Nurturing the Next Leaders
How Area Colleges Are Doing Their Part to Raise Up Future Industry Leaders and Community Champions
By Lynne Hayes
The definition of a good leader has long been debated among politicians, CEOs, and others in seats of power. Beyond the lofty explanations and poetic rhetoric, there is one definition every good leader should embody, and it is this: “The job of the leader is to grow more leaders.”
Coined by leadership expert Robin Sharma, that definition exemplifies one of the most important roles of colleges and universities. Here in the greater San Fernando Valley, we’re fortunate to have several excellent educational institutions taking valuable steps toward nurturing our next leaders.
How are they doing it? What beliefs guide them? To learn more, we sat down with the leaders of five area colleges to discuss what good leadership means to them and how they work to instill leadership principles in their students and staff.
California Lutheran University – President Lori Varlotta
To Lori Varlotta, president of California Lutheran University, three traits stand out above the rest as qualities of a good leader:
“First, I feel that good leaders motivate others to action by articulating, over and over, a compelling vision that includes both the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of an organization,” said Varlotta, who has served as the school’s president since September 2020. “Second, I believe good leaders must be daily role models, willing to admit when they themselves have fallen short; and third, I believe good leaders must be honest, transparent, and true to themselves.”
Varlotta does more than live her beliefs, she and her staff work diligently to pass them on to the student body.
“Fostering future leaders is our primary purpose,” she said. “Our mission is to educate leaders for a global society who are strong in character and judgment, confident in identity and vocation, and committed to service and justice.”
Within that goal lies an equally important mission for Cal Lutheran – to ensure a truly diverse pool of leaders. The school has been designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education because of its substantial population of Latino students. The college has received millions of dollars in grants to support those who have been historically underrepresented in higher education. It’s a significant responsibility that Varlotta takes very seriously.
“Thanks to those grants, Cal Lutheran has been able to better develop and implement programs to better serve underrepresented students who are interested in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, math), as well as careers in education and for those interested in pursuing doctorates,” she noted. “These programs not only help prepare them for academic and professional success, they also help develop students’ leadership potential.”
Learning Leadership by Doing
Cal Lutheran’s School of Management program and Executive MBA program also present opportunities for students to hone their leadership skills.
“Our Executive MBA program is designed entirely around the idea of leadership – leading people, leading operations, leading projects,” Varlotta said. “Additionally, our Master of Science in Management is an excellent route for those who don’t have bachelor’s degrees in business but who want to become leaders in other fields.”
Varlotta believes there is no single path to successful leadership. She has steered Cal Lutheran to offer numerous opportunities to help students chart the paths that work for them. Along with more than 100 clubs and associations in which students can practice their leadership skills, experiential learning opportunities, internships, studying abroad, and hands-on projects and research are available.
“Every real-world experience gives students not only a chance to grow but also to zero in on their passion and see how leaders work,” Varlotta said.
Eyes on the Future
“We are becoming increasingly known for being a future-focused, values-based university that encourages all members of our community — students, faculty, staff, administrator, and regents — to explore and navigate what Lutherans call ‘the messy middle.’ This is the gray area that lives between the two black-and-white extremes on any polarized spectrum,” she explained. “Leaders in the mid-twenty-first century must come to understand and draw from the messy middle if they expect to lead successfully.”
“Today’s world is polarized enough. At Cal Lutheran, we strive to acknowledge our differences in authentic and respectful ways while focusing on some of the common ground we all traverse — including promoting and exuding the Lutheran values like grace, generosity, inclusion, and service to neighbors.”
Los Angeles Mission College – President Armida Ornelas
Since July 2021, Los Angeles Mission College (LAMC) has been under the direction of Interim President Armida Ornelas. With a career in education spanning more than 30 years — Ornelas has had plenty of time to hone her definition of what makes a good leader.
“I believe a good leader must have a well-defined purpose — a cause, if you will,” she said. “For me, it is service — service to marginalized communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities. As a leader, I view my role as one of advocacy for others who don’t have a voice at the table.”
Measuring Positive Impact
Many of the students who attend LAMC are the first in their families to seek a higher education degree. As such, Ornelas feels a great responsibility to ensure student success.
“I weigh many factors in measuring our impact on our students’ lives and success,” Ornelas said. “There are the college’s metrics, of course, such as enrollment, the number of current students and how many are graduating, etc. But there are also everyday nuances that tell the story.”
Ornelas said she learns a great deal by simply talking to students and staff.
“I want to know that people feel valued here — that they feel like they matter,” she said. “That’s what a good leader does. In addition, I want to make sure students feel that they are in a safe, no-judgment environment where they can thrive and feel like they belong.”
Her leadership philosophy is paying off. Well over 400 students have petitioned to graduate this year, with many more expected. And they are asking how many family members they can bring to the event.
“Asking for more tickets for family members is meaningful to me. It shows just how truly significant this moment is in their lives — they’re proud to share it,” noted Ornelas. “There are no words to describe the feeling of seeing so many students achieving their goals.”
