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The Story of Westcliff | Stories With Traction Podcast


SUMMARY: In this episode, Dr. Anthony Lee and Matt Zaun talk about the founding of Westcliff University and where Dr. Lee learned his leadership skills.

DR. ANTHONY LEE BIO: Dr. Lee is the President and CEO of Westcliff University and has led the institution through incredible growth for the last 16 years. Under his leadership, Westcliff’s colleges have experienced commendable progress as they continue to welcome some of their strongest and largest incoming classes.

As a distinguished leader with a demonstrated history of excellence, Dr. Lee plays a pivotal role in shaping the future of higher education. His outstanding educational background has significantly influenced his visionary outlook: He holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership specializing in higher education administration from the prestigious University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Additionally, he possesses a Master of Business Administration from the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management, where he focused on strategy and entrepreneurship. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in economics from the University of California, Irvine.

Dr. Lee is in high demand as a nationwide speaker at conferences and seminars and is a two-time nominee for the esteemed Orange County Business Journal Innovator of the Year award.

His leadership has profoundly impacted students and faculty worldwide, solidifying Westcliff’s status as a global higher education leader. His unwavering commitment to fostering equitable access to education for all exemplifies his philanthropic spirit and deep dedication to community engagement.

For more info on Dr. Lee:

MATT ZAUN BIO: Matt is an award-winning speaker and storyteller who empowers organizations to attract more clients through the art of strategic storytelling. Matt’s past engagements have catalyzed radical sales increases for over 300 organizations that range from financial institutions to the health and wellness industry.

Matt shares his expertise in persuasion with executives, sales professionals, and entrepreneurs, who he coaches on the art of influence and how to leverage this for profits and impact.

For more info, check out Matt Zaun HERE 


*Below is an AI-generated transcript, which may contain errors


Matt Zaun 

One of the most amazing things to me about traveling all over the United States is I get to meet some incredible people.

And I learn about these individuals. I love hearing their stories and what drives them. Well, today I'm joined by an individual that absolutely fascinates me.

I'm joined by Dr. Anthony Lee. Dr. Lee is the president and CEO of Westcliff University. And we are going to dive in.

to scaling innovation and leadership. Welcome to the show, Dr.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

Lee. Thanks, Matt. I'm looking forward to it. Really appreciate you having me.


Matt Zaun

And I appreciate your time. I know you're extremely busy. So I appreciate you sharing some time with us and just diving in and unpacking a different elements of what makes you you and what you've done for your organization.

So just to kind of paint the scene for everyone and just to share why I respect you so much is for a lot of different things that you've done, which is just almost unbelievable, in my opinion.

So you took Westcliff University from nothing. So you founded this university and you took it from virtually almost no students to the 6,000 there are today.

So it is unbelievably extraordinary to even hear that. So can you tell us like the beginning steps of what it means to start a university?

diversity and then go from there.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

Yeah, I mean, when I first took over the university, my dad had started it 30 years ago. And when I took it over, you know, we probably had less than 50 students.

And when I took it over, there was a lot of work to be done, absolutely. we started with, you know, focusing on the staff that we wanted to hire, the staff and faculty that we wanted to hire to help build the team out and then really get going on trying to achieve accreditation.

And that spent, that time spent was a number of years we spent trying to pursue accreditation. And I think that was a huge key for us to really for us to continue to, for us to take off and be successful in the future.


Matt Zaun 

So it almost reminds me of a marathon, right? it's like, it's not clear. really a sprint where it's very quickly over.

It is a very lengthy marathon from getting something up and running, assembling the right team. You mentioned accreditation. And it's interesting because people that have an act for running, they might enjoy exercise running and then they get involved in a marathon.

They realize they could be pretty grueling after they get through a certain mile marker. So it's almost the same scenario where you have a passion for higher education, you've seen what it has done in you and your family and the community.

So you really want to spearhead that, help that, drive that into your community. then things can get tough, right?

can only imagine taking an organization the way you did and expanding it out to that level. There must have been some pretty challenging times.

So when those challenging times came up, how did you stay grounded? How did you stay almost in a peaceful state?

some things might have been really challenging at that moment.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

Yeah, I mean, I would say if I was looking at the end goal all the time, it would have been made me very exhausted, right?

So our accreditation was the first step and that was our goal. We knew that was going to take a several years for us to achieve it.

