Mary Leslie’s business is to tackle L.A.’s social ills


The gig: As president of the Los Angeles Business Council, Mary Leslie, 53, covers a lot of ground. On any given day, she might be meeting with major contributors to evaluate progress on a grant, driving to the San Fernando Valley to check out a fledgling solar installation company or researching an initiative to stop storm runoff from reaching the ocean. In spare moments, she will plot out the finer details of an upcoming summit, where government representatives, business leaders and academics will convene to solve nagging problems in housing, transportation and jobs. Leslie emphasizes these core pieces of economic development, along with education and the environment as she and her staff of seven full-timers tackle a wide swath of L.A.’s social ills.

Get ‘em young: Despite career dalliances to Little Rock, Ark., and Washington, D.C., Leslie can’t seem to shake California. She grew up in the East San Francisco Bay, attended Santa Clara University for her undergraduate education and got her master’s degree in public policy from USC, an intergovernmental program she completed in Sacramento. She would later get an executive certificate at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management — “I decided I needed a little higher business acumen,” she said. But first, she would try her hand in government.

Learning from the best: Leslie had barely finished her master’s when Leo McCarthy, then speaker of the state Assembly, took her under his wing. “I feel extremely lucky because I entered politics with a really good guy,” she said. “Most people said underneath his suit was a Boy Scouts uniform.” Leslie stuck with McCarthy for 10 years, along the way serving as his campaign finance director.


Next, former U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor picked her to head up California fundraising for Bill Clinton’s 1991 presidential campaign. That meant for a time, the notoriously demanding now-mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel was her boss. “The thing with Rahm was, as long as you produced, you were golden,” she said.

Leslie would then go on to serve as a deputy to Erskine Bowles, who headed the Small Business Administration, where she learned to “cut the fat out” in both business and politics. “Sometimes having less is better,” she said. “Because you have to be more efficient, you have to be cleverer.”

Back to her roots: California’s efforts to rebuild after the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake drew Leslie back to the Golden State, following the $4 billion in SBA funds siphoned into recovery.

Her ties to the Clinton administration made her an appealing asset for then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who took her on as deputy mayor. But Leslie was starting a family with her husband, Alan Arkatov. Pregnant with her eldest son, Jacob, she took a step back and started her own consulting firm, Leslie & Associates. Eventually, commercial real estate mogul Richard Ziman came knocking with her next project: a sputtering Los Angeles Business Council that was $60,000 in debt.

A better tomorrow: With Leslie on board, Ziman went full speed in rebranding the business council, peddling a new vision that emphasized sustainability and affordable housing to attract new members. Today the council boasts a membership 350 strong, and an annual budget averaging $1.3 million.

Reviving the business council has become one of Leslie’s proudest career achievements — “Well, electing Bill Clinton was a big deal,” she said with a laugh.

But it was during this period that she also faced her greatest challenge: the 2006 failure of Proposition H, a $1-billion city bond measure to provide affordable housing.

“I’m not used to losing like that,” she said. “It’s hard to lose something you know could have been such an asset.”

The loss freed up her team to redirect the business council’s efforts toward sustainability. A recent triumph came in the successful kickoff of the city’s rooftop solar energy buyback program, a project three years in the making. “It’s simple for businesses to be part of the solution, to benefit economically, but also to add value to the community by providing clean energy. So we loved it.”

How to succeed in business, and plenty else: That passion for the business council’s core ideals — business, economic growth, sustainability — buoys Leslie through long days and longer battles. “The key is never to think you work for a living,” she said. “Find what you love. Don’t go to work.”

The part-time surfer and hiker, whose favorite L.A. spots include Dodger Stadium and the Hollywood Bowl, has found a new niche in supporting the city she’s come to love and call home. But moving on from the political sphere doesn’t mean she plans to leave the heavy lifting to policymakers. “All these guys can do is put out a vision,” she said. “Everybody else has to fill in the dots.”

Twitter: @c_s_green