And families are equally excited to be a part of graduation thanks to Ornelas’ philosophy of inclusion.
“We’ve made it a priority to work at demystifying higher education for students’ families,” she added. “As parents, we don’t know what we don’t know. As leaders, we can remember that feeling and make sure to keep our families feeling included and recognized. It’s an important piece of student success…the kind of compassion I hope students carry with them once they go out into the real world and become leaders themselves.”
Leading by Example
Outreach into the community is another key mission for LAMC, both in terms of creating pathways to student success for students and of building educational bridges for the community at large.
“As leaders, we believe in uplifting all citizens in the community,” Ornelas noted. “We’re meeting the needs of the area’s immigrant population with free ESL and citizenship classes that can help them assimilate more successfully into the community.”
The college also offers free short-term tech training such as phlebotomy classes in partnership with area hospitals and clinics to open up more job opportunities for immigrants, as well as GED and literacy classes.
Additionally, thanks to a $5 million STEM grant, the college is partnering with local middle and high schools, and universities to build out STEM programs and help students envision their trajectory in these career areas.
“Part of our role as educators and leaders is to provide the necessary scaffolding to put students on paths to success — especially students of color and women,” Ornelas vowed. “We don’t wait for them to show up on our doorstep. We take the college out to the community. We want to be a tool for socio-economic mobility.”
“I’m passionate about what I do. I believe that my role as a leader comes with a responsibility to serve — to be an instrument to improve the lives of others…that’s what drives me.”
Los Angeles Valley College – President Barry Gribbons
In 2019 when Barry Gribbons stepped into his role as president of Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC), one of his key goals was not only to be a good leader but to grow future leaders among his students.
“I believe acquiring leadership skills is an important part of the college experience,” Gribbons said. “Our job as educators is to help students become critical thinkers by exposing them to differing viewpoints, and also help them hone their communication skills.”
A Great Leader Is…
Gribbons defines a great leader as someone with a strong vision for the organization, who is comfortable communicating with everyone and who has a passion and a drive to grow their people.
“In the end, it’s all of us working together and supporting each other…working as a team…that’s what leads to success.”
To nurture the world’s next great industry leaders, the LAVC team has built a stellar business program that gives students the tools they’ll need to run any type of business.
“The curriculum is set up to help students understand finance, marketing, teamwork — the complete package,” he explained. “We teach them to understand differing viewpoints, how to articulate a vision and be able to communicate well. These are skills fundamental to a good leader whether you want to be the head of a large corporation or a small business.”
Tight Community Ties
As the president of one of the nine colleges in the Los Angeles County Community College District (LACCC), Gribbons understands the importance of partnering with the community.
“We can always work together when we join together,” he said, “and that happens when we identify community needs and see how we can do things better through partnerships — by sharing our talents and resources.”
“I believe an important part of our leadership role is ensuring that our school be seen as the community’s college,” Gribbons added. “We want to ensure that every resident has access to a quality higher education, and we do that by offering a broad range of options for all people.”
The school offers many roads to academic excellence and as Gribbons puts it, “we try hard not to say no. We want to find answers and we work hard to do that. We hope that people will see that in all their experiences in partnering with the community and educating our students. Our sole purpose is to serve the Greater San Fernando Valley in any way we can as a college.”
California State University Northridge David Nazarian College of Business and Economics — Dean Chandra Subramaniam
With more than 38,000 students total and around 7,000 of those enrolled in the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics, California State University Northridge (CSUN) is the ninth-largest AACSB-accredited business school in the country and the second-largest in California.
According to David Nazarian College of Business and Economics Dean Chandra Subramaniam, the student body at CSUN is diverse, with about 70% identifying themselves as under-represented or an underserved minority.
“Fifty percent of our students are Pell Grant recipients; this means that more than 75% of our students work 20 hours or more to support themselves and their families while going to school full time,” Subramaniam said. “Being a student, an employee, and caring for their families is more than a full-time job. This is what makes our students hardworking, resilient, develop grit and have little sense of entitlement, making them not only great students but great employees and future leaders.”
Fostering Future Business Leadership
Developing and training students to lead is always of paramount importance at CSUN.
“This is clear even in our mission statement for students to achieve career success and be a force for a better future,” Subramaniam said. “As such, our faculty has aligned our academic student learning objectives, our professional development and experiential learning programming around a common set of leadership principles and qualities.”
Subramaniam said the following qualities have been integrated and interwoven into a holistic, educational experience for students. In the daily life of a Nazarian College students’ life, they are “all but inescapable.”
● Mastery of an academic discipline and thorough vocational preparation to be “job-ready on day one,” with the confidence to lead by example with sheer competence and hard work.
● Interdisciplinary integration to provide exposure, appreciation, and a measure of humility for the breadth of challenges implied by cross-functional leadership of complex organizations.