I think I was more focused in the beginning on the steps needed to be achieved to ensure that we reach accreditation.

And some of the biggest challenges I would say was finding people really should believe in our shared mission. And what we want to do at West Click University, this is what I was telling people when we first brought them on board, is we believe that there was a place in higher education where a quality US education should be affordable and accessible to students all over the Most students all over the world, especially from development countries.

so the challenge I think we face. in the beginning was finding the talent in the people around me that would help us drive towards that vision and work cohesively together.


Matt Zaun 

So, well, you're saying that. So this is so important. don't want people to miss it. So you'd mentioned, you know, if you would have focused on the end goal, the entire time would have been exhausting.

That is such a powerful point that you mentioned, because I feel like people do this all the time. In fact, a lot of people are trained to do this, focus on the end in mind, visualize your goals, focus, focus.

And it's amazing because if it's this massive, massive goal, it can be flustering. It can be frustrating. In fact, I know you're a basketball fan.

So I immediately thought of Michael Jordan. And I remember an interview that Michael Jordan had. This was decades ago, but it was fascinating to me, where as everyone listening to this episode can recognize, Jordan played under intense pressure.

And one day he was asked in an interview, how in the world are you? to stay so grounded under such intensive pressure.

And he said, you know, I don't focus on the negative potential outcome. I focus on the task at hand.

Meaning he wasn't focused on the tens of thousands of people staring at him. He wasn't focused on negative news reports the following day.

If he missed the basket, he wasn't focused on any of that. He only focused on the task at hand, which was doing what he had done since he was a child, which is take a ball and put it into a basket.

And it really speaks volumes to your leadership about focus, focusing on the task at hand and not focusing on all the way down the road because it can cause a tremendous amount of frustration when it comes to that end goal.

So can you speak to just the sheer amount of focus from a day to day perspective that you endured and you focused on?


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

Absolutely, that's a great story. I would say when you have a goal in mind, right? I like to analyze all the potential outcomes.

I'm a very collaborative leader. like to get input from all stakeholders. And I'll analyze it very extensively. But once you make the decision to say, this is the direction you wanna go, you have to just move forward, trust that you made the right judgment and go go for it.

So when I was working with my team, we're going through accreditation. mean, we weren't looking at the environment to say, this is probably not the best time for school to get accredited.

was a lot of things happening in the right place where environment, especially for small private universities. But we focus on the task at hand, which is, okay, let's meet the requirements.

How do we meet the requirements? What do we need to do to meet the requirements? What do we need to do to make sure we have the quality standards in place that accreditation will look at us and say, okay, this is a quality school, they meet our requirements, and we're gonna view them very positively.

So I think... Breaking that out into different chunks is important It's interesting what you the story you just mentioned was interesting me.

I want to share a story with you That's kind of an inspiration for me. Okay, so Phil Jackson. know who Jackson was a coach of the Michael Jordan in the pools he's also a champion coach for the Lakers and I remember one of the philosophies he had was an 82 game NBA season as far to focus on the entire all 82 games He breaks it out into four game chunks, so he says okay these next four games We're gonna try to win three of them.

They win three of them That's 75% win percent is that's fantastic and he broke it down into fourth and chunks of four So I take that same approach It's a long journey We have to have many milestones and at the end of day if you have many milestones that you are achieving there are steps in the process You need to make sure you celebrate those keep your Team motivated and then you move on to the next one and say hey, okay.

What's next? What you gonna? deep back. As you start getting more and more of those wins under your belt, it makes it a lot easier to continue to move forward and continue working hard.


Matt Zaun 

So I like that you focus on stages, right? Focusing on that stage and then going to the next stage.

So let's talk about that. So because just saying, taking something from virtually nothing to 6,000 students, it sounds unbelievable.

But clearly there's stages. So I'm guessing correct me if I'm but the first stage would be almost from nothing to what 100 or 500 students will be the first stage that would be designated within that.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

For me, the difference was when we got to 100 students.


Matt Zaun 

To 100. So that was like the big let's go celebrate. 100 was a big, big deal for you back in the day.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

It was because, I mean, we were not profitable. were losing money. During that time, it was super hard to try to have students, especially not an accredited school yet.

So that was a big moment for us to get to 100 students, and for us to know, hey, we have something here that students believe in.

But yeah, it was certainly a big phase for us.


