To Nancy Blachman, mathematics has always been more than memorizing the multiplication facts, learning formulas, and carrying out procedures. She has fond memories of working on mathematical problems and puzzles when she was growing up in Palo Alto, California. Several teachers encouraged Nancy and other students in her high school math classes to explore the qualifying problem sets for the Saint Mary’s Mathematics Competition that was hosted in Moraga, California. Nancy recalls having fun and learning a non-trivial amount of mathematics as well as earning herself a spot at the Saint Mary’s Mathematics Contest each spring.
Years later, when Nancy was attending the East Bay Community Foundation’s Math and Science Fair in 2005, she reflected on her memories of the Saint Mary’s Mathematics Contest. She fondly remembered working on the problems with encouragement from her father. She appreciated not being under time pressure, having about a month to work on the problems and write up her approaches and solutions. Nancy didn’t enjoy the competition itself — neither the working alone nor the time pressure.
She found out that the Saint Mary’s Math Contest had been discontinued in 1985. Nancy suspected that there may be others who, like her, would prefer to work with guidance from a facilitator. What if she could help resurrect the contest as a community collaborative event instead of a competition? Nancy was enthusiastic about the possibility and believed that by providing a smorgasbord of mathematical activities and puzzles, facilitators, similar to her father, could broaden students’ engagement with mathematics.
“When I was in high school, I had fun solving puzzles. Because I had fun, I sought out puzzles, and thus I became more adept at problem solving. If we can get more people to play with mathematical activities and puzzles, we are onboarding problem solvers,” Nancy says. “There are lots of opportunities, particularly in STEM, for people who are proficient at problem solving.” In 2006, Nancy’s husband, a Google employee, had stock with the company. Nancy and her husband, David desJardins, opened a donor advised fund at SVCF and began to think about their philanthropy. The timing was serendipitous; Nancy decided to fund an interactive, non-competitive math event using their donor advised fund.
She collaborated with Jim Sotiros, then development director at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, and Joshua Zucker, a math teacher in Palo Alto, to develop the idea. They envisioned a lively festival, filled with tables hosting a variety of activities and problem sets. Prizes would be awarded based on effort and perseverance rather than just answers. The goal was for participants to have fun and solve problems by themselves or collaboratively, whichever they preferred. Another goal was to provide a wealth of problems so that each participant could find problems that are thought-provoking, challenging, and engaging.
Nancy and her team named the festival after Julia Robinson, a renowned female Bay Area mathematician, to inspire more young girls to pursue mathematics. By March 2007, Joshua had sent out an announcement about the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival to many junior high and high school teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area. The response was fast and enthusiastic. Google, the sponsor, rented out an additional tent to accommodate more students. The inaugural Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival — one of the first math festivals in the nation — hosted more than 300 students, a community of problem-solvers.
Very early, it was clear the festival was a hit with students. Nancy says: “We broke for lunch, and many students kept working.”
The festival was so well received that both Google and Pixar offered to host it the following year. Universities across the state, including Stanford University and UCLA, sponsored the festival at their campuses. Eventually, the JRMF made its way around the U.S to over half the states. There have also been festivals hosted around the world, on every continent except Antarctica, in countries including Argentina, Ghana, and India. To date, festivals have served more than 100,000 students.
Nancy’s donor advised fund has also allowed her to help JRMF through unexpected challenges, such as COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, JRMF decided to pivot and host festivals online. The festival team worked hard to figure out ways to engage with kids virtually, including developing digital apps and experimenting with different online breakout rooms for different skill levels. Despite the challenges, since March 2020, JRMF has served more than 10,000 students from all over the world.
“I am really, really pleased with what JRMF is doing, getting students, teachers, and communities to have fun playing with many different types of mathematical problems. I feel like we are making a difference,” Nancy says.
Ironically, Nancy doesn’t consider herself a superstar at mathematics; she plays with mathematical activities and puzzles because she enjoys them. When Nancy was in college, she often compared herself to others and she fell short of what she expected of herself. After she graduated, she changed her point of view, which she documented in a presentation she gave at the University of Oklahoma. In a letter to her younger self, Nancy wrote:
“However hard you try, there will be people much more accomplished, better, or greater than you. Get over it! Celebrate that you are the best at being you. No one can be better at that. Pursue things that you enjoy.”
Nancy has embraced this philosophy, dedicating her philanthropy to organizations and causes that educate people about issues. Her donor advised fund allows her the flexibility to support myriad causes she cares about. Aside from JRMF, Nancy is also passionate about films, particularly documentaries that provide opportunities to learn about important issues of our time, encourage discussion, and hopefully make a positive impact and catalyze change. She has supported films that focus on people facing difficult situations, including Athlete A, The Fight, Picture a Scientist, The Social Dilemma, and Waging Change. During the pandemic, Nancy also matched a friend’s grant to Second Harvest Food Bank.
Having a donor advised fund has allowed Nancy to continue supporting JRMF through the years, sharing her love for recreational mathematics with others, inspiring new generations of students from all over the world to enjoy math and enabling them to pursue careers in STEM.
To learn more about the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival, visit jrmf.org
When asked what advice she has for other philanthropists, Nancy replied, “Find issues that you’re passionate about, then seek opportunities to help out with your time and your unique talents. Collaborating with like-minded people is fulfilling. By motivating others to get involved — whether it’s with financial support or with thoughtful advice — you can really multiply your impact and make even more good happen in the world.”
To learn more about how you can start a donor advised fund at SVCF, contact firstname.lastname@example.org