Interview transcript of Lenny Mendonca for the American Dreams Show, “Restoring the California Dream”:
Alan Olsen: Can you share a little about your background?
Lenny Mendonca: I went from growing up on a dairy farm in Turlock California milking cows to Harvard where I majored in economics and government. From there I went to McKinsey, spent two years at Stanford Business School and I spent the bulk of my career in McKinsey in San Francisco and the last five years in Washington DC. I was a senior partner and board member of McKinsey for a decade and was a consultant to businesses and governments and nonprofits around the world.
Alan Olsen: McKinsey has always been known as one of the leading consulting firms in the world and so you were involved with founding the McKinsey US State Local public sector how did that come about?
Lenny Mendonca: So McKinsey had done work in the public sector throughout its history involved with a number of things including the person who really built McKinsey, Marvin Bower, helped Dwight Eisenhower organize his cabinet. McKinsey helped set up NASA going way back they were instrumental in the structuring in the early days of CalTrans in California but hadn’t really done any substantial work in the public sector since the 1970’s. When a group of us who had had some experience in the public sector- some of whom had been in government full-time- and some of us including me who had done work advising government when they had a real problem, said that they had a real opportunity to make a difference in the public sector so why don’t we bring the kind of capability that McKinsey has to the private sector to the public sector and so set that up. Part of what I did during that time was to help build McKinsey’s work serving governors and mayor’s and their teams across the United States so that was the last five years that with McKinsey that’s what I did.
Alan Olsen: What are some of the projects and organizations that you currently involved with after I post McKinsey?
Lenny Mendonca: I loved my time at McKinsey but I wanted to spend the next stage of my career more in direct public service, so I’m involved with a number of organizations that are engaged in trying to make government work better and trying to make the education system work better in particular. I helped found in co-chair or California forward which has been around for over a decade now looking at governance and economic reform in California. We co-chair and lead the California economic summit every year which just finished last month in Santa Rosa I chair New America which is a national foundation national think tank that looks at nonpartisan solutions for big political issues, I chair Children Now, which is a California-based education reform entity and then I chair and co-founded Fuse Core which brings executive talent to mayors across the country.
Alan Olsen: What are some of the problems that you see today in the education sector?
Lenny Mendonca: So, a lot of the work that I’m focused on is student success. I’m on the board of Children Now and Western Governors University and the college Future Foundation in California are really all about ensuring that every child has the access to and is able to complete the kind of education that they need to have a successful life in today’s economy. To me that’s the most important thing that we’re focused on it’s particularly important in a place like California where the majority of students and the public education system our first-generation students many of them are have free and reduced lunch and have challenged personal lives. Many of them have English as a second language they all ought to have the same access to opportunity and the great quality education systems that I had the opportunity to go through when I went through the public education system here in the 60’s and 70’s.
Alan Olsen: What is the gap in educational opportunities that previous generations had that is missing today?
Lenny Mendonca: I graduated from high school to your proposition thirteen was passed in California and that was a time where California public higher education in particular was at its peak. We had a very fully invested K to 12 system we had a higher education system which was and still is the envy of the world, we had a California master plan that was written to describe a really visionary view about how do we ensure that every child has a pathway to community college those who want to four-year and CSU system or the University of California and that is a huge piece of why California has been so successful in many other states and parts of the world have emulated that. I think the challenge now is not that we need to rewrite a master plan or that we need to just throw everything out what we need to do is modernize it for the environment we’re in. I think what’s missing is a couple of things in particular. Number, one we have an assumption that your education is done when you’re a teenager and in your 20’s and then you spend the rest of your life learning, you learn early and you earn late. I don’t think that’s the world we’re going to be in so we need to imagine a post-secondary education system that is in the world that we are in, not the world that we used to be in and that means people are going to have to learn and earn at the same time and continually have lifelong learning and that’s really an exciting opportunity it’s a challenge but it’s exciting. The opportunity to say that what you can do is not assume that you have to make a career choice when you’re 18 and nothing’s ever going to change, but that you can learn a set of skills and relearn new things to keep yourself excited and energized throughout your life. That’s going to require a different way to think about our education system particularly our post-secondary education system. The second thing that we’re really going to need to be explicit about and cognizant of is that we have a different population that is entering our public education system in the state. They are mostly first-generation Californians, the largest portion of the post-secondary education in this state are people who are first-generation college goers, many of them have economic challenges some of them didn’t start with English as their first language, we just have to be cognizant that we have to have a system that is prepared and invests the kind of capabilities and learning pathways that let those of the future California population succeed in the way that it did when I went through the system.