Matt Zaun 

So take me through that, because you're losing money. Obviously, that's not a good place to be. And sometimes I think our subconscious mind kicks in more than we want to realize, right?

So our subconscious mind is based on our experiences or upbringing, different things that have happened. It keeps us going in a certain way.

clearly, whether it was conscious or subconscious, you had such a passion for what you were doing to help students help the community, that even though you were losing money, over fist back when this was happening, you still were going.

You still were focusing on. the next stage so is there something in your background that that primed you for grit prime you for perseverance or something that you could point back to or maybe maybe it's a few things that you can point to and say this is what made me me that even though things were extremely grueling that you you were focused on getting through that is there anything in particular you can point to.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

Well I mean my my father absolutely I mean he was an immigrant he came over to the US he was actually very successful in Vietnam already because of the war he had to come to the US with almost nothing with two little kids and pretty much start over right so the grit that he had the perseverance that he had to continue to move forward and he's a very successful educator business person entrepreneur right now with multiple businesses all over the world.

He's an inspiration and he's always instilled in me like we can accomplish anything if you put hard work into it and he's all about putting in the

Yeah, absolutely. mean, I was been playing basketball since I was in kindergarten and I've been, you know, I'm very competitive.

And when I played, I was never the biggest or even the fastest on the team. So I had to work really hard.

Even throughout, you know, when I was in junior high, the team that I played on were always the smallest, but we always did pretty well.

When I went to high school, I was playing on the basketball team. Not the biggest or fastest again, but that just means I had to work extremely hard to really do well and get playing time, right?

And I, you know, I think that that really taught me a lot. Athletics taught me a lot about life and about so many different aspects.


Matt Zaun 

So that's really interesting to me because lot of people that I talk to in higher education, they're so focused on those book smarts.

They're so focused on extracurricular activity, but from like a mind perspective that it's very rare that I talk to someone in your position that is very passionate about athletics.

So is there, is there something that you feel separates you from others when it comes to you connecting with both worlds, not only the academics, but also the athletics as well.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

I mean, I feel like that's always been my passion and in athletics is Tommy so much about life skills, but you know, teamwork, hard work, you know, having good work ethic, being committed and dedicated to a team.

And I think as a leader today, it's helped me a lot because a lot of the times I was really trying to be, you know, I was one of the team captains, trying to galvanize everybody together to make sure we're going in the same direction and those that are doing not doing so well, I was all about trying to encourage support and provide them with some positive encouragement and then keep going.

And you know, in sports, it's not always going to go your way, right? So you have to have a positive mindset to continue to move forward.

I believe that athletics has prepared me a lot, not just to be a better person, but a better leader for the university.

And that's why I feel strongly that having that type of experience really makes you become exposed to so many different experiences and situations and interpersonal relationships that are just so valuable that you wouldn't get elsewhere, right?

And at the same time, I do believe that it also provides a community of support. It's your own social network, right?

And now you have peers that you're going through the same thing with and you build this really deep relationship with them, right?

I still talk to some of my teammates from my high school basketball team, right? Wow. went a lot together, right?

So it really brings people together and at the same time, I would say when I was in high school, there was a huge kind of support network for me to look forward to going to school every day.

If I'm just studying all the time, I'm not, you know, was not going to look forward to just going to school to study, but if I'm going to to school to study, to learn and play basketball.


Matt Zaun 

made me happy, right? Sure. Sure. So let's dive into that a little bit more because it really makes me think of collaboration because you'd mentioned, you know, team.

effort. And I'm sure that this this has connected almost with your staff as well that there's a team dynamic.

And I've known you now for a few months. And one of the things that I learned is how humble you are, even though you have achieved extraordinary things, you still have an element of humility, you still ask for feedback, you still collaborate with others, you still ask for others opinions and bring consensus together.

So I want to talk about that because there are people that reach your level of success in life and they're not humble.

They're extremely arrogant. They think that they know everything and that's not the case with you. Like you have you have a presence where you're willing to have wisdom or receive wisdom from others.

So is there is there anything in your upbringing or your past or maybe an experience that led you to be more humble?


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

I mean, I think it comes back to my upbringing and my culture and we're very tight-knit family and that's across not just my immediate family like my siblings my parents but across my cousins and and and uncles and everything.

We really have a dependent we actually depend on a lot with it. We actually depend a lot on each other many times for all these life events that are going on and celebrate each other.

