In Service to Several California Governors

In Service to Several California Governors


UCLA Anderson MBA Richard Figueroa (’83) knows the public sector needs private-sector knowledge

AUGUST 30, 2023

  • Richard Figueroa, a Deputy Cabinet Secretary in Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration, applies expertise in health care policy, economics and marketing strategy in service to California
  • Figueroa was the first in his family to attend college, and he was a student activist as an undergraduate and later as an MBA student at UCLA Anderson
  • He has spent his career in state government and private nonprofit, and has worked under several California governors

It’s not uncommon for an undergraduate to enter college with their future completely mapped out. It’s also not uncommon for that same student to completely diverge from what they originally intended. Such was the case for Richard Figueroa (’83), currently a Deputy Cabinet Secretary in California Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration.

Growing up in the Fruitvale district of East Oakland, California, Figueroa was the first in his family to attend college. He had a clear idea of the major he wanted to pursue. Influenced by the TV weather news, the UC Davis graduate chose atmospheric science. “Then I got interested in economics and how to apply business principles to public sector settings,” he says, prompting him to switch to sociology with an additional courses in agricultural economics.

Always one to get involved with student activities, at Davis, Figueroa served on the Registration Fee Committee, which was jointly overseen by campus administration, the chancellor’s office and students. He was also the chairperson for the student-based Club Finance Council, which used student fees to support student organizations on campus. “Even though I was a sociology major, I was interested in the financial affairs of the campus for student programming.” Politics also piqued Figueroa’s interest. “I also chaired a coalition of different ethnic student groups that jointly nominated or endorsed candidates for student body office.”

With graduation approaching, Figueroa contemplated grad school. Juggling his options, he noted most of his cohorts were pursuing masters of social work and masters of public administration. “I thought these degrees were too narrow and an MBA would open more doors,” he says. Plus, “An MBA’s versatility would enable me to work in both the public and private sectors.”

Figueroa knew the exact business school he wanted to attend: UCLA’s Graduate School of Management (GSM), as UCLA Anderson was then known. When he was growing up, his family were die-hard Bruin fans. “Even though we grew up in a low-income community and my dad never even finished high school, he had a strong affinity for UCLA,” Figueroa says. “I don’t know who was happier or prouder that I went to UCLA, I or my dad.”

His love of student activism was still going strong at UCLA. “I got very involved in undergraduate and graduate student government and activities,” Figueroa says. “And at Anderson, I was involved in the Latino Management Student Association and assisted in recruiting other Latino students for UCLA GSM. I was also on the UCLA Banner Committee and was proud that I could carry the GSM banner into the general graduation ceremony.”

The emphasis of Figueroa’s MBA was marketing and strategic planning. “Anderson gave me a strong analytical framework for approaching issues and asking questions in search of solutions,” he says.

The winter before graduation, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (the provider of non-partisan fiscal analysis to the legislature on the impact of legislation and budget) participated in a UCLA job fair. “I made a connection and investigated what they were about,” Figueroa says. “It seemed like a good fit with my interests.” Several interviews later, he was hired to work for the Legislative Analyst’s Office. In the role, Figueroa made fiscal recommendations to the legislature on state health programs, including Medi-Cal.

In 1986, Figueroa was hired by the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee. “Instead of making non-partisan recommendations to the legislature around fiscal options related to the budget, I was working for the state Senate majority, which is composed of Democratic legislators,” he says. Over the subsequent four budget cycles, Figueroa’s public health focus saw him delving into services for the physically and cognitively disabled, older Californians, and people suffering health, behavioral health and substance use disorders.

Wanting to gain operational experience, in the 1990s, Figueroa moved to the programmatic side of public health to a position on the Managed Risk Medical Insurance Board. “We ran public-private partnerships to provide coverage for groups of individuals that were hard to cover through private insurance because of pre-existing conditions.” At the time, even pregnancy was considered a pre-existing condition.

During Figueroa’s tenure, the organization created the Health Insurance Plan for California, the state’s first public co-op for small businesses to purchase insurance and a program for uninsured pregnant women. These private-sector health plan programs were state-sponsored and, in some cases, had state subsidies. The outcome: greater access to coverage for individuals.

With operational experience under his belt, in 1996 Figueroa took a job with the Senate Insurance Committee, where he analyzed policy legislation related to health maintenance organizations on behalf of the California Senate. “HMOs were rapidly gaining strength in the state,” which he says motivated him. “There were issues around how HMOs were organized and were delivering services that needed legislative attention and/or intervention.”

