. How do we take what they do in launching brands and marketing campaigns for movies and television and apply that to civic engagement? What if we built platforms to excite brands and talent to get engaged in issues and create easier on-ramps for grassroots organizations? I’m always optimistic we can identify solutions to bring people together in a shared mission, regardless of their reasons or experience.
Pliska: Can you give me an example of a campaign to drive that kind of behavior change?
Tran: Civic engagement is a big one for us. There are no ‘off years’ for voting or deepening a commitment to democracy. With our I am a voter campaign, the goal was to generate a cultural shift around voting for young people leveraging brands and influencers. Instead of giving partners a “one size fits all” option, we worked with partners to identify specific ways to engage in the voting conversation with their audiences. When you tap into what is unique about a brand or influencer, you tap into what makes them culturally relevant.
Pliska: What did that look like in action?
Tran: Small changes to interactions bleed into the everyday create cultural norms. The dating app Bumble offered users “I am a voter” badges for their profiles to emphasize their voter identity and match with other voters. H&M turned every store into a voter registration center; at Urban Outfitters, their cash registers had QR codes as reminders to vote for young people who moved for college and need to re-register for absentee ballots. We also launched the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan business coalition dedicated to strengthening our democracy, with 1,350 companies committed to creating a stronger culture of civics in their companies—from stronger Election Day policies to communicating their company values to their employees and consumers. These approaches are tailor-made because each partner adds something unique.
Pliska: What excites you about where the Foundation is headed? Where would you like to see it go?
Tran: I believe in our potential. I love our ambition. I love that every day we try harder and I think we’ve only just scratched the surface of the impact we can have together. We are innovators, we are nimble, and we like to think big! When people think of world-changing organizations, they might think of the Gates Foundation or the Ford Foundation and one day, I hope we can be included in that peer group. We just need to keep trying and pushing forward, being of service where we can.
Pliska: That’s a big goal.
Tran: Eternal optimist here.
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