Their Future Is Our Business


By Nate Berg

Published Jul 1, 2018 8:00 AM

For more than 30 years, the Riordan Programs in UCLA's Anderson School of Management have enabled low-income high school students to envision a brighter tomorrow.

Dean Osborne, Danny Velasquez and Devon Hoston-Turner looking over their presentation. Photos by Eli Hurwitz.

Denice Gonzalez-Kim grew up in the 1980s in what was then known as South Central Los Angeles — the swath of the city south of Interstate 10 where poverty was the norm. That wasn’t the life she wanted for herself, but she had little exposure to a different kind of future.

Then, in the early 2000s, when she was in high school, a friend told her about the Riordan Programs, initiatives run through UCLA’s Anderson School of Management that offer mentorship, college preparation and career guidance to high school students from low-income backgrounds who hope to be the first in their families to go to college. Gonzalez-Kim applied and became a Riordan Scholar, one of several dozen high school students admitted each year from around Los Angeles. The Scholars attend monthly sessions at UCLA that provide them with leadership and business management training and one-on-one mentoring from Anderson faculty. In time, Gonzalez-Kim became a Riordan Fellow through an initiative that prepares first-generation college graduates to apply to M.B.A. programs at top universities.

Now in their 31st year, the Riordan Programs have funneled thousands of young people into college and M.B.A. programs at UCLA and elsewhere, shepherding them from challenged backgrounds into professional careers in business, academia and politics. Riordan alumni have gone on to become vice presidents at large international financial institutions, executives at major movie studios and even the California secretary of state.

For Gonzalez-Kim, the Riordan Programs widened her range of possible futures. She earned a B.A. at UCLA in 2008 and is currently pursuing an M.B.A. at UCLA Anderson — seemingly worlds away from the place of her youth. “I know that my life could have gone in a very different way,” she says.

Excited and nervous, students Shyah Harvey, Velasquez, Hoston-Turner and Alyssa Skeet prepare their presentations.

The idea for the Riordan Programs emerged in the early 1980s — about halfway between the civil unrest of 1965 in the Watts area of Los Angeles and the 1992 riots in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial — as an attempt to counter the decline still plaguing the area now known simply as South Los Angeles.

“It was a time of great urban distress all over the country,” says William Ouchi, distinguished professor of management and organization design at UCLA Anderson, now retired. “We needed long-term solutions for the lack of opportunity for low-income inner-city dwellers. It seemed to me that meant business.”

Getting more people of color into business, he figured, could help correct some of the inequalities in low-income areas — generating upward mobility and creating business-people who, compared to most in the vastly white business world, would better understand the increasingly diverse urban populations. At the time, there were only about 15 Latino and African-American students in UCLA’s own M.B.A. program. Ouchi asked them why they were pursuing business. Most said they had grown up in rough neighborhoods, surrounded by kids who were getting into trouble. They had been subjected to peer pressure to do the same, but had managed to resist. “It turned out that each of them had an adult mentor who at critical moments was there for them,” says Ouchi, “be it a parent, a relative, a coach, a priest who offered positive advice or guidance. I said to myself, ‘We could do that.’”

Ouchi believed that UCLA could provide that same sort of support to potential college students, but in a more organized way, reaching far more than those few good coaches and priests could. “I said, OK, we need a little startup capital,” Ouchi says. “So I went to see Dick Riordan.”

Professor William Ouchi.

Richard Riordan, a lawyer, businessman, philanthropist, eventual two-term mayor of Los Angeles and California secretary of education, had established himself as an advocate for investment in urban education. In 1981, he founded what became known as The Riordan Foundation, focused on developing early literacy skills in children, making grants and donating computers to public schools nationwide.

“Since the early ’80s, everything in my life has been to help minority kids, low-income kids and school kids to be successful in life,” says Riordan. A child of the Depression born in 1930, Riordan is deeply attuned to the often unfair ways in which conditions outside a person’s control can unduly influence their life. “Every kid should have the abilities to compete in life,” he says.

Riordan immediately latched on to Ouchi’s idea, and the two set out to define a way to combine The Riordan Foundation’s financial resources and UCLA’s academic resources to help more students. They decided on a twofold focus: to help more under-served students become first in their families to go to college, while at the same time giving advantaged UCLA M.B.A. students a positive experience as mentors so they could develop a lifelong habit of helping others.

Business, the two men thought, could cast a wide net and put more students on a path to success. “While few out of any high school class are going all the way through medical or law school, a lot can enter business,” Ouchi says. “And we can create a model that can be successfully pursued by thousands of future young people from the inner city.”

When the Riordan Programs welcomed their first cohort of students in fall 1987, Linda Baldwin, the first executive director of the Riordan Programs, says, “Almost 75 percent of the population of M.B.A. schools were male, and 85 percent were white at all the top schools. When [Riordan and Ouchi] began talking about the approaching demographic changes, they had this idea about creating leadership coming from those diverse communities.”

Students Kimberly Rachal, Jada McMichael, Elena Antonio and Destiny Watlington flank former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

Baldwin says what attracted her to the programs was how different they were from existing programs focused on increasing diversity in universities. Most, she says, were remedial, providing catch-up classes to underprivileged students. “The Riordan Programs were about offering students opportunities to be exposed to new possibilities, and [to] learn what it would take to access those possibilities,” she says.