Alan Olsen: What does the California Dream mean you?
Lenny Mendonca: There are different ways that people define that. I look at a very simple way which is, will my children have a high likelihood of having a better life than I did. If you came here and you worked hard, you were going to have a good living and it was going to be even better for you than it was for your parents and historically that has been true. But according to Harvard Professor Raj Teddy, if you were a 30-year-old Californian in 1980, there was a 92% chance that you were earning more than your parents. If you’re 30 years old today that probability is a coin flip, so we can’t have an expectation that there’s only a coin flip about whether your life is going to be better than your parents or your kids are going to have a worse life than you, that’s not the California Dream, that’s not the American Dream. To me you can define it in a lot of different ways, but at its fundamental level, it’s about are you going to have a good life and I pass on a better life to your children.
Alan Olsen: Do you feel the California Dream is gone or can we restore it?
Lenny Mendonca: I think it’s challenged and we can absolutely restore it and it’s fundamental to the pioneer spirit, it’s fundamental to a view about Americans being optimistic and Californians being on the frontier of that optimism. We have to deliver it and I think that the challenges are about ensuring that everyone, not just those who happen to have born been born into privilege or having been born in parts of the geography like where we are now, in Silicon Valley, where there’s a lot of wealth that opportunity would be available to everyone, not just those people who are born in the right zip codes or to the right families and I think that’s really at its first level about creating opportunities for people to learn and earn and so we have to ensure that the education system we were talking about earlier really works and we have to ensure if you have challenges along the way, that our safety networks and we have to ensure that we have high quality jobs going forward that pay people that are working so that they can afford to live here. Finally we are going to have to lower the cost of living in California- it is just not acceptable that largely because of the cost of housing and the transit that gets you around to where the jobs and housing are that a single mom in San Francisco would have to work three forty hour week jobs at the minimum wage just afford life’s basic needs- that’s just not acceptable.
Alan Olsen: What will the new California governor and legislature have to do to help us get the California Dream in place?
Lenny Mendonca: The solutions to ensure California Dream works are in many ways driven by the private sector and the intersection with the social sector to ensure that the jobs are there. Housing isn’t built by government, there’s a portion of it that’s funded and reinforced that way, ensuring that jobs are high quality and that people have access to them, those are private sector challenges, the private sector has to connect with the education system to make sure that they’re providing the right kind of learning for the future of work, but government has a huge role in this as well and as the fifth largest economy in the country, there is no excuse for California not being on the forefront of these issues and so the new governor and the new legislature have a really important task to say that this is important. It is not a partisan issue, if you poll Californians about the most important things on their mind they don’t necessarily brake on partisan lines on these issues. There’s no one who doesn’t want their children to have a worse life than they did, it’s a matter of how and that’s a political problem.
Alan Olsen: If someone wants to get involved with the California Dream, how would they go about that?
Lenny Mendonca: The California economic summit that I mentioned happens every year. It will happen November 2019 in Fresno, it’s open to the public and last year we had 500 people there from all swaths of state. Secondly, a group of us set up a movement called the economic mobility collaborative. Its economicmobilityCA.org You can sign a letter that encourages the focus on ensuring that we have the California Dream and then we measure it and ensure that it’s successful.
Edited for concision and clarity
Possibly edited for concision and clarity
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This transcript was generated by software and may not accurately reflect exactly what was said.
Alan Olsen, is the Host of the American Dreams Show and the Managing Partner of GROCO.com. GROCO is a premier family office and tax advisory firm located in the San Francisco Bay area serving clients all over the world.
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