Excellence in Action
John Kobara ’78
Interviewed by Monique Beals • March 5, 2019
Please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role.
I ended up getting into UCLA and was a little lost. My girlfriend at the time said, “You just aren’t engaged. You’re boring, and you aren’t really doing anything”. She took me up Bruin Walk and told me I had to sign up for something. The table we ended up at was called “Bridging the Gap”. I didn’t know what it was and neither did she, but there was a woman named Robin there who told me that the group goes to a maximum security prison to work with felons. Long story short, I became a volunteer there and it was a fantastic experience. I went to Norwalk, CA three or four times a week for the rest of my UCLA career. I ended up becoming one of the lead volunteers and a director of the program. I then ran for student government and became the Commissioner of Community Service twice. It was a defining moment of my UCLA experience. The experiences I had were very humbling dealing with young men in particular who were going through a diagnostic process to understand where they were going to go next. That taught me about the failure of society and the need for so many things. It launched me onto a path.
Ultimately, I became a Big Brother as a result of that process. I wanted to understand mentoring and that role, so I became a Big Brother for 10 years as a volunteer. I ended up becoming a Coro Fellow, and I learned about that at UCLA. That got me into a Master’s Program at Occidental where I did my Master’s in Urban Studies. Ultimately, I got hired to do a startup for cable television and did that for 7.5 years. I became an executive with that operation and became the President of the Southern California Cable Association at a very young age. I ended up getting my MBA at a school over on Figueroa that we won’t mention right now.
Around that time, I went to meet with a UCLA former Dean, Rick Tuttle, who was the City Controller. I was going to make a career change, and I had two incredible offers in the cable industry. I went to Rick to help me make my choice, because I am a big believer in mentors. Rick started yelling at me saying that they were stupid offers and I shouldn’t do either of them. He said that he thought I should really consider being the next alumni director at UCLA. At first, I said no. I had left UCLA and I loved it, but that wasn’t what I was going to do. Needless to say, I applied for the job and was hired by Chancellor Charles Young. I was one of the youngest alumni director in the system. I was 30 years old when I became the Assistant Vice Chancellor of Alumni Relations. I took a huge pay cut because it was a really interesting job and I was not motivated by money. I did that for 7.5 years until Chancellor Young promoted me to Vice Chancellor and ultimately Associate Vice Chancellor right there in Murphy Hall. I did that for about 3 years until he left, so I spent 10 years at UCLA.
I ended up going back into the startup world to start an online education company in 1996. There was no online education at the time. We started a company called OnlineLearning.net and spent almost 7 years doing that. I built that company and ultimately it merged into what’s called Walden University, which is one of the largest online universities in the world today. And then I’ve been on that board for 15 years.
I ended up running Big Brothers Big Sister of Southern California, which is one of the biggest chapters and I did that for 4.5 years. Then, Ted Mitchell, who was the former Dean of Education at UCLA, was a president of Occidental College called me and said that I needed to leave my job and do something else.
I ended up running a startup in Silicon Valley called CK12, which was a crazy idea to create virtual textbooks for the entire K through 12 industry. I became the first CEO of that nonprofit startup, and today, it is the largest virtual textbook operation in the United States. I did that for a year. I was on the board of the California Community Foundation, and I got hired in 2008 by Antonia Hernandez to help her run a, a very different foundation. I’ve been here at CCF for 11 years. Actually, the founder of the California Community Foundation gave the original loan to buy the Westwood property for UCLA so that the campus could move in 1919. Anyway, CCF is 104 years old. It is one of the oldest foundations in the country.
We do two different things. We help wealthy people establish their philanthropies. We run and manage 1700 foundations and funds today for donors. The rest of the time and energy we spend on helping Los Angeles become stronger and better focusing on the poor and the vulnerable as one of the larger funders in Los Angeles.
My job is all the external stuff. I’m in charge of marketing, grantmaking, civic engagement and development. We have to bring in a quarter of a billion dollars in new assets a year into the foundation and then all of the grant-making and all the money going out. We give out $200 million a year all over the world, but mostly in Los Angeles.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
I never chose a career path. What I decided to do with the great education I got at UCLA and my parents’ DNA was that I wanted to be of service to others. I did choose to create a life portfolio that would be designed and driven by my passions, curiosities, and interests. The portfolio of work that I wanted to do was going to have at its core a purpose—a purpose of leading with compassion and altruism. What I learned, and it was never a plan, to gravitate towards extraordinary missions and people.
