two young men smile in stands as UCLA football game goes on behind them

Why They Give Alumni donors Matt Kaczmarek, Aaron Ordower discuss impact of UCLA education on their careers

Two alumni donors and partners Matt Kaczmarek BA ’04 and Aaron Ordower MURP ’15 shared their thoughts about the value of a UCLA Luskin education and the way it has shaped their career trajectories. Kaczmarek, who majored in economic geography and political science and minored in public affairs, is currently global head of market strategy and sustainable investing for BlackRock Credit, following several senior appointments in the administration of President Barack Obama. Ordower is now environment deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath after serving in key policy roles for Los Angeles and New York City.

Talk about a transformative experience in your life that led you to your passion. 

Kaczmarek: As a leader on President Obama’s National Security Council, I experienced firsthand how much the personality, commitment, ingenuity and perseverance of our senior leaders determine the course of our nation’s history and maintain our national security. When I left government, I committed myself to do whatever I can to train and inspire future leaders, support and campaign for strong and thoughtful elected leaders, and support causes dedicated to growing future leaders, such as Luskin. And I’m grateful to have a partner in Aaron who shares these values and this commitment.

Ordower: Early in my career I worked for the World Bank (whose cafeteria I originally met Matt in!), where I focused on infrastructure, economic development and environmental projects in Latin America. I remember when one particularly devastating tropical storm swept through El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and literally washed away years of investments in human and physical infrastructure that my team and those governments had worked on over the past decade. Overnight, it was as if all the roads, water treatment plants, community infrastructure and all that progress on poverty alleviation had never happened. It illustrated to me how much climate change is an existential threat to life, property and economic prosperity, especially to low-income communities. This of course plays out in every corner of the globe, including here in California. That particular storm — and sadly there were many more which followed — was a catalyst for my career in sustainability.

How did the Luskin School help you get closer to your goal? 

Ordower: My master’s in urban and regional planning gave me concrete tools to advance my career and especially to develop equity-informed, multidisciplinary solutions to climate change. Luskin trained me to recognize that policy which is not grounded in economic justice and social equity is unlikely to succeed. I attribute some of my biggest professional accomplishments, such as passing New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act — the first major law in America to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from buildings — and passing the phase-out of oil and gas drilling in Los Angeles — the nation’s largest urban oilfield — to this multidisciplinary, technical training.

Kaczmarek: The Luskin minor was the highlight of my undergraduate experience at UCLA. My classes at Luskin taught me how to analyze policy issues that had always interested me, like water, land use and economic development. And how to build consensus toward strong policy solutions — a skill useful in any career field! I received a Dukakis summer scholarship to pursue an unpaid internship with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area. I was humbled by my brilliant and committed colleagues and inspired to pursue a career in civil service.

Was there a moment or a person that was critical to your Luskin School experience? 

Kaczmarek: Mike Dukakis’ 1988 campaign is the first presidential election I can remember. For me to see him on TV at the convention as a kid and then as a young adult present to him on a real policy issue facing Los Angeles was the first time I realized that I could access and influence decision-makers. That motivation to earn a seat at the table led me to Sacramento, Washington and the West Wing of the White House, and then after government to New York and our major financial institutions.

Ordower: I had some excellent (alumni) practitioner faculty at Luskin who I really credit for helping me launch my career to the next phase. I took three classes with Joan Ling, an accomplished real estate and affordable housing developer. She put every one of us through the ringer and set the same expectations for us students as she would for a staff member of her development team. She invested in each one of us: She made herself available for office hours every weekend, made time to mentor anyone who asked and never hesitated to open a professional door or give career advice. And for me, she was an affirming LGBT role model who had served at the highest levels of government and real estate.

One of the things Joan would make us do when working on a housing studio was to formally present our hypothetical project to the City Council office and the head of the neighborhood council.  After one such meeting, the neighborhood council president liked our project so much that he invited us to pretend to be actual developers and to present the project to the full neighborhood council in a public meeting! The next neighborhood council meeting wasn’t until the next quarter, but Joan still took the time to coach us through this unorthodox exercise and even showed up with (metaphoric) popcorn to the presentation. This type of rigorous experiential learning set me, and so many of my peers, up to have impactful careers in economic, community and urban development.