For students without a history of college education or white-collar work in their families, those worlds can seem incomprehensible, says Baldwin, who recently retired as Anderson’s assistant dean of diversity initiatives. What people in today’s society do for work, what types of jobs they have and even what those jobs are called can be mysteries to students who have had no exposure to people in those roles. “We demystify and help students identify within themselves the tools and skill sets that will allow them, once they see the opportunities, to at least make a pathway to them,” Baldwin says.

Under UCLA professors, the Riordan students receive a world-class introduction, says Roxanne Mendez, current executive director of the Riordan Programs. She adds that the faculty in the programs generously donate their time to provide lectures and lessons — talks they could be giving to business audiences for handsome speaking fees. Students also hear talks by visiting industry executives, from finance to technology to entertainment, who offer an inside look at their real-world experience.

“What’s key about Anderson, the faculty and the leadership of the school and everyone who’s been involved is that they understand the bigger picture of the investment in the community as business leaders,” says Mendez.

Finalists (left to right) David Castillo, Osmin Caceres, Carlos Leano, Madeline Wright, Jeniffer Cruz and Isaias Mireles await results.

The Riordan Programs aim to increase diversity. Riordan Scholars come to UCLA monthly for introductions to college and the business world, tuition-free. They receive guidance to help them get into college, such as SAT preparation and college application reviews, and they’re exposed to such business concepts as statistics, the workings of the stock market and real estate.

Arturo Gonzalez was a Riordan Scholar in the first cohort, in 1986-87. After getting his undergraduate degree at UCLA, he went on to get a Ph.D. in economics and became a tenured professor at the University of Arizona. He eventually left academia and is now a senior director at Visa. He says the Riordan experience was instrumental in his professional development: “It gave me the sense of options, rather than just one path. There are multiple options one can have through an advanced degree like an M.B.A.”

Riordan Fellows are college graduates, one to five years out. They receive hands-on preparation for applying to and attending an M.B.A. program — GMAT study tips, help with M.B.A. applications, M.B.A. alumni panels, faculty lectures and personal career coaching. Along with current UCLA Anderson M.B.A. students, some Riordan Fellows also offer guidance as mentors for Riordan Scholars, sometimes through the programs’ Saturday Business Institutes, held four times a year at a few L.A. high schools.

Alex Padilla is a Riordan Fellows program alumnus. He was raised in Pacoima, in the San Fernando Valley, by parents who had immigrated from Mexico, and was the second in his family to attend college. After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in engineering, Padilla considered an M.B.A. and applied to the Riordan Programs. Though he didn’t end up pursuing an M.B.A., the program broadened his sense of where his career could go. Within a few years, he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council, representing Pacoima and the San Fernando Valley for 7-1/2 years. He went on to serve two terms in the California State Senate and, since 2015, has served as California’s secretary of state. “Long term, any good legislator, policymaker, council member, mayor, [or] governor should have an appreciation for how the business community operates,” Padilla says. “Even though it wasn’t a full-on M.B.A. program experience for me, having a taste of it enabled me to consider that perspective.”

Like Padilla, not all Riordan Fellows pursue an M.B.A. — or even attend UCLA. “We weren’t going to try to steer these young people to UCLA only, as much as we wanted them,” says Ouchi. “We needed to help them develop the motivation and self-confidence to pursue an education wherever they wanted to go.”

So the Riordan Programs have ushered students of color into top M.B.A. programs at such renowned institutions as Stanford, UC Berkeley, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. “We’re proud of that,” says Ouchi, who adds that none of those schools has a similar program to encourage more low-income minority students to consider an M.B.A.

About five years ago, the Riordan Programs expanded to include a College to Career program for first-generation undergraduate students from throughout California as well as other parts of the country. Participants first attend a weeklong summer program and are paired with Riordan alumni for the academic year, when they will return for workshops and guest lectures.

Judges Cassandra Stokes (Comerica Bank), Ben Alvarado (Sunwest Bank), Steve Masarik (Cliffwater LLC), Russ Belinsky (LB Advisors LLC) and Henry Brandon M.B.A. ’89 (Nile Capital Group, LLC).

The need for more outreach to minority populations hasn’t gone away, says Miguel Unzueta, an Anderson associate professor of management who chairs the Riordan Programs executive committee. He sees M.B.A. programs still struggling to get the proportion of underrepresented minorities enrolled above 10 percent. The Riordan Programs recently expanded to reach around 350 students per year. Unzueta is hoping to continue that growth.

“I cannot foresee a time when there will not be a role for the Riordan Programs,” says Ouchi, more than 30 years after these issues first spurred him into action. “These are the great issues of our time, and certainly for the lifetime of these young students. Race relations, diversity and opportunity will be themes that are central to their professional and civic lives.”

To Padilla, bringing a more diverse population into college and business is critical — not only for the students, but also for their impact on society later. “The Riordan Programs are a hugely powerful model to help us build a new direction of corporate and business leadership in general that better reflects the population of Los Angeles and California and the country,” he says.

As mayor, Richard Riordan helped L.A. recover from the 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Yet he’s most proud of his work to help the city’s underserved populations access education. “I would meet these kids,” he says, “and I’d just be amazed at how far they’d come.”

Stokes, Masarik and Alvarado congratulate the winners.



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