Antonia Hernandez, who leads one of Southern California's largest philanthropic organizations, isn't a typical chief executive. She was born in 1948 on a humble communal ranch in Northern Mexico. And she is now head of the California Community Foundation, which has $1.3 billion in assets and where she oversees a staff of more than 50. Her father was a native of Texas, but the U.S. government forced him to move south of the border in the 1930s. He brought his family to East Los Angeles when Hernandez was only 8, primarily to provide his seven children with proper educations. The oldest of her siblings, Hernandez graduated from Garfield High School, attended East L.A. Community College and then went to UCLA for her teaching credential. But she had developed a decidedly social activist bent. Convinced that law was the most effective venue for social change, Hernandez became a lawyer and went back to UCLA for her J.D. After working for various legal assistance organizations, she did a stint as legal counsel to the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee then, in 1981, went to work for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. After 23 years there, the last 19 as president and general counsel, philanthropy came calling in 2004. The Business Journal caught up with Hernandez in her spacious office on the 34th floor of the foundation's downtown L.A. headquarters to discuss her background and transition from life as a Latina activist to running a non-profit.

Question: Was it tough to move from your modest background to higher education and leadership roles?

Answer: To some degree, ignorance was bliss. I didn't know what the hurdles were, so I just kind of zoomed ahead. My parents are very humble and always instilled in us a thirst for knowledge and education. Not to have money, but in the sense that to be educated is to do noble things. We always knew we were going to college. My parents worked very hard so that we would be educated, and all of us were.

Q: How did your brothers and sisters turn out?

A: All my sisters are in education: Lupe is a principal, Mary teaches at a community college, and Lisa and Maggie are both school teachers. As for my brothers, one is an engineer and the other works as a factory manager.

Q: Did you speak English when you first arrived in the U.S.?

A: None. Learning a language is a long process that most people don't understand. I learned to understand English very quickly, but when you spoke to me I translated it into Spanish. I think the appropriate question is: "When did I start thinking in English?" And the answer is in law school.

Q: You wanted to be a teacher. What changed your mind?

A: It was during the 1960s and early '70s and there were student walkouts at Roosevelt High School. I was a counselor with project Upward Bound working with mostly Latino students from Roosevelt, Jordan and Venice high schools. My kids were participating in the walkouts and one day I just decided that I couldn't teach unless I changed the laws in order for them to have a better, fairer education. I knew that being a lawyer gave you the tools to improve the quality of life for society. So I went to UCLA law school to become a public interest lawyer.

Q: That must have been difficult.

A: I had to work during my three years of law school, teaching at Lynwood High School. But through working, loans, fellowships and scholarships, I was able to get a very good education.

Q: Did you find it difficult culturally or academically?

A: It was tough, but not insurmountable. I loved law school. I found a place where you could question, get into inquiry and debate. I'd found my niche. To this day, some of my professors are my dearest friends.

Q: After law school, you did a stint as legal counsel for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., then went to work for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or Maldef. How did all that come about?

A: I was working at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice when, in late 1978, Sen. Ted Kennedy took over the Judiciary Committee and I was asked to move to Washington to join the committee's staff. I was hired as its lead counsel based on my expertise in immigration. The Democrats lost control of the Senate in 1980, I lost my job, and that's when I joined Maldef.

Q: Maldef has a reputation as a radical organization.

A: Maldef is the premier law firm for Latinos. Its tool for change is through the law whether it be litigation, legislation or public policy. While I was there, Maldef helped block implementation of California's Proposition 187, which would have barred undocumented immigrants from public schools and health centers, pushed for more Latino representation in the census and worked on redistricting.

Q: Was there a political aspect?

A: We were political in a nonpartisan way. Our board had both Democrats and Republicans. We were political in the sense that we were about social change.

Q: What do you consider the organization's greatest accomplishments under your leadership?

A: Changing the political face of America and California. We were the major architects of redistricting, and I would say that opening the political process for Latinos to participate was one of our proudest moments. We also litigated most of the cases involved in education and employment.

Q: What about immigration?

A: Unfortunately, that was one area in which we were not as successful. Our goal was to prevent the implementation of Draconian immigration law, but today you have some of the most Draconian laws ever. One of the beauties of the past in this society was that immigrants were indistinguishable from nonimmigrants. If you played by the rules and became a citizen, you had all the rights of a natural-born citizen. It was a very fluid, open society. That has changed. Becoming a naturalized citizen is now much harder. You have to go through a longer process to pay your dues.

Q: Why is that a bad thing?