What values do you hold closest in your life and work? 

Ordower: Always demonstrate kindness and empathy, even in the most trying of times. The most stressful time in my professional life was October-December of 2022, when my boss, Paul Krekorian, unexpectedly became Los Angeles Council President after Nury Martinez resigned in scandal. Overnight my duties quadrupled — having responsibility for sustainability policy and the city budget committee AND setting and leading the proceedings of the full City Council meetings at a time when vocal segments of the public didn’t want us to meet at all. Even before the tapes came out, we were in the final throes of a very competitive local election cycle, and L.A. politics was extremely factionalized and ugly. I’m sure I didn’t bat 1000, but I tried very hard to treat all the staff and members of the public with respect and empathy, even those working for scandal-embattled councilmembers or whose bosses were actively opposed to policy my boss was advocating. I’d like to think that setting that example helped in a small way to get us toward a more functioning and saner place in local politics. And during those three crazy months we were even able to pass some of the most impactful renter protections, economic justice and sustainability policies in recent memory.

Kaczmarek: Tim Geithner used to tell me as a young economist at the Treasury Department that I should always have a viewpoint polished and ready in case the president were to ask for it (which seemed unlikely at the time … until it happened!) but that you should never let your conviction be stronger than the evidence you have to support it. That advice has only gotten better with age. And as an appointee in the first presidential administration that welcomed openly LGBT officials, I’m committed to growing and supporting future LGBT leaders.

What is something people might not understand about the importance of your work, impact of funding and the Luskin School?

Kaczmarek: My experience has shown that education, training and experience are the keys to developing strong leaders. The combination of UCLA, Luskin and the policy laboratory of Los Angeles provide unparalleled opportunities to develop all three in one place. To support Luskin is to support a generation of leaders prepared for the challenges of real-world policymaking at the local, state, national and international level.

Ordower: Luskin is a great policy and research laboratory that directly informs impactful policy across the L.A. region and beyond. There are so many examples of a small progressive city like Santa Monica or West Hollywood taking a bold first step to pass policy, informed no doubt by UCLA researchers and alumni. After a year or two, larger jurisdictions like L.A. County and City often follow suit, and shortly thereafter it often becomes law in the state of California. And once we prove that it can succeed in the fourth largest economy in the world, it leads to changes in national policy. The UCLA to national policy pipeline is real!

Capture a Dream? 

Ordower: I now work for L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, where I lead her work on environmental sustainability. My dream is for L.A. County, and eventually our nation, to run on 100% clean energy, for our water resources to be 100% recycled and resilient, and for everyone, regardless of the neighborhood they live in, to have equal access to clean air, nature and a healthy place to live. I’m so fortunate that I get to contribute in many small ways to make this a reality in the most populous county in America.

How has philanthropy impacted you in your own life? 

Kaczmarek: When I moved from the public to the private sector, I worried about losing the public service motivation in my work. I now know I can have an even greater impact across a variety of ways to engage and support good public policy through mentorship, advocacy, volunteer service and philanthropy.

Ordower: I was extremely fortunate to be supported by scholarships and grants at UCLA. They helped to defray the costs of this very valuable education and without which I’m not sure I would have ended up in Westwood. Fellowships allowed me to focus on the most impactful experiences while enrolled at UCLA and made it possible for me to take unpaid internships that I directly attribute to my career trajectory. It is so important to me to give back to make sure others have these opportunities.

How have you seen the impact of your philanthropy play out?

Kaczmarek: It’s inspiring to meet the faculty and students at Luskin today who are applying the same approaches that transformed my life to today’s policy challenges. From solving the housing affordability and homelessness crisis to advancing sustainable cities, I am confident that the solutions to these challenges are being developed at Luskin, and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Ordower: Every time I look around at who is working on cutting-edge applied research in urban planning, public policy, social policy and sustainability, all roads lead to UCLA. I have taken countless meetings with UCLA faculty, researchers and students, and they have helped me develop equitable, just and impactful policy for our region. Especially in the area of sustainability, I’m so impressed by the expanded breadth of faculty and applied research expertise in areas such as water resiliency, extreme heat and renewable energy. And I am probably in meetings with UCLA alumni every single day.  Giving to Luskin has a great return on investment: turning students into changemakers.

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