Annica Benning: Passionate about policy – and polo

If you read Annica Benning’s LinkedIn profile, you might think she was much older than her 22 years. “Experienced in public affairs, government relations, public policy research and political communication. Graduated from ASU at age 19. TEDx speaker. Wrote a book about Native American art and culture and donated 500,000 copies to all fourth-grade students in Arizona. Provided strategic research for Clint Bolick’s Arizona Supreme Court appointment.” And it doesn’t even mention her latest passion: polo.

Annica attended the Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championship preview parties in past years and watched matches back East. At this year’s preview party, she met Natalie Grancharov Camacho, a member of the Arizona Polo Club and an avid polo player. She talked to Natalie about the sport but thought that it would be too expensive for a twenty-something recent college graduate. “I had a horse when I was 12 or 13 and rode pretty often. I did hunter-jumper, where they were always pushing you to do more and spend more. It got to be too much. My dad described my horseback riding as going outside and setting piles of money on fire,” joked Annica.

Natalie told Annica how welcoming and affordable polo was and invited her to come out to her barn and check it out. “After that, I was pretty much hooked,” says Annica, who has been riding with Natalie twice a week and spending Saturdays and Sundays riding with her in the arena.

“The thing I like about polo is that you can be as involved with it as you want. There are people who have many horses, but you can also join the club and lease horses and go at your own pace,” says Annica, who has felt very welcomed into the polo community. “I think some people think, or at least I thought, polo would be a little pretentious, but they are just the nicest people.

Annica’s mom is from the U.S. but lived in Israel after high school and went to college there before joining the army. Her father is from Düsseldorf, Germany, where Annica lived for a time when she was younger. She has always enjoyed being around people from foreign countries. “I noticed that about the polo community – people from all over, which is so much fun,” she says.

Polo is also one of the few sports where you are totally on an even playing field. “There are mixed teams and it’s something women can do on the same level as men. There are all ages. There is one girl who is 16 and men who are in their 50s. If you have a good horse and you’re talented, you can hold your own,” says Annica.

Annica hopes to make the Arizona Polo Club team in a couple of years but admits it’s a challenging sport to learn: “You are on this horse that is going really fast and you are looking at this tiny ball and not looking ahead and swinging your arm trying to hit the ball ­– and then there are other horses all around you. There is bumping, where you’re riding into the horse next to you, which is considered smart and totally normal, but it’s a little difficult for me. It’s a learning process but so exhilarating and so much fun!”

Being challenged is nothing new for Annica. For her bat mitzvah project, she decided to write a book about Native American art and culture. “I was really fascinated by it at the time, and living in Arizona, you see it all around you. I had a lot of questions and I couldn’t find the answers, so I took it upon myself to do it.”

Initially, Annica was inspired by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano’s program called Books for Kids, where she gave away books relevant to Arizona to first- and fourth-grade students. “I set out to put together this little book and I figured I would hand it over to Books for Kids and they would print and distribute it and all those other great things,” says Annica. But what she didn’t take into account was that Gov. Napolitano would be called up to Washington D.C., and that her replacement, Jan Brewer, would cut the program. “So here I was, left with a book that I had spent two years putting my heart and soul into, driven all over the state researching and putting together and [now] I had nothing to do with it.”

Fortunately, many corporate sponsors had also set aside funds for the book before Gov. Brewer cut the program. Annica and her mother reached out to them before founding a nonprofit publishing house called Walnut Canyon Press. They used the funds for printing Arizona: Nations and Art, and distributed a copy to every classroom, school library and public library in Arizona.

“The next year, we ramped up the fundraising efforts and were able to give one to every fourth-grade student. We’ve been doing that ever since. We started in 2008, and as of this year, have given away 500,000 copies,” says Annica. Fourth-grade students receive a book when they learn about Arizona history. Annica hopes that it inspires kids to take advantage of the library or other resources and gets more books into their homes. “If you can get books into their hands and inspire them and teach them that there are other things out there – that’s a win in my book. My little mitzvah project turned out to be a whole lot more work than I bargained for!”

Hard work is nothing new to Annica. After graduating from Arizona State University at 19 with a degree in political science, she went to work as a litigation investigator at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative libertarian-leaning political think tank. Her boss was Clint Bolick, a very respected lawyer who spent his entire career suing the government.

Clint was approached to apply for the position when a vacancy opened up on the Arizona Supreme Court. “I was his policy and research helper at the time. I worked with him on putting together his application, researching the different committee members and understanding the politics of the commission process,” says Annica. “You apply to this commission of 16 people and then the commission selects a couple of names and brings those names to the governor.” Clint got the position and now he and Annica share an inside joke. “I say, ‘Never in a million years would I have thought you’d be working for the government – the people that you sued for your entire life’ and he says, ‘I never thought that you’d be working for a sports team, since you know nothing about sports.’”

Clint is referring to her current position as a public affairs specialist with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Annica stays up to date on laws and regulations being passed that may impact the Diamondbacks business practices and attends Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce meetings to stay current on issues affecting the business community.

“I’ve met so many awesome people and have really developed a deep appreciation for how local government works,” says Annica. “I talk with these people with amazing backgrounds…and I have been impressed with their commitment to public service.”

She also values being part of such a philanthropic company. The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Arizona Diamondbacks Foundation have made charitable contributions totaling more than $49 million to nonprofit organizations across Arizona. Of all three major Valley sports teams, the Diamondbacks are the largest donors. “It’s the youngest team in Arizona, too! It’s so awesome to be part of a company that values the community and giving back as much as they do,” says Annica.

Another thing Annica admires about the Diamondbacks is that “they put on a good show and focus on creating a great fan experience. We can’t control what happens on the field, but we can make sure that Baxter visits the kids or that Luis Gonzalez signs some autographs or Paul Goldschmidt comes by. We can control creating nice experiences and I think people appreciate that. Even when we have a tough year, like this year, there is still that loyalty and people still like to come out to the games,” says Annica.

She’s looking forward to long relationship with the Diamondbacks, although in the beginning she wondered, “So how does this baseball stuff work?” Annica even took an online class on the rules of baseball.

“While I was taking my class, one of my colleagues walked past my office and saw me taking a test and asked me ‘What are you doing over there?’ I turned red and said, ‘I’m taking an online class on baseball rules.’” That colleague was Luis Gonzalez, former player with the Diamondbacks and now senior advisor to the president and CEO. “He looked at me and said, ‘There’s a class on this?’ then sat down and worked on a couple of lessons with me. Never in a million years did I think that this would be my life right now,” says Annica with amazement.

When asked who did better on the online assignment, Annica responds, “We actually both got five out of five on that quiz. Thank you, Gonzo! I got a certificate of completion and I proudly hung it above my desk. I can hold my own at the water cooler now.”

Holding her own has never really been as issue for Annica. She knows that if she in not passionate about something, she is not interested in it. During her senior year in college, she assumed that she would graduate and instantly make great money. She looked into moving to California or New York, but the cost of living there was too high. Her boyfriend at the time was making great money but also worked long hours, never took a day off and was miserable. Annica thought, “Nope, not for me! I am going the route of things that I am passionate about. Things I am interested in and excited about. If that doesn’t pay me the big bucks, that’s OK, because I am actually excited and happy in what I’m doing – opposed to dreading going into the office every day.”

Many people don’t realize the secret to happiness is not always tied to a paycheck until well into middle age. It’s pretty unique to see a person in her early twenties figure that out – but then, Annica Benning is a pretty unique millennial.

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