I think that allows me to connect with other people very well. I think my dad has always been the most wise person I know and he's always taught me so many things over the years but I also think that growing up I was the youngest of four and you know my older brother Moses or they're always trying to teach me and and help me and support me along the way.

I think that made me just feel like hey I don't you know I have a I've had a lot of support throughout years and I have a lot of people that have helped me.

And just because I get to a certain level of success, I still don't know everything, right? And I think there's a lot of leaders out there that have a board of trustees, board of directors, they have a chief of staff, whoever they might be.

But they're getting guidance and support and input from a lot of people. No one's doing it on the road.


Matt Zaun

Yeah, it still speaks volumes to your leadership though because, I mean, you, you are very far away from your upbringing.

Right, mean, I think you mentioned to me recently, it's what up, is it a 15 hour flight? I mean, it's not, it's not down the street.

So I think it would be easy for you to kind of forget about a past life, forget about different elements of your upbringing and to almost sit in a high tower, so to speak.

But you don't do that. I think that you have captured different stories from your past so well that it's led to a tremendous amount of empathy.

see that you can act well with others because of that. And I think it really speaks volumes to your leadership.

There's a lot of people that they almost like block certain things out in their mind and it's to their detriment because they lose sight of where they came from and what they're about.

And you have not done that. You have in a positive way held on to elements of your past to help you grow in the future.

And I think that speaks a lot to your character and to what you've done within your organization. So that is incredible.

So let's switch gears to the innovative perspective.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

Innovation. Can I add something?


Matt Zaun

Yeah, absolutely.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

Absolutely. So there's two things I want to add if you don't mind.


Matt Zaun 

Sure. You're banging your desk. So it's rattling your your camera a little bit.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

Okay. There's I think things I want to mention and I think it be relevant. So one is what you just mentioned right now resonates a lot.

And I think it has a lot to do with my upbringing and really the friends that I have throughout school and high school and beyond.

I was fortunate. know, my dad came here with nothing but he quickly found success in starting different businesses. So growing up, I was always one of the kids that was more well off than others.

And I had many friends that were just not, unfortunately for them, they didn't have the same resources that I had.

And I think that really gave me a lot of humility because to me I had a lot more resources than them, a lot more support than them.

That just made me feel like I, know, if anything hard or tough, but my way, I always felt like, you know, I

I shouldn't be complaining, right? I have a much easier than my friend here or my cousin here. And some of them are my inspiration.

They grew up in broken homes. Unfortunately, they'll no farther their own. Single parent homes, lower socioeconomic status. many of them now are very successful in what they do.

So I think that's a part of it. I would say the other part of that that helps me become humble is, again, it goes back to my father and my mother as well.

Well, my father was the oldest son in his family. My mom is the oldest of eight siblings in her family.

They've always had the mentality to take care of everybody, always. Take care of their siblings, take care of their nieces, their nephews, which are my cousins.

And my dad is the same way. I think that provides me with a mentality of not just being humble, but like, hey, there's other people out there that we need to take care of, need to help.

And that's kind of my approach when it comes to my team. and leadership team, my staff, my advisors, like, hey, let's support them.

Let's try to help them progress and bring them up as much as we can. So yeah, so I wanted to kind of mention that.


Matt Zaun 

Wow, that is powerful. You know, it almost speaks to, instead of taking things for granted, you have focused on being grateful.

It sounds somewhat cliche, but it's amazing how many people don't do that. We take everything around us for granted, and then we wonder why we're burned out, or frustrated, where you've leveraged your gratefulness for inspiration.

You see others around you, and you say, hey, even though I have this, I need to be grateful for this, and I need to be a good sort of what I have so that I can grow it.

And I think that that is incredible, absolutely incredible. So speaking of growth, a big part of growth is innovation.

And I know that you're no different when it comes to that, because you have been an incredible innovator when it comes to what you've done in the education world.

So can you take us through? We'll backtrack. like a little bit so you, you know, you take the school from nothing to to a hundred students, you get the accreditation and then you're pushing forward, you are bringing hundreds or more students in, and then you need to focus on innovation to really supercharge that.

So what are some things that you've done when it comes to innovation?


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

So I think that's a, you know, it's a powerful word. I think there's been ways where I try to be innovative, which is, number one, our primary focus in the beginning was on international students or student population that we focus on was international students.

