LIFE CAN BE COMPLICATED, so Rick Caruso ’80 relies on three simple priorities to keep him focused: faith, family and friends.
USC is a big part of all three.
The successful CEO and civic leader has been a stalwart Trojan since his days as an undergrad at the USC Marshall School of Business. Caruso’s father attended USC, and Caruso passed on the tradition to his own four children.
His devotion to his alma mater has deepened even further in recent years. In May 2018, he was elected chair of the USC Board of Trustees, the governing group of the university. It immediately required the real estate developer’s trademark boundless energy. As he was launching a curated retail and restaurant town center in Pacific Palisades — and a luxurious 5-star beach resort nearly 100 miles away in Montecito — he found himself working on USC matters at the University Park Campus for 20 to 30 hours a week.
All while making time for his family.
Although he didn’t seek out the position of board chair, he was asked to take on the mantle at a critical time in USC’s history, leading the search for a new president and advocating for cultural change after recent high-profile issues at the university.
Why accept the position at such a challenging moment? Caruso credits his lifelong connections to the Trojan Family.
“There really is a family feeling at ’SC,” he says. “The loyalty to the school, the loyalty to your fellow students, the sense of family — that’s a very powerful thing. It reinforced the way I was raised.”
Rick Caruso’s USC Ties
Caruso grew up in Los Angeles in a USC household. His late father, Hank, was a USC student but joined the U.S. Navy during World War II before he could graduate. Still, he raised his three children as loyal Trojans. When it came time for college, Caruso saw only cardinal and gold.
He dove into USC campus life and forged lifelong connections with brothers in his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. He knew he wanted to pursue a career in business, and the courses he took at USC Marshall shaped his path.
“I learned a lot of discipline from a business standpoint,” he says. “It helped form the person I