● Communication and critical thinking skills in multiple modalities to reach and persuade disparate audiences on the terms, platforms, and rhythms that resonate for them.
● Teamwork and ability to interact and work with a diverse group.
● Technical conversance to establish confidence to recognize business opportunity and to lead more focused experts in seizing it.
● Diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural agility as an instilled instinct.
● Ethics and character as the north star for attracting, inspiring, and orchestrating followers to a personal leadership style.
● Commitment to life-long learning and a resolve to continuous and perpetual personal and professional development.
The Right Mindset
At CSUN, staff and faculty believe that all business students should learn and be assessed on specific skills identified in learning outcomes, including communication skills, critical thinking, and problem solving, among others.
“The process is more of a mindset as to what skills are critical for our students to be successful in their chosen careers,” Subramaniam said. “These core learning outcomes are embedded in our curriculum.”
Most importantly, CSUN believes students need to be involved in co-curricular activities that build functional and leadership skills through experiential learning.
“This experiential learning requirement includes internships, VITA program, business consulting, industry certifications, entrepreneurship activities and many others,” Subramaniam said.
The experiential learning requirement is a core value and established priority for the Nazarian College. In the last year prior to the pandemic, the college had over 800 students participating in internships and working to develop professional and leadership skills within the industry.
Beyond internships, CSUN also offers courses in small business consulting, supporting around 40 client firms a year with about 200 students in the program.
The Nazarian College is also heavily involved in encouraging students to participate and receive industry certifications while taking courses for academic credit. For example, more than half of operations management students complete the SAP certification, the marketing students complete the Google certifications in digital marketing (Google Analytics, Google Ads Search, and Google Ads Display), and the financial planning students complete their certification in the Securities Industry Essentials, and many of them complete the Certified Financial Planner certification.
Ultimately, Subramaniam said there is a myriad of leadership styles. Still the most important quality of a leader is the ability to communicate a vision and provide a direction and a purpose.
“Vision is important to provide staff with a belief that something is attainable and the direction to get there,” Subramaniam said. “Leaders should also be able to influence, motivate, and encourage their employees and staff to promote effectiveness and success within the organization. They have to attract, inspire, and orchestrate followers by attraction, not promotion, persuade through action and example, not just words and promises, [and] create a supportive, diverse, equitable, inclusive, and healthy culture. Ultimately, they have to be honest, have integrity, be humble, and transparent.”
Subramaniam said CSUN seeks and qualifies community partners based on many of those specific qualities and characteristics.
“One priority we have is whether the values of the partner align with our own,” Subramaniam said. “This is important for us to ensure our first-generation Pell Grant students hear the same message on values and leadership between the college and the community partner. Another important issue is whether they can ensure a safe and productive environment for our students and the opportunity for our students to engage, learn, and grow.”
Finally, Subramaniam noted that the college seeks community partners who offer and expect a mutual exchange of value so the students feel they are being valued and recognized.
L.A. Pierce College – President Aracely Aguiar
“A good leader is a good listener who is open to other people’s ideas,” said Aracely Aguiar, L.A. Pierce College’s interim president since July 2021. “Change and evolution [are] always present, especially in higher education. A leader needs to be an innovator who is flexible to challenges and focused on students at the same time.”
“Students are my guiding light,” she added. “We as leaders and educators must nurture as many opportunities as possible for students to self-discover their skill sets and strengths so they can go on to be our next leaders.”
Aguiar is also a firm believer in empowerment when it comes to growing leaders, both among her team and the students at Pierce.
“When you empower individuals around you, the outcome is more than what you put into it,” she noted.
At Pierce College, empowerment has many definitions. The school is among the top 10 colleges in the state for successful transfers to universities such as CSUN and UCLA. Pierce also offers short-term career training programs that can be combined with ESL to empower job-seeking immigrants and better prepare them for the workforce. There are also plans to add four-year baccalaureate programs to the opportunities at Pierce College in the near future.
“Overall, Pierce is reinventing itself to serve our community needs on many different levels,” said Aguiar, who has served in the LACC district for 35 years.
The Keys to Success
Aguiar noted that internships and community partnerships are also key to growing leaders at Pierce. Last year, the L.A. Zoo approached the school with the prospect of an internship program.
“A good leader needs to be open to new ideas,” Aguiar explained. “There’s a large business component to running the operation, and opportunities for our students to learn and exercise all kinds of business and leadership skills.”
Aguiar noted the importance of partnering with businesses that can offer compensation to students.
“I look for area businesses that have paid internships along with great opportunities,” she said. “When our students are able to support themselves, they feel empowered and supported.”
Growing leaders through internships has another challenge: managing classwork and real-world work, but Aguiar said the school can create flexible schedules for students.
“We’re totally open to modifying a student’s class schedule in a way that allows them to take on the hours required for internships,” she said. “Flexibility and creative thinking are necessities in today’s educational climate. A good leader can’t forget that. In fact, the best thing that I can do as president is give others the opportunity to be successful.”