And because that was part of our mission, we understood that not only did it need be quality, but also be affordable.

So we invested resources strictly into the curriculum and the academics to ensure we build a high quality program. I think that part of the innovation for us is how do we approach and support international students.

So we created a very flexible program for international students to come here and do internships and get practical experience because that's what they're looking for because ultimately our goal was to get students jobs.

We want to make sure that students are successful after graduation. So during their academic journey at Westa we are focused a lot on trying to secure internships for them.

So we created curriculum that's flexible that allows students time to have internships and still focus on their studies. At the same time we also focused on ensuring that what they're learning in the classroom can be applied in the real world.

We have an approach at Westa that we created. It's called Capri. It's contextual, applied, practical. We have an approach to teaching

and learning at West Coast University. And it's called CAPRIC. called its contextual, applied, practical, relevant, and inclusive. All of those elements is the lens that we look through it and we add any program.

And that has allowed us to be successful in the type of programs we offer to international students and to ensure that they're successful inside a classroom and outside the classroom.

And then I also think part of our success is how we work with some of our I think also how we've been innovative is how we work with our educational consultants.

We have a lot of partners all over the world who are the ones on the ground working with prospective students trying to help guide them in what kind of education they're going to receive internationally, whether that's in Canada, UK, or the US.

And we've been able to work closely with them to be able to help support them. and show them what makes West Clif University different in the US.

And I think those type of relationships that we've created with them has been a large part in our success.

Another part I would say that we're innovative is I went to business school at UCLA and one of the best experiences I had was my CalPstone project and I fortunately was able to work with ESPN for my CalPstone project.

It was a fantastic experience but that was a group project I had with other people in my class and we were looking at ESPN's mobile strategy this was in 2007.

So it was great and the experience I had was fantastic because I had I was able to work directly with a potential employer, employees out there to understand that those dynamics, their expectations, how to work together, how to work together as a team, how to take it.

at a step further at Westfield University. So I've implemented something similar to that at Westfield, which many business schools around the nation do, which is have a capsule project for their MBA students.

What we've also done is starting to have more of those real life assignments working directly with employers throughout the program.

So in a marketing class, they'll work with a potential employer at a particular marketing plant. We will do that across the curriculum so they get that kind of applied learning throughout.

And I think that makes a difference for us. And the next step for us is going to be doing that at the doctorate level as well with the dissertation, with students going through their dissertation.

And that's going to be a higher level research and analysis of recommendations that we can have for our company partners as well.


Matt Zaun 

So here's what I love about what you said, is that there are a lot of organizations that will talk about their core values.

And it's almost like... get checklist. They just talk about them where you actually live them. And I know one of your core values is being a great global citizen.

And I mean, talk about being a great global citizen. You've done just that. You've lived out your value. And I really appreciate that that you take something, you not only say it, but you also do it.

It really speaks to your leadership for sure. So Dr. Lee, thank you so much for your time. I very much appreciate our conversation today.

I got a lot out of it. There's three things in particular that I'm going to have as takeaways from our conversation.

The first thing that you said that really stuck with me is you mentioned that the end goal, you weren't thinking about the end goal all the time, because it would have been exhausting.

You took it in stages, you focused on the task at hand, not the negative potential outcome. I think that that is very, very masterful when it comes to achieving goals.

I also appreciate you mentioned just remembering the different elements of your past. You've done a great job of really solidifying moments in your life and your upbringing where you've positively focused on those stories and it's led to a great, a great element of empathy in you on your ability to connect with others.

And I really appreciate that. And then the third and final piece that is a big takeaway for me is your ability to focus on gratefulness and not taking things for granted.

I think that's really powerful. think often in life, we can take so many things for granted, but we're not focused on on that gratefulness.

And you've utilized that gratefulness for inspiration. So those are my three takeaways. I know a lot of people listening might have got another takeaways.

Those were my three. If someone wants to contact you, they want to get more information on West Cliff.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

We're the best place that they can go to get that information. They definitely can go to my LinkedIn and also they can go to our university website which is westcliff.edu.


Matt Zaun

Perfect. I will include that in the show notes. People could just click and go from there.


Anthony Lee (Westcliff University)

But again, thank you so much for your time today. very much appreciate it. Thanks Matt. had lot of fun.

Appreciate it.


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