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Judy Olian prepares future business leaders

Olian, the head of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, is one of the few female business school deans in the country.

August 28, 2011|By Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles Times

The gig: Judy Olian is dean of the UCLA Anderson School of Management. With nearly 2,000 students in full-time and executive MBA programs, as well as PhD candidates, Anderson is ranked the 14th-best business school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. A native Australian, Olian, 59, is one of the few female business school deans in the country.

Two tough women: Olian attributes her tenacity to her mother, Rachel, a teacher who was separated from her husband in Poland during the Holocaust, only to be reunited with him seven years later in Australia. Olian also was inspired by the late Golda Meir, former prime minister of Israel. Olian served as an executive assistant in Meir's office after she graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with a bachelor's degree in psychology. "I was very low on the totem pole, but she was a great role model," Olian said.

Frequent flier: The travel bug bit Olian early. As a teenager she moved to Israel, and after high school she worked as an au pair in France. Ultimately, her wanderlust led her to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she got a master's degree and a doctorate in industrial relations. "All Australians travel," Olian said. "It's in our DNA." Work duties recently took her to Africa, where she met with directors of local groups that provide treatment for HIV and other afflictions as part of a management development program run by UCLA.

"Try to always say yes": New experiences are vital to personal and professional growth, Olian said. While she was finishing her master's degree in industrial relations at Madison, a professor suggested she get a doctorate and try academia. It wasn't something she had considered, but Olian said yes. "You never know where you'll end up," she said.

First lady: After years of teaching at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business, Olian became the first woman to run the school when she was named acting dean in 1996. From there, she became the first female dean at Penn State's Smeal College of Business and the first at the Anderson School, where she has been since 2006. "I never thought of my career in gender terms," Olian said. "But in recent years I've become aware of my role as a woman and a leader." Olian said that only about a third of business school students nationwide are women, compared with more than 50% in medical and law schools. She said girls need to be taught early that business is a viable career option. "Here we are in this day and age and only 15 Fortune 500 CEOs are women," Olian said. "The talent pool should not be circumscribed by gender."

Traveling companion: Olian met Peter Liberti, her husband of 20 years, at a health club in Maryland. He has followed her faithfully ever since, reinventing his own career several times along the way. Today he works in residential real estate. "The key to success in our relationship is flexibility," Olian said with a chuckle that acknowledged the peripatetic life of an academic. "His, not mine."

Global village: In today's rapidly changing business environment, Olian believes that future business leaders need an international vision. This fall she's debuting a Latin America-focused executive MBA program with study in Santiago, Chile; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Miami as well as Los Angeles, adding it to the school's already robust Asia-focused program. And it's not just taking Americans abroad — fully 30% of full-time MBA candidates at UCLA are foreigners. "At UCLA we're on the rim of both Latin America and Asia," Olian said. "A significant business school must be global."

Bottom line: "We're in the business of transforming people," said Olian, who still considers herself as much an educator as an administrator. The goal is to "create lives of significance."

Type A+: Olian is a bundle of energy. A self-described "cardio junkie," she's liable to be cycling in the Santa Monica Mountains or at the gym when not working. Good thing she loves to cook. "It's a habit of mine because you get instant results," Olian said. "And then you eat them."

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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