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Global Educator

David M. Steele-Figueredo considers himself a man of the world and he has the passports to prove it. After all, he has three of them – one from his native Venezuela, another from the United Kingdom, and a third from the United States, where he became a citizen in 1975. Steele-Figueredo now brings his global perspective on business and life to Woodbury University, where he became president in November. Academia is the second act for the 74-year old Toluca Lake resident; he was an executive with energy company Chevron Corp. and later dabbled in the tech industry before moving into school administration. Steele-Figueredo was dean at two small private universities back east and then for seven years was dean of San Jose State University’s Lucas College & Graduate School of Business before taking the Woodbury position. He met with the Business Journal at his Burbank office to talk about his plans for the university, the benefits of a classical education, achieving a work-like balance and the surprises of traveling. Question: What motivates you? Answer: I have an altruistic streak in me. When I took early retirement from Chevron, I wanted to give back to society in some way. It may sound trite but making a difference and giving back became my motivation for getting into academia. How did that decision come about? I left Chevron in 1999 and my second career was as a consultant in information technology. I spent 11, 12 years in IT at Chevron. I was interim CEO of a software company in Cambridge, Mass. when the (tech) bubble burst. We were trying to raise $30 million to get the company off the ground. We raised just under $10 million. Why so little? It was difficult to raise money at the time. I must have made over 300 presentations to VCs and angel groups. I don’t take rejection well. After you do it about 300 times and only with 1 percent of your pitches do you get a second hearing it is disheartening. I decided to do something more noble with my life. How? I applied to business schools. I applied to engineering schools. I became dean at a private university in New Jersey and then I moved to another private university in Florida. I decided to retire. But then a friend pointed out there was a great job as dean at the college of business at San Jose State University. I applied for it, got the job and was there for seven years. I came to Woodbury in mid-November. Why Woodbury? I wanted to end my career as president of a small, private university. Having worked at two private universities and a public university, I really wanted to come back to a private university. Was being a university president a career goal? In full disclosure, I did run for president of San Jose State. I made it to the final three but was not selected. I’ve had the ambition to be a president and hopefully make a difference that way. About two years ago I started applying to small private universities. Why a private school? It is a very different environment. No disrespect to the CSU system, but it’s a huge bureaucracy. It is difficult to implement change. A new degree program, for example, requires the approval of the CSU headquarters in Long Beach. You are looking at three years. Here we can do it in under a year. Did you try to add degree programs at San Jose State? Oh, yeah. One of the areas I expanded dramatically was the number of concentrations in the bachelor of science in business administration because that did not require permission by the CSU system. My point is if you want to make a difference in a relatively short period of time, a university like Woodbury offers that flexibility. You mentioned wanting to make a difference – when did that start in your upbringing? I think I’ve had that driving force from the time I was very young. My parents drove into my head early on they wanted me to be a medical doctor. By age 5, I remember literally getting sick whenever I saw blood. I decided I was not going to be a medical doctor. I did have the drive from early on, and I am not sure where it came from, to really succeed. How did you achieve that? I did that primarily working at Chevron. I lived in eight countries, including the U.S. That gave me an opportunity to work in the Far East, in Europe, in South America. One of the things that excites me is the ability to get things done in a completely different environment. I love a challenge like that. Why is that? The way you do business in Japan is very different from how you do business in Germany or the way you do business in Venezuela. Can you give an example of cultural differences? In the U.S., when you are negotiating a contract and the two sides first meet perhaps the first five or 10 minutes, you are talking about what is going on in the NBA or talking about a football game. There is a little chatter and then you jump into negotiating terms and conditions. In Venezuela when two teams are negotiating a contract you do not talk business for two days or so. You are talking about politics; you are talking about economics. You are talking about family. The whole idea is to develop a sense of trust between the two parties. It is a different form of negotiation and you have to be able to adapt to those conditions and be able to understand and listen very carefully. Did you enjoy living in other countries? I did. One of the things which I have developed is the ability to think about the world from different perspectives. For example, I still try to listen to the BBC News and look at the BBC News app. The Economist magazine I probably read pretty much cover to cover every week because you gain a different perceptive from what you read in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. What was your childhood like? I grew up in Venezuela so my first language is Spanish. At age 8, my father, who was of Scottish background, felt a kid should learn English and go to boarding school. So my three sisters and I when we turned 8 years old were sent to the island of Barbados, which was a British colony at the time. We learned English in a year and went to boarding school at age 9. What was that experience like? It was a disciplined British education. I started doing Latin and ancient Greek. We had to do a lot of English literature – Shakespeare and Chaucer. Basically, a classical education. Is that background reflected in your approach to academia now? I think it has. I put a lot of emphasis on global issues and global trends. At San Jose State, for example, we launched the Global Leadership Advancement Center. Today’s leaders of major corporations have to have a global perspective. If you think of any of the large companies – Apple, Chevron – most of their revenue are from outside the United States. We also created a new school called the School of Global Leadership and Innovation. What challenges did you face in the transition from business to academia? The first thing I noticed was we were way behind in the use of information technology. A lot of people don’t realize a company like Chevron is driven by technology. I came from an environment where IT was central to doing business to an environment where IT was in the 19th century. And that was at a private university. By the time I got to San Jose State, their IT systems were even worse than the private university. Coming to Woodbury, unfortunately one of the areas we really have to improve on is our IT system. We still have a lot of manual processes. This is one of the areas of focus that will be part of my administration. