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Riordan Programs Pave the Way from the Classroom to the Boardroom

The programs produce leaders like California Senator Alex Padilla

California Senator Alex Padilla, Port of Los Angeles deputy executive director and CFO Marla Bleavins, and the Ballmer Group’s director of strategy and policy, Kim Pattillo Brownson, are all Riordan Programs alumni

  • Senator Alex Padilla is one of many prominent leaders with connections to the Riordan Programs
  • Kim Pattillo Brownson of the Ballmer Group says Riordan inspired her to think about how to work in the service of a more equitable society
  • Marla Bleavins says the Riordan Programs gave her the valuable gift of confidence

Early in 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom selected California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace Kamala Harris as the state’s junior senator, as Harris took the oath of office as vice president of the United States. Padilla, a 1997 Riordan MBA Fellows Program alumnus and 2015 recipient of the Riordan Programs’ Legacy Award, remains an enthusiastic advocate of the program. He once said, “The Fellows Program taught me many leadership and management principles that have helped me to be effective.” Padilla is but one of many whose future as a leader in business, government and the community took root as a participant in the Riordan Programs.

“You’ve been accepted.”

These three words can be life-changing for kids on a college path. Even more so for children of immigrants who’ve come to the U.S. for a better life, or whose circumstances leave them disadvantaged. For 34 years, the Riordan Programs have opened a door for youth who never dared dream of this kind of future: aspiring first-generation college students.

Seeing a lack of opportunities for Los Angeles’ low-income, inner-city dwellers, William G. Ouchi, a now-retired UCLA Anderson distinguished professor of management and New York Times bestselling author, turned to Richard J. Riordan, an advocate for investment in urban education and, at that time, the future mayor of Los Angeles (1997–2001). The two co-founders of the Riordan Programs brought the concept to life, and to UCLA, in 1987.

To what kind of success can program participants aspire? According to one of its alumni, “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.” That alumnus? Newly inaugurated U.S. Senator Alex Padilla.

The three Riordan programs — Riordan Scholars for college-bound high schoolers, College-to-Career for college students transitioning into a career in management and Riordan MBA Fellows for college graduates pursuing business school — have paved the way to success for many Angelenos over its 34 years. Among them, Kim Pattillo Brownson and Marla Bleavins.

Kim Pattillo Brownson, Riordan Scholar 1992

As childhood dreams go, Kim Pattillo Brownson’s were definitely ambitious. “As a kid, I had a picture of Thurgood Marshall on my bedroom wall,” she says. “Early on, I knew I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer and effect social change and justice.”

When Pattillo Brownson entered her sophomore year at Los Angeles Center For Enriched Studies, an LAUSD magnet school in the Fairfax District, a guidance counselor advised her to apply to the Riordan Scholars Program.

Accepted into the program, Pattillo Brownson joined a throng of Los Angeles high school students for monthly Saturday sessions at UCLA. Leadership education, business management training, one-on-one mentoring, test taking and academic and college application skills development were proffered. And, for Pattillo Brownson, something even more valuable: a shift in perception.

“The Riordan Programs lit a fire for me to think about new ways that progressive people — particularly people interested in racial equity — could use tools that weren’t traditionally thought of as civil rights tools in service of a more just and equitable society.”

Fifteen-year-old Pattillo Brownson was in awe of the program’s speakers, many of them Anderson students and professors. “They brought a totally different perspective of how the world works and how it could work differently — how jobs are created, how markets impact us and how everyone needs a seat at that table,” she says. “It was powerful to be surrounded by a diverse community of kids, young adults and professors of different races and socioeconomics, actively engaged in thinking about how markets shape the world we live in and how to promote fair access for historically disenfranchised communities.”

Pattillo Brownson relates her experience to a song she likes. “There’s a line, ‘You can’t catch what you can’t see.’ For me, Riordan was literally eye-opening to the different facets of the economy and what opportunity could look like.”

“The Riordan Programs lit a fire for me to think about new ways that progressive people could use tools that weren’t traditionally thought of as civil rights tools in service of a more just and equitable society.”
— Kim Pattillo Brownson, 1992 Riordan Scholar

Front and center in this new vision was the program’s co-founder, Richard Riordan, who often attended lectures and service days. Pattillo Brownson says, “Having all these different paths embodied in one person was a powerful and inspiring example. Dick was a mentor to all of us.”

Soon, Pattillo Brownson heard the words “You’ve been accepted” from Harvard University. After graduating in 1996 with an A.B. in social studies, she was ready for the next move on her career path. With an eye on impacting education, she recognized gaps in her knowledge base. “I needed to understand more about reform, change and progress; how education finance, public budgets and funding formulas work to shape children’s opportunities.”

