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Latino Trailblazer

Nonny de la Peña

  • Gender: Female
  • University: Harvard University
  • University: University of Southern California
  • Organization: Emblematic Group
  • Position: CEO and Founder

In a 2015 TED talk, Nonny said, “My whole life as a journalist, I’ve been really compelled to try to tell stories that can make a difference and really inspire people to care.” And, although her work has spanned print and broadcast journalism, as well as documentary filmmaking, it is through VR (virtual reality) that she feels she is having the greatest impact. Dubbed the “godmother of VR” by The Guardian and, she explained to the latter: “[VR is] a visceral empathy generator. It can make people feel in a way that nothing, no other platform I've ever worked in can successfully do in this way." She has termed the VR story-telling medium “immersive journalism.”

After completing a bachelor’s degree at Harvard and a PhD at the University of Southern California, she began her career as a freelance journalist, during which time she reported on Los Angeles area gang members, and worked on a project in Mexico through the Fund for Investigative Journalism, before eventually becoming a correspondent for Newsweek.

Her first foray into documentary film was as associate producer for Death on the Job (1991), an HBO investigative film that was nominated for the Academy Awards' Best Documentary Feature. In 1994, she formed PyeDog Productions, a documentary film studio focused on telling stories of social and cultural significance.

After developing a number of films in that genre, Nonny says, “I really began to push the envelope, using virtual reality and journalism together.” In particular, she knew she wanted create stories that audiences would remember with their whole bodies—stories that evoked “intense authentic reactions.” So, in 2007, she founded Emblematic Group, a small team of filmmakers, journalists, designers, and game developers who aim to use cutting edge technology to create immersive experiences designed to “enlighten, empower, and educate.”

A number of Emblematic works have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won multiple awards. Their latest project is REACH, which Emblematic describes as “the first web platform for creating, remixing, and sharing volumetric VR for real people and places.”

In recognition of her advancement of journalism through immersive media, she received the 2016 Innovation Award from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In the same year, she earned the i-3 award for impact, innovation, and influence at the Mirror Awards, which are sponsored by Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. CNET named her one of the “20 Most Influential Latinos in Tech” in 2017, and in 2018 she was both the Convergence Keynote for SXSW (South by Southwest) and The Wall Street Journal’s 2018 Technology Innovator of the Year.