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Reflections from our CEO and President

As I reflect on 2019, I see encouraging signs that California is taking real steps forward to address economic inequality and increase opportunity for working people, particularly those earning low wages.

I am especially encouraged by the inspiring and effective work of the grantees in our Better Careers, Fair Work, and Priority Regions initiatives. Their innovative, passionate, and tenacious efforts are empowering low-income workers each and every day to advance economically.

Meanwhile, California’s new governor put in motion a bold agenda to create more opportunities for working people, build inclusive economies in inland California, and advance worker protections (including fighting wage theft so that hardworking Californians receive every penny they earn). And, in the private sector, leaders are increasingly realizing that improving career opportunities for entry-level workers is both the right thing to do and good for their long-term business success.

These encouraging signs are just a start; there is still much work to do. Too many jobs in our state pay extremely low wages without clear opportunities to advance. More than one-third (35%) of Californians earn less than $15/hour — and African Americans and Latinos disproportionately so. In fact, half of California’s Latino workers make less than $15/hour.

Coupled with our high cost of living, California still has the nation’s highest poverty level of any state. One study we commissioned in 2019 found that nearly four in 10 Asian American and Pacific Islander workers are struggling with poverty.

We are convinced that reducing income inequality will require leaders from across society to build bridges and work together to restore balance to our economy and dignity and fairness for all workers. I’m excited that we have the privilege to support these partnerships with financial and moral support.

Here are highlights from our work in 2019 to partner with and support nonprofits, worker groups, the public sector, and employers:


  • We invested $22 million in 33 Better Careers grantees who are connecting more Californians to higher-wage jobs with advancement opportunities, while also strengthening their abilities to train workers, partner with employers and the public sector, and advocate for improved workforce development policies. We made $21 million in grants to 21 Fair Work grantees who are organizing low-income workers to advocate for their rights and fight wage theft, partly through a partnership between worker centers and the California Labor Commissioner.
  • In our Priority Regions, Irvine invested nearly $6 million to expand partnerships with local leaders and organizations who are strengthening community capacity to build a local economy that works for all residents. In a series of listening sessions in Fresno and Salinas, community leaders shared the opportunities and challenges they face in building a thriving, racially inclusive economy — and provided insights into how funders can best support the work.
  • We partnered with The Institute for the Future to explore immigration trends that will impact California and the country. Immigration policy experts, advocates, and other immigration funders generously advised this project, which resulted in a futures map: four plausible immigration scenarios and their implications for the economy. We plan to use this foresight to determine how we continue to support Immigrant families who make up a large share of low-income workers and who contribute to California’s creativity, innovation, and economic strength.
  • We made exploratory grants of $6.2 million, largely to community advocates and policy analysts, to learn if our resources can help expand housing that low-income workers can afford.

Labor organizations:

  • In addition to the worker centers at the core of our Fair Work initiative, we explored how we might partner with traditional labor unions to educate, empower, and protect the rights of workers. Several union federations are developing promising innovations, such as the California Labor Federation and the Los Angeles Labor Federation, and we are proud to support their efforts to grow career pathway programs for the formerly incarcerated, immigrants, and other workers.

Public sector:


  • Employers play a role in much of our work, so we developed a new direct engagement approach, including six employer roundtables to hear the challenges and opportunities they see in hiring, retaining, and advancing entry-level workers.
  • We invested in a new model, Talent Rewire, to help employers hire and retain jobseekers who are often overlooked in the hiring process.

Every year, Irvine’s Leadership Awards recognize leaders from across sectors who are advancing effective solutions to California’s toughest issues. In February we recognized five leaders – all women, for the first time in the Award’s history – for their groundbreaking solutions to homelessness, youth development, health care, and aging. Learn more about our 2019 recipients here.

Last, but certainly not least, in October the Irvine Foundation board elected a new board Chair. Kafi D. Blumenfeld, who joined the board in 2016, took over for outgoing Chair, Lydia Villareal in January. In December, the board also elected a new trustee, Dr. Michael Chui. Irvine’s board members have been invaluable partners in guiding our strategy, and I look forward to benefiting from Kafi and Michael’s expertise in the years ahead.

I’m proud of all the work Irvine’s partners, staff, and board did in 2019 to expand opportunity for the people of California — and I see 2020 as a pivotal year.

I’m hopeful that momentum from 2019 will persist, and I look forward to building more partnerships with leaders and organizations who are committed to building an economy that works for all Californians. Thank you.