In a strategic move, Pattillo Brownson took a position as a management consultant at Boston Consulting Group. Her goal was to find ways that private sector training could be useful for public sector problems. Achieving her dream of becoming a lawyer came in 2002, when she earned her J.D. from Yale Law School. After 10 years on the East Coast, she was ready to return to Los Angeles. Looking for advice, she made a phone call. “I reached out to Mr. Riordan about where it made sense to plug into L.A.’s impact litigation space around education.”

The answer: a Liman Public Interest Fellowship, which funded her work as the education attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. When viewing issues within Los Angeles’ school systems, Pattillo Brownson reflected on her time in the Riordan Scholars Program, where she’d encountered kids across the city’s school districts. “I had a level of exposure to what ground conditions looked like in my own working-class neighborhood and in many neighborhoods across the city.”

Stepping into the role of managing director for the Advancement Project, she followed in the footsteps of the civil rights lawyers who created that foundation, which focuses on policy and advocacy for communities affected by economic and racial injustice.

With a move to First 5 LA as vice president of policy and strategy, Pattillo Brownson helmed strategic partnerships with local, state and federal policymakers to drive policy and system change. In 2020, she joined the Ballmer Group as their director of strategy and policy. “The Ballmer Group’s core mission is about economic mobility, with an eye toward fairness, and with a long-term, systems-change lens,” she says. Pattillo Brownson is also Governor Gavin Newsom’s appointee to California’s Early Childhood Policy Council, and the California State Board of Education.

It’s not uncommon for the Riordan alumna to receive calls from current scholars. “I am always excited to get those calls,” Pattillo Brownson says. “There’s robust academic literature about the importance of supporting social capital in communities like my own, where our parents weren’t often business people, lawyers or doctors. Building professional social networks with folks who can offer advice or insight, or even news of emerging opportunities — that is an important part of opening up opportunity pathways. Being able to help Riordan Scholars navigate options, problems and questions is an absolute privilege.”

Her own gratitude for the program runs deep. “I’m appreciative of Dick Riordan’s foresight in thinking about how to provide an educational offering that was missing in the landscape,” she says, “and for building a social network that first unlocks opportunity and then encourages those same people who’ve been beneficiaries to do the same for the next generations ahead.”

Marla Bleavins, Riordan MBA Fellow 2001

About five years ago, the Riordan Programs expanded to include the College-to-Career Program and Riordan MBA Fellows Program for first-generation undergraduate students throughout the country. One of these Riordan Fellows is Marla Bleavins. An L.A. native who earned her B.A. in public policy from Stanford University, Bleavins applied to the program when contemplating business school.

Fresh out of Stanford, Bleavins was hired by the City of Los Angeles. “I was working on municipal bond transactions, some of which were going to support public works projects such as libraries, fire stations and police stations, as well as economic development-type projects,” she says. “I wanted to understand the underlying business implications of the projects I was helping to fund.” A mental debate ensued: attend business school, or earn a Master of Public Administration? Business school won, leading to the question … Now what?

Enter the Riordan MBA Fellows Program and its guidance to help participants enroll in their desired business school. “No one in my orbit was in business school,” Bleavins says, “Riordan lit the path and showed me what I needed to do.” This included one-on-one coaching and mentoring about the process of presenting oneself to a topflight business school, as well as everything from preparing for the GMAT to writing essays to volunteering.

Opportunities waylaid Bleavins’ immediate business school plans. “My career with the city took off,” she says. “I realized I couldn’t just quit my job and go back to school; I’d have to figure out another way.” Career momentum going at warp speed, in 2007, Bleavins was brought on board by Los Angeles International Airport as it embarked on a large capital upgrade program. Initially, she served as Los Angeles World Airports’ debt and treasury manager, eventually moving into the role of special projects manager. During this time, she dove into Wharton’s executive MBA program in San Francisco, flying up on weekends twice per month for two years.

“No one in my orbit was in business school. Riordan lit the path and showed me what I needed to do.”
— Marla Bleavins, 2001 Riordan MBA Fellow

Shortly after graduating from Wharton, Bleavins was tapped by the Los Angeles Convention Center to be its assistant general manager. “The city decided to transition the operation of the Convention Center to a private operator, so I was brought in to deal with the personnel and financial aspects of that transition.” For both the city and Bleavins, this was unchartered territory with no road map. “I just kind of parachuted in and figured it out,” she says.

Now deputy executive director and chief financial officer at the Port of Los Angeles, Bleavins was a natural choice for the role. It encompasses everything from accounting, budget and debt audit to risk management, human resources and procurement.

Coming full circle, Bleavins was inducted into the Riordan Programs’ Hall of Fame. Beyond financially supporting the program through donations, which she has done over the years, she encourages others to get involved. “There are so many people, especially people of color and underrepresented people, who have the ability to pursue going to college, as well as competitive MBA programs. They just might not know how to get there,” she says. “The Riordan Programs show people in a nurturing way and a supportive environment that they want you to succeed.”

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