Mayoral Candidate Profile: Joanna Rees

Eminem, The Black Eyed Peas and Elton John are just a few of the musical acts San Francisco mayoral candidate Joanna Rees enjoys. “Music allows for discovery and is very important in my life,”she said during a recent interview with a USF student reporter. Wearing a black Banana Republic suit, Rees sat in her small, but cozy campaign office on Geary Boulevard. Sipping her coffee, she checked some last minute e-mails on her MacBook Pro and wrote something in her light blue planner. The office was filled with the aroma of cinnamon roast and baked goods. The walls were bare, but Rees’ desk was covered with papers. A young Caucasian man and Latinas were unpacking several boxes filled with red and blue campaign brochures with “REES” written in bold white letters on the front.

Rees, 49, is the managing director and founder of VSP Capital, a San Francisco-based venture capital company. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from Duke University and her MBA from Columbia University.

Born in Montclair, New Jersey, Rees was raised by an entrepreneur father and a schoolteacher mother. “My dad was an entrepreneur before people even started using the word. We always traveled even if we didn’t have any money,” she said. “My dad was very adventurous and all about experiencing what life had to offer.He always told me ‘People can take away your money and your possessions but they can never take away your experiences.’”
Her mother, Joan Rees, was a schoolteacher and had a different perspective. “She was not about experiences at all. My father was a thrill seeker and my mom was his anchor. She made it all work and kept the family together,” said Rees.

At Duke, Rees was a member of the gymnastics team. At Columbia, she was a member of Beta Gamma Sigma, the international honor society for business students.

Coming from a very inclusive and close family, Rees learned the importance of love and support. “We were that family that always had an extra kid at the table,” she said. “Life with my family was about experience and not possession.”
Her son Arthur, 22, is a student at Santa Clara University and daughter Taylor, 18, is a student at University of Colorado, Boulder. Married to her business partner John Hamm, she is stepmother to Andie, 13 and Perry, 11.

In 1992, Rees moved from New York to San Francisco. “Arthur was four and Taylor was a baby when we first moved to San Francisco. I wanted my children to grow up in an environment where they could experience diversity and a collection of different cultures,” said Rees.

As an entrepreneur, an educator and a mother, Rees lives an incredibly active and exclusive lifestyle. But she would not describe what she does as “balancing” career and family and political aspirations.

“I don’t think it should be called ‘balance.’ It should be called ‘managing’ because I feel like balancing is all about making a schedule of everything you have to do for the day and follow it exactly as it is,” she said.

She manages to visit her daughter Taylor at college in Boulder, Colo. twice a month. “I need to be very centered and engaged in what I do in order to manage everything I chose to do. No matter what, my kids are always first.”
Public education is one of Rees’ priorities. For many years, San Francisco parents and school officials have tried to change the lottery program that uses socio-economic factors when assigning student to schools. “Families in Inner Sunset need to send their kids to schools that are in the Mission. Many families leave San Francisco every year for better educational opportunities elsewhere,” Rees said. “The San Francisco Unified School District has been forced to cut art instruction and summer school programs. It’s completely devastating.”

Rees recently formed a ballot committee in support of Proposition H, which would direct students to their neighborhood schools, rather than the ones they are eligible through the lottery. She wants to get rid of the lottery system. In a recent Commonwealth Club forum co-hosted by columnist Melissa Griffin, when asked why she supports Prop H, Joanna Rees said, “We have lost families in an alarming rate in San Francisco and I encourage anyone who wants to learn about this to come to a bus stop with me in the morning. What you’ll hear from so many people is ‘I might not be here in November because my child is starting school next year and we want to get located in another city so we can get settled before school starts.’”

Rees started thinking about entering politics 12 years ago when she was part of a leadership program at The Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. A recipient of the Henry Crown Leadership Award, Rees was also a Henry Crown Fellow. The Henry Crown Leadership Award honors a leader whose achievements reflect the highest standards of honor, integrity, industry and philanthropy. According to Rees, the institute’s assignment was to teach leaders entrepreneurial skills. “My assigned mentor was Ann Richards, who was the first female governor of Texas. She inspired me and always said to me ‘Achieve what you want to achieve, but always give back to the community.’”

Rees has worked for more than a decade on the cause of public school reform. She has supported efforts to improve teacher development and improve student outcomes in the under-served communities of San Francisco.
“I’ve always said, San Francisco is the capital of innovation but not in city government,” Rees said. “College students should vote for me because I have a commitment to public education. The other candidates rarely emphasize their interest in education. The education system in SF will thrive if the mayor makes it a high level priority.”

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