Leadership Council Spotlight: Aída Álvarez

by California Competes

Topics: Bachelor's Degrees, Community Colleges, Degree Attainment, Employment, Ed Equity

The Honorable Aída Álvarez was the first member of her family to graduate from college. Her enrollment at Radcliffe College (Harvard) transformed her career and personal trajectory. But her path to Harvard was not easy. As is often the case with many working-class children, especially girls, expectations were low. Her school principal insisted she attend a secretarial high school. Ms. Álvarez went to Harvard with a secretarial degree and a determination to succeed.

After her career as an award-winning journalist, she became a successful investment banker at Bear Stearns and First Boston. Ms. Álvarez was also the first Latina to serve on a President’s Cabinet. As Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration under President Bill Clinton, she tripled lending to women and doubled lending to minorities.

Ms. Álvarez has served on the boards of several corporations, including iconic companies like Walmart and Hewlett Packard, Inc. Her service on nonprofit boards includes the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the San Francisco Symphony. She is chair emerita of the Latino Community Foundation.

Today, Ms. Álvarez’s service on the California Competes Leadership Council helps her pay forward her own experiences in higher education for the benefit of millions of students across the state. California Competes Executive Director Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez asked about her engagement with our work.

Dr. Jez: How has your experience shaped your view of the relationship between higher education and social and economic mobility?

Ms. Álvarez: Personal experience speaks volumes. My parents, both bright individuals, faced many obstacles because they did not have access to higher education growing up in Puerto Rico. They struggled to get an education here, working days and studying in the evenings, all while raising a family. They persisted and created opportunities for themselves and our family.

Dr. Jez: Why is higher education so important to the success of our state?

Ms. Álvarez: California’s competitive position is hampered without an educated workforce. Opportunities exist in just about every sector: tech, healthcare delivery, business, and more. But positions go unfilled because we lack a workforce development pipeline aligned with employer needs. Businesses hire foreign graduates to make up the difference because California struggles to provide equitable opportunities to its residents—a more coherent higher education and workforce ecosystem would change that.

Dr. Jez: What kind of change is needed in higher education and workforce in California?

Ms. Álvarez: We need systemic change. We need broad changes—a paradigm shift. There are limitations to what individual initiatives and institutions can accomplish. One school’s success needs to be replicated to have real impact at the regional and state levels, beyond just the one student body.

It’s also worth noting that, despite our world-class colleges and universities, California’s public higher education systems are not always in alignment. There are wide variations in policies even within the University of California system or across our community colleges. Systemic change will ensure a more uniform quality of education throughout. That’s why California Competes’s work is so important.

Dr. Jez: How have you seen California Competes evolve over the years?

Ms. Álvarez: The organization continues to grow our impact! We have evolved in our thinking and message, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Legislators, elected officials, and policymakers seek our advice more and more, and our research has informed critical changes. A shining example of our success was the selection of former California Competes Executive Director Lande Ajose by Governor Newsom to head up his higher education initiatives.

Dr. Jez: There are so many good causes that could benefit from your expertise. Why have you chosen California Competes?

Ms. Álvarez: As a first-generation college graduate, I know firsthand how powerful access to higher education can be and how it can really change a life—or a whole family! But I also find California Competes’s focus on community colleges particularly compelling. Those are the institutions most likely to offer higher education opportunities to students with the greatest need—and they are financially, geographically, and otherwise more accessible to those students, especially working adults seeking new credentials. Systemic change needs to occur here if we are to create avenues for economic and social mobility.

Dr. Jez: Where do you see California Competes really moving the needle in higher education and workforce policy?

Ms. Álvarez: Our focus on collecting data is key to informing decisions about how to create systemic change, and I’m really proud of how that is playing out. California Competes has really pushed for and engaged with the development of a statewide longitudinal data system to ensure employers and policymakers have access to actionable data, and it’s exciting to see that come to fruition. I think our work with the state’s executive and legislative branches has enormous potential for California as a whole.