Alumna Eleni Kounalakis’ rise to lieutenant governor

Eleni Kounalakis, California’s 50th Lt. Governor, at her Jan. 7 inauguration at Tsakopoulos Library Galleria in Sacramento. Photo: Drew Altizer

The Haas alumni community can now count California’s first elected female lieutenant governor among its ranks, after Eleni Kounalakis, MBA 92, took the helm on Jan. 7.

Kounalakis became the state’s 50th lieutenant governor at a crowded ceremony attended by newly minted Governor Gavin Newsom, who swore her in, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Serving as master of ceremonies was former Michigan governor and UC Berkeley alumna Jennifer Granholm, BA 84 (political science).

“I’m thrilled that the first woman to be elected as lieutenant governor is a Berkeley MBA,” said Peter Johnson, assistant dean of the full-time MBA program and admissions, who met Kounalakis while he was living and working in Budapest and she was serving as former President Barack Obama’s U.S. ambassador to Hungary.

Johnson said he was always impressed by her leadership.

“Her ability to question the status quo, even in the traditional role of ambassador, made her stand out among the diplomats serving in Hungary,” he said. “I know she’ll bring that same savvy and enthusiasm to the office of lieutenant government.”

Eleni Kounalakis (middle) surrounded by Haas alumni and community (including former Dean Rich Lyons and Peter Johnson, assistant dean of full-time MBA program and admissions, at a 2011 event held at the Ambassador’s residence in Budapest in 2011.

Eleni Kounalakis (middle) surrounded by Haas alumni and community (including former Dean Rich Lyons and Peter Johnson, assistant dean of full-time MBA program and admissions) at a 2011 event held at the Ambassador’s residence in Budapest in 2011.

No greater investment than education

In her new role, Kounalakis will have a hand in guiding the future of UC Berkeley, as a member of the UC Board of Regents and the California State University Board of Trustees. During her inauguration speech, Kounalakis said she would focus on protecting California’s environment and fight for accessibility and affordability in public education.

“Civilized societies recognize that the path to wisdom is through education and that’s very personal to me,” she said.

She recounted her father’s journey to America from his village in Greece as a teen.

With no money or English skills, her father landed in Lodi, Ca., working as a field hand and attending Sacramento State for just $62 per semester, including the cost of books, she said.

“Think about that: $62 a semester. One job, no loans,” she said. “How else could he have gone from the fields to the classroom?” Her father, Angelo Tsakopoulos, worked his way up from the fields to become one of the state’s largest land developers and Democratic donors.

There is no greater investment in the future of our state than investing in education, she said. “As your lieutenant governor and in my role as UC regent and CSU trustee, I am committed to expanding access to public education here in our state. It is wise. It is smart. It’s the right thing to do. And it is most important now as we face the rapidly changing digital economy.”

“What it looks like for a woman to ‘lean in'”

Kounalakis was born and raised in Sacramento. After earning her undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College, she earned an MBA at Berkeley Haas. Dan Sullivan, senior director of academics at Haas, met Kounalakis during the program’s orientation in 1990.

“The Class of 1992 was full of strong personalities, but Eleni stood out immediately,” he said. “She was just delightful: bright, engaging, and super high energy. And she was always warm, kind, and thoughtful towards even the most junior members of the staff, as I was at that time.”

Kounalakis spent 18 years helping to build her father’s Northern California real estate company, AKT Development Corp. In 1992, she became a staff member of the California Democratic Party and she served four times as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and as an at-large member of the California State Democratic Central Committee.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, former US embassador to Hungary.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis was former US ambassador to Hungary under President Obama.

At AKT, where she served as president, she helped raised more than $1 million for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign before backing former President Barack Obama.

In 2010, her career shifted focus, as she was sworn in as former President Obama’s U.S. ambassador to Hungary. At 43, she was one of the youngest women to head a U.S. embassy at a time when Hungary was grappling with the rise of nationalism and antisemitism.

She recounts her family’s story and her experience as a diplomat in the 2015 book Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest. In a review, Janet Napolitano, UC President and former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, wrote “If you want to know what it looks like for a woman to ‘lean in,’ read Ambassador Kounalakis’s book. It is an inspiring example of a businesswoman-turned-diplomat taking every opportunity to effectively advance the interests, values, and security of our country.”

Ted Janus, BA 83, MBA 94, and principal at J Capital, who has known Kounalakis for 20 years and serves with her on the Haas School Board, said it’s no surprise to him that she won the election.

Both Kounalakis and her husband, journalist Markos Kounalakis, BS 78 (political science), a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, view themselves as public servants and elected office was “a natural extension of what Kounalakis has been doing all along,” he said.

“She’s incredibly hard working,” Janus said, noting the 58-county listening tour she embarked on during her campaign. “She’s an excellent communicator and she’s very capable at business, capable in politics, and a very capable ambassador. I think she’s a winner and she’s just getting started.”

You Might Also Like