“Even though we grew up in a low-income community and my dad never even finished high school, he had a strong affinity for UCLA. I don’t know who was happier or prouder that I went to UCLA Anderson, I or my dad.”

In 1999, the administration of Governor Gray Davis asked Figueroa to join the office’s legislative unit working on Health and Human Services legislation. “I was no longer just working with health, but now human services, including the Department of Social Services, health professions education and all types of insurance. I analyzed legislation and recommended to the governor whether they should be signed or vetoed,” he says. Five years later, Davis was recalled. Figueroa then became the legislative director for the State Department of Insurance, headed by then Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi. The job scope reached beyond health insurance to include workers’ compensation, property, casualty and long-term care insurance.

Next to knock on Figueroa’s door was the administration of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, asking him to come on board as Deputy Cabinet Secretary to work on health care and human services policy issues.

Just under five years later, Figueroa made a change, moving from government into health care-focused philanthropy by becoming the director of prevention for the California Endowment, the largest state-based health care foundation in the state. The private nonprofit foundation strives to provide underserved individuals and communities statewide with affordable, high-quality health care, as well as look for ways to promote neighborhood environments that support residents’ health. “The California Endowment helps the government and others to understand that health is more about your ZIP code than your genetic code,” Figueroa says. “Outside influences such as housing, adequate access to food and income security, often impact health.”

Eight years later, another governor came calling on Figueroa. This time, it was the administration of Governor Gavin Newsom requesting he reprise his role as Deputy Cabinet Secretary in the Governor’s Office. Numerous changes had occurred since Figueroa worked with Schwarzenegger. Among them, the Affordable Care Act increased the number of covered individuals and benefits offered. “As a result, along with some state-only initiatives we’ve undertaken, the vast majority of people in the state now have access to health care,” Figueroa says. “Access is just one element of the equation. We’re still dealing with affordability, like how to rein in the cost of prescription drugs.”

Whether individuals carry publicly sponsored or privately purchased health coverage, they all deal with affordability. This led California to create the Office of Health Care Affordability (OHCA) in 2022. “We’re also looking at how to use data to help promote more efficiency in the system while maintaining access to health care,” Figueroa says. Best practices that drive and incentivize quality without hindering access are also being scrutinized.

Affordability isn’t a problem that’s solely faced by California. “The U.S. spends a lot more money than most other advanced countries per person on health care,” Figueroa says. And our aging society will continue to put additional budget pressure on public programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Social determinants of health are also being considered, according to Figueroa. “We’re identifying issues that impact our health at an early age — adequate nutrition, access to preventive services, stable housing — and intervening so that downstream we’re lowering negative long-term health consequences and long-term costs.”

“UCLA Anderson gave me a strong analytical framework for approaching issues and asking questions in search of solutions.”

While the government is targeting various large-scale health interventions there are individual practices the public can adopt. Figueroa encourages people to avail themselves of preventative services as early as possible. He suggests, too, using community influence at a local level to guide how dollars are spent. Some recommendations: “Support community parks for more opportunities for exercise and play, create healthier routes of transportation that reduce the air pollution that drive rates of asthma in certain communities, and school-based activities that promote health and wellness.”

Despite all the changes Figueroa has assisted in making in the California health care landscape, he humbly says, “I hope I’m making a difference in our larger societal effort.”

With everything he’s focusing on regarding health care for the state, Figueroa still has time for UCLA. “I’ve maintained my ties,” he says. I was the president of the Bruin club in Sacramento and served on the UCLA Alumni Association board of directors.” In 2010, Figueroa was named among Anderson’s 100 Inspirational Alumni as part of the school’s 75th anniversary celebration.

He happily offers the following advice to those considering earning an MBA. “The public sector is hungry for private-sector knowledge and strategies around operational effectiveness and efficiency,” he says. “And it’s very important to shepherd and ensure that every public taxpayer dollar is spent wisely. An MBA can help bring a real focus on those public dollars and, at the same time, still assist the public in accessing needed services at the state and local level.”

This, he says, also applies to politics. “For me, it wasn’t just the MBA, it was the MBA and UCLA together that opened doors.”

Ask Figueroa how he feels about Anderson, and his response is swift. “It’s the ties that bind. Once a Bruin, always a Bruin.”