In the 18 jobs that I’ve had since I’ve graduated or on the 30 boards that I’ve been honored to serve on or the writing I’ve done for the last 15 years, the speaking I’ve done in the last 30 years, all of those things are purpose driven. If that’s a career path, so be it. I just don’t think I can make it that much logic out of it. You get a degree which gives you a license to start thinking about who you are and not what you are.
I think what you have to do is really follow your instincts about who you are. This idea that it is really difficult to cross sectors or to go from a startup to a nonprofit to a publicly traded company, it’s really easy. It’s so crazy easy. I think career development is really about self-development and about having the courage and interest to listen to yourself and what you want and really shun the expectations of others. If you can do that, then you’re going to find your way.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
When you get involved with something that you care about and are shoulder to shoulder with Bruins who care about the same things as you, I ended up gravitating to people with common ground about service.
The word compassion comes from the word passion, which comes from the words pati and passio which means “to suffer”. Compassion means to suffer with others, and I don’t mean crying or depressed. I mean trying to solve a problem together. That’s suffering. Getting involved with service on campus was a totally different experience and it just broke UCLA down into a neighborhood and community that was very different. I met the most extraordinary people, and I’m still in touch with the people I met in that community. They are lifelong friends. That introduced me to Coro which I am still on the board of and have been involved for over 40 years. I’m still engaged with Coro Fellows all over the world. My son became a Coro Fellow, so that was an experience that UCLA introduced me to which has now become a lifelong thing for me.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
There is a really beautiful UCLA network and community out there that we can engage in. We are building a community of mutual respect for one another and I got all of that at UCLA. I have to credit my parents as well. UCLA is still a large part of what I do. I speak on campus. I’m involved on campus. I’m involved with alumni. It would be unusual if I don’t have a conversation with someone affiliated with UCLA every day. It is a critical component of who I was, who I am becoming, and who I will be.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
I think that when you make a change, there is always the fear factor of if it will work out. I think you have to move towards your sense of risk because going to stability or sense of job security leaves your dreams behind.
I think the issue is the greatest obstacle has been overcoming my own fear. What people don’t understand is if you fail, fail fast and fail forward. If you say, I’m just not going to fail, you’re never going to grow and you’re never going to learn and you’re never going to create resilience because resilience is just bouncing back. You need to create a sense of growth to be able to grow beyond the obstacle. That’s something that I have to work on every day to go to the edge of the cliff say, “I got to jump.”
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in this field?
I think one of the things that people have to understand is there’s a job and that job can lead to other jobs. Your job is part of your life, but are you just going to be your job? If you say yes, maybe that’s your career. But I think of a career as a portfolio of curiosities, passions, and interests that is quite robust, so you’re going to start to get experiences from different sources. Everything is temporary. There’s no one job that you’re going to do for the rest of your life, so your career is a series of jobs tied by what you’re interested in, passionate about, driven by who you are.
I’d also say it is never too late to make a change. I worry about people with their expectations from others, their parents, friends, and society at large. Don’t ignore the things you really want to do or be. Have the confidence or courage to nurture those thoughts.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
I’ve literally met with thousands of UCLA graduates and students. I’m not trying to say that I’m a nice guy. I say that, because it is a part of my community and my community comes first to me. I’m a season ticket holder for basketball and football, and I give money to the campus and those kinds of things. I think the biggest part of it is how do you contribute to the energy of the community.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
It was mostly who I met and what I learned. There are some superficial things like I’m glad I went to a public institution with a reputation and history like UCLA. I’m glad I went to a place that really values diversity because I think that is one of the most important things. Charles Young, who was there for 29 years, had to defend the Regents to keep Angela Davis, a Communist Professor in 1969. That was his first job as a 39 year old professor. He had to go against the Regents and fight everything that was going to go against diversity. I think of Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe and everything that is important to me to be associated with that legacy. I tell people all the time that they can tell me any topic, and I’ll tell them the UCLA connection to that.
And finally, what’s next?
Someone asked me recently “what’s your favorite job?” and I always say that it’s the one that I’m in or else I wouldn’t be in it. I’ve had a lot of jobs. I have been fired, laid off, and promoted. I have important jobs and impressive titles but rarely at the same time. I’ve had jobs for less than a year and I’ve had one for 11 years. Whatever’s next is going to evolve. I really wish I knew. I wrote an article called the Eight Week Interview Diet, and up until two years ago I was in an interview every eight weeks for 18 years. I was not trying to leave and get a new job, but I just am interested in learning more and seeing what is out there. Curiosity has carried me to different places. It is so easy to make career changes, and I’m planning on continuing with my writing, blogging, speaking, and doing work in a community that makes the most sense and is interesting to me.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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