Gaston says Song Foundation plans Detroit investments

Source: Special to Michigan News

Khalilah Burt Gaston

Khalilah Burt Gaston wasn’t looking to leave her boutique consulting firm, Glidepath Strategies,  when Dug and Linh Song approached her about leading their young philanthropy, the Song Foundation.

They talked for five months about the position and how the $40 million foundation could impact social and economic change in Southeast Michigan. Gaston, who said her career “has always been at the intersection of social impact with a focus on equity,” accepted the position in February.

“For me, this was a wonderful opportunity to really start from scratch and create a culture,” she said. “I’m always up for a challenge. This was too good to pass up, honestly.”

First-generation Americans Dug Song and his wife, Linh, created the Ann Arbor-based foundation just before the COVID pandemic hit in early 2019. Dug Song is the co-founder of Duo Security, which was sold to tech giant Cisco Systems for $2.35 billion in 2018. Song is chief strategy officer at Cisco.

The Song Foundation has given out $2 million in grants, about half of it to health care, small businesses and community service groups for COVID relief in Washtenaw County, where Duo Security was founded and where the Songs reside.

But it lacked a philanthropy focus and organizational strategy. That’s where Gaston, who had experience working at several philanthropic organizations, came in.

“For the most part, we’re transitioning into a period of intense focus on our mission, vision and values, and really how to operationalize those things,” she said.

Gaston, who lives in Detroit, said the Song Foundation’s general grant-making focus will be on southeast Michigan, including the city.  Last year the foundation provided financial support to Detroit’s Project Clean Slate, which helps city residents expunge criminal convictions that hinder job, education and housing opportunities.

“We definitely will be investing in Detroit,” she said.

The Songs have several “action areas,” Gaston said, including youth organizations, cultural institutions and supporting entrepreneurship.

“Our overarching goal will be to affect innovative people in our region to really help improve the quality of life in southeast Michigan, but also to ensure we’re all living in a more just and equitable world,” she said.

A suburban Indianapolis native, Gaston attended the University of Michigan at the same time as the Songs, although they didn’t know each other there. Her initial academic journey didn’t portend the career path she ended up pursuing.

Gaston obtained her bachelor’s degree in sports marketing and communications at U-M, combining her love of athletics and business. But she also had an interest in community development, which led Gaston to earn a master of urban planning degree from U-M’s Taubman College in 2008.

Gaston said her liberal arts education and access to U-M’s global network of alumni have served her well in a career that has included working as a program officer at the Kellogg Foundation and development specialist at the state of Michigan’s Land Bank Fast Track Authority.

“The education I received at the university helped me to adapt and pivot and ultimately be confident to take advantage of opportunities that came to me,” she said. “People talked about the Michigan Difference. Part of that is U-M’s worldwide network of alums. I didn’t understand that until after I graduated.”

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