A: We've lost some of the fluidity that allowed talent to come in. Let's take the undocumented workers; if you take the poorest countries in the world, who are the ones who come here? They are risk-takers with chutzpah, people with the initiative and drive to do what's necessary to come here and work. As we close our borders we are, to some degree, protecting ourselves, but we're also making it harder for people to come in and contribute to making this country great.

Q: Are things getting better or worse?

A: We have become a much more insular society since 9/11. I was on an airplane in the middle of the Atlantic when 9/11 happened. I was returning from a board meeting in Italy and we were in the middle of the Atlantic when the pilot came on and said that there had been some attacks on America and we were being instructed to fly back. I was stuck there for five days, not being able to come home. I experienced 9/11 as an American outside trying to come in; all the chaos, all the confusion. The question is, how do we as Americans react to it? Yes, we need to be very careful and take terrorism seriously. But do we need to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world? I don't think so.

Q: Los Angeles now has a Latino mayor, and the Latino community seems to play a very visible and active role in the city's political life. Are you satisfied?

A: Great progress has been made, but a lot more needs to be done. California will soon be, if it isn't already, a minority majority state; if we don't educate the next generation, we're doomed. I think what's happening in California is that we're not investing as much in our youth and children, and our youth and children happen to be minorities.

Q: How did you make the transition from Latino activist to leadership of a philanthropic organization?

A: If wasn't that difficult. At Maldef, I had to raise $7 million every year from the private sector because the organization didn't take any government money. I was very comfortable with that and knew every foundation in the United States. What fascinated me about the California Community Foundation is that I'd been working at a national organization where I sought systemic macro-change; here I could apply it to the large micro of Los Angeles County.

Q: How, exactly, are you doing that?

A: As a community foundation, we are sort of the representative of philanthropy in Los Angeles. We have about $1.3 billion in assets, depending on what the Dow does at any moment. Some of that is in discretionary funds, which we distribute to needy organizations ourselves, and some is in donor funds we manage and distribute for donors. We give out over $200 million a year.

Q: Have you been hurt by the economy?

A: We've been blessed; since I've been here, in five years, we've more than doubled our resources. We have experienced about a 15 percent drop in investment revenues because of what's happened in the market. That's not bad, however, compared to others. A lot of our donor money is kept in short-term investments because of the fluidity and need for turnaround. Also, we have wonderful board members, some of whom are talented investors who started diversifying two and a half years ago.

Q: What do you see as your personal mandate for the foundation?

A: My predecessor, Jack Shakely, built the wealth; his mandate was to bring in resources. My mandate is to turn those resources into tools that can improve the quality of life. I want CCF to become a civic leader, an institution that provides resources and leadership to Angelenos. At Maldef the tools were adversarial, here they are charity and philanthropy.

Q: What has been your most rewarding accomplishment so far at CCF?

A: It's connecting people of wealth, who have wonderful hearts, with people in need. There's nothing more rewarding than seeing the benefits of that connection. We give out more than a million dollars in scholarships each year. Nothing gives me the fuzzy, warm feeling as much as humanizing that activity; seeing scholarships go to individuals who want to work in underserved communities just warms the heart.

Q: Describe your typical day.

A: It often starts with a business breakfast with either a donor or community person. If I don't have a breakfast meeting, I'm usually in the office by 8 a.m. and spend the morning meeting with staff and responding to phone calls. I often have a lunch meeting, then, in the afternoon, more meetings. Today I met with my CFO to talk about liquidity issues how the market did and so forth. Later I'm meeting with another staff member to talk about housing issues. And tonight I'm having dinner with an individual from New York to explore the possibility of bringing his non-profit organization to Los Angeles. I'd say I work an average of 10 hours a day, with evening engagements two nights out of the week.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you do?

A: First and foremost, acquire the skills of a good manager. I am managing a business; it happens to be not for profit, but a business nonetheless. Also, be able to multitask that's really critical. You have to be able to deal with various balls in the air all at once.

Q: What's the best advice you ever received?

A: To be flexible, think on my feet and have a sense of humor; not to take myself too seriously. That was from a colleague friend of mine at Maldef. He said: "You're in a serious business but, in order to survive, you have to not take yourself so seriously." And he said: "Have a little humility. The world can function without you."


Title: Chief Executive
Organization: California Community Foundation
Born: 1948; El Cambio, Cauhulia, Mexico
Education: B.A. from UCLA, 1970; J.D. from UCLA School of Law, 1974
Career Turning Point: Left teaching to become a lawyer
Most Influential People: Her parents, Manuel and Nicolasa Hernandez; husband, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Stern
Personal: Lives in Pasadena with her husband of 31 years, with whom she has three grown children
Hobbies: Sewing, baking, gardening

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