The program has nearly tripled the number of participating students and its mission to improve corporate diversity is resonating with large companies.

Future Leaders Initiative shows significant growth in its first year

September 01, 2023 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

If you haven’t failed, then you haven’t tried hard enough.

Dozens of students from local high schools and community colleges learned that critical insight into the entrepreneurial mindset during a recent discussion as part of the 2023 Future Leaders Initiative program. During that event, CEOs Pamina Barkow and Feyzi Fatehi spoke about their experiences as successful entrepreneurs in Orange County. Most importantly, they encouraged students to be tenacious, dedicated, and ambitious.

“You’re not going to be successful right away,” Barkow said. “It may take a lot of trial-and-error but if you cultivate the right mindset, you will be successful.”

For the 115 students who attended this year’s FLI program, it was the first time they heard critical information like this directly from top executives. The program guides, inspires, and empowers high school and community college students from primarily Santa Ana Unified School District and Anaheim Unified School District in an effort to redefine the pipeline of talent in the business world over the next decade.

During the six-week certificate course, students learn about STEM-related fields and numerous aspects of business by taking part in simulations, group activities, and listening to lectures from renowned faculty members and business leaders. The program not only exposes students to new possibilities but strengthens the talent pool by providing companies with a pipeline of potential employees from diverse backgrounds, worldviews and passions. 

Started last year by Dean Ian O. Williamson, the program has already significantly grown and made a positive impact in dozens of students’ lives. The FLI program grew from 41 students last year to 115 this summer.

“The Future Leaders Initiative program was received really well last year and we have seen tremendous growth,” said Dean Williamson. “Our applications were up 400% and the support from the business and education community has been tremendous. It’s clear that the program is resonating with a lot of people and it’s extremely gratifying to our school and the students in this program to have the support of the community.”



Significant Growth

Some of the major supporters and corporate partners getting involved with the FLI program include California Surgeon General Dr. Diana Ramos, J.P. Morgan, PIMCO, Samsung, Hyundai, Cathworks, Corent, PI Medical Partners, The Irvine Company, Zocalo Health, and NVIDIA. High schools and community colleges are also stepping up their support, with the Santa Ana College and Santa Ana and Anaheim unified school districts leading the way as partners with the Merage School.

Over the course of this summer’s program, students were able to visit various company headquarters to get a sense of how each business operates. They were excited to see the massive scale of the corporate giants and received invaluable guidance from business leaders on how to attain a position in their companies. They were also able to hear from executives about their journey to their current leadership positions and attain an understanding of the varied paths to success. Most importantly, the experiences provided crucial context for students, showing them that working at a notable company is attainable.

The Merage School also partnered with Big Brothers Big Sisters to provide students from the FLI program with an assigned mentor. Google is also providing access, upon successful completion of the FLI program, to six online certificate programs for students and their families who complete the FLI program.

“We took what we did last year and made it better,” said Professor Kevin Bradford, FLI Program Director. “Our applications increased, and companies are starting to take notice by providing their support and access to their company and resources.”

While students benefitted significantly from the experience, the partnering companies are also hoping to benefit from their contributions to FLI by building a pipeline of exceptional employees for their organizations from the FLI program.

“Many companies in Orange County want to connect with students from these school districts and they plant the seed with our students that they can and should consider working for them after college,” Professor Bradford said.


Lasting Impact

The FLI program has already positively influenced many of the participants. The 41 students who took part last year forged lasting connections with each other and continue to keep in contact. Students also connected with business executives they met during the program.

“That is a win for the students from the FLI program because when you’re networked with people who are headed in a direction that you want to go, it really assists in your decision making, educational outcomes, and career,” Professor Bradford said. “These connections were an intended outcome of the FLI program and for these students to follow up with the company executives that we featured, it demonstrates how committed our community is to these students, the opportunity these students have, and how excellent these students are.”

Student Umar Aziz sharpened his leadership skills, networking acumen, and understanding of entrepreneurship during the first summer of the FLI program. He’s remained friends with many of the students who were in his cohort and believes they can be a valuable resource to each other as they move forward in their education and careers.

Aziz is hoping to start his own business after school and currently runs a few small-scale “side hustle” businesses with his friends. He uses the information he learned from the FLI program to run these smaller endeavors.

“The program was so impactful to me and opened my eyes to entrepreneurship, innovation, and leadership,” Aziz said. “As a community college student at the time, I didn’t really have a track for my future. FLI helped me develop a vision.”

Aziz, who is from Santa Ana, found the experience so fulfilling he transferred from Long Beach City College to UC Irvine to study computer science and became a mentor to students who went through the FLI program this summer. He said many of the students faced the same problem he did at the beginning of the program, they had ambition but didn’t know where or how to direct it. As a mentor, Aziz provided guidance to help students take full advantage of the valuable resources of the program.

“It’s been an amazing experience helping students this year,” Aziz said. “The program has grown so much from when I attended, which shows how it resonates with students like me. If you can learn even one or two things from your time in FLI, it can change your life. It’s already changed mine just a year after attending.”

The FLI program also helped Student Parsmi Rajput learn what success looks like and how to strive for that in her own life.

“After hearing from a variety of professionals, one of my main takeaways was that success is not linear,” she said. “People like me often hear about successful people’s stories and we only hear about the end product, not the journey. So FLI really helped me understand that many people face challenges during their career journeys and there were ups and downs. But with a lot of hard work and passion, it is possible to overcome those hurdles and accomplish your career goals.”



Hopes for the Future

Professor Bradford aims to continue growing the FLI program to eventually fill the Merage School’s 350-seat auditorium, and he’s hoping that earning a spot in the program becomes a highly coveted position. Currently, the selectivity process is one out of every two and a half students. In the future, the selection process may become more competitive, with one out of every five students chosen for the program.

Professor Bradford wants the program to provide students with a significant head start over their peers. In order to be as effective as possible, the programming needs to continue to grow to provide the most relevant and diverse experiences for students. This will require strengthening relationships with high schools and corporate partners.

“I’m hoping that eventually college admissions from across California and the rest of the country start to favor students who go through this program,” he said. “We have the support of the companies and school districts, so we can continue to grow and make lasting and significant change for these students and in the business community.”