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.
The idea for the Riordan Programs emerged in the early 1980s — 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.”
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.”