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Woodbury? There are several strengths. We are at the heart of a creative economy focused on the entertainment industry, the fashion industry. If you think of companies like Disney, Warner Bros., ABC, Cartoon Network, there is constant change. Our location is one of our strengths. Secondly, I am sitting down with each full-time faculty member for an hour in their office, getting to know them. The full-time faculty to a large extent set the culture of the institution. What I am finding is the quality of the full-time faculty is superb. I would say that is the second strength. The third one is the quality of our programs. As a private institution we tend to move fairly quickly to adapt to the local environment. Over the years we’ve developed program like animation, film, gaming, media tech, all of which are relevant to the creative economy. Our location, our programs and our faculty are really our strengths. And the weaknesses? One weakness is IT. We have not stayed up. A second weakness is we have not done a good job in reaching out to alumni and improving our endowment. Our endowment ($20 million) is small for a university of this size. In my view it should be more like $100 million. Third area we have not done a good job in is projecting a brand and an image. I make it point of wearing a Woodbury T-shirt when I go to the supermarket or Home Depot and I’m at the checkout counter and a person will ask me where’s Woodbury 50 percent of the time. I say roughly half the population that I have encountered, and I know it is not a scientific survey, don’t know where Woodbury is. And yet we are right here in Burbank. Since becoming president what have you focused on? We’ve had some financial issues that I had to quickly address. What happened a few years ago our enrollment was increased and the administration saw that trend and increased the cost structure. Now enrollment has been declining the last three years. I knew I was getting into a turnaround situation. I’ve had to go through two rounds of layoffs during the six months I’ve been here. It’s been painful. I have a lot of experience doing that at Chevron. Whenever the price of oil goes down people get laid off. It is not something I enjoy doing but I understand the business model. How did you come to work at Chevron? I wanted to come to the United States. I was planning on coming to Cal Tech but then I won a scholarship which was only good in Europe. So I saved my parents a lot of money by going to Europe as opposed to going to the U.S. About a year before I graduated I started applying to various positions and I wanted to come to California. A VP from Chevron was recruiting and interviewed me and offered me a job on the spot. About a week later I got the offer from Chevron, which I accepted. That was a year before I graduated (with a Ph.D.). What did you do at the company? I started my career in research and development, in Richmond. It was across from San Francisco, and San Francisco was really the place I wanted to come to. That’s how I got to emigrate to the U.S. I got job offers from other places, like Oklahoma and Minneapolis. I looked at a map and read about Minneapolis and how cold it could be and decided it was not good for someone like me. That is how I got to California. You listed as a career turning point the 1984 merger between Chevron and Gulf Oil Corp. Why? There was a team of between 12 and 20 people over a period of time that reported to the CEO in terms of helping with the merger. I had just transferred back from Europe and I was selected to work on this merger team. After the merger was approved, I headed up the team that had to divest the properties as mandated by the Federal Trade Commission. This was time-consuming – 80 hour weeks, at the minimum, basically six days a week, sometimes seven days a week for 18 months. At the time it was the biggest merger in the world. What lessons did you learn from that experience? At that time, I had ambitions of being a CEO or certainly a senior position. Seeing the lifestyle of a CEO and the top officers, I decided that was not for me. They really sacrificed an incredible amount; they had absolutely no family life. I did get to the top 30 at Chevron. I really decided that a CEO of a major oil company was not the career that I wanted. Having gone through a divorce that was very painful, the lesson that I learned was I needed to improve my work-life balance. Often I work on Saturday but Sunday is a day I do not work. I do not look at my email. I was brought up with a strong work ethic and I think one of the mistakes I made in my life, particularly when working for Chevron, was work came first and family came second. I wish in retrospect I had changed the balance a little bit which I started doing in the late 1980s but in many ways it was too late. How did that affect your family life? I have two sons, who I am close to. One of the better things I did in my life was to develop a hobby with both of them. With the older one it was sailing. We had a small 23-foot sailboat that we raced in the bay. By the way, he was a much better sailor than I was. With the second son, our hobby was diving. I did make that connection which was important. I was coach on their soccer teams; I was a referee. It was not that I wasn’t around but I just wish I would have spent more time with my sons when they were growing up. Do you still do the scuba diving and sailing? Not much. The last time I went scuba diving was three years ago. I have not had the opportunity to do it more often. Where are some favorite destinations for travel? I’ve managed to go to several of the places that were on my bucket list. I’ve been to Indonesia, I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Korea. I’ve managed to travel widely in Europe and South America. I have not been to Africa except for Egypt and Libya, obviously because of the oil industry. I really enjoy going back to my upbringing and I learn something from each of these cultures. What do you get out of traveling? I love the surprises that you find. These incredible dishes in certain countries. Korean barbecue, for example. That is part of the reason why I enjoy traveling. Both my wife and I enjoy wine. When we were in Venezuela with Chevron, I was visiting Argentina a lot. We bought a company there. At the time Argentina was not exporting any wine because it was all being internally consumed. That is when I first came across Malbec. I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is an incredible wine.” It wasn’t until years later that Argentina started exporting wine and Malbec is at the top. Those are the types of surprises that we both enjoy. Do you like living in Los Angeles for its cultural diversity and all the nationalities that are here? Yes, I do. It really is a melting point. I had never lived in L.A. before but it is exciting. Why did you list Bertrand Russell as an influential person in your life? Bertrand Russell is one of the great figures of the 20th Century and yet a lot of people may not know him. He was a mathematician, a great writer; he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He also was strong peace advocate. There’s a little book I remember that he wrote, it was a series of short stories called “In Praise of Idleness.” They are very incisive. I just enjoy his writing. And Carl Jung as well? I went through a difficult divorce probably as a result of my work on the merger between Gulf and Chevron, because of the time I spent away from home. During that process I tried to understand myself and found that the whole discussion of the anima and animus I related to. I related to the “shadow side” that we all have. I was going through a transition both at work and in my marriage. I became a student of Jung at that time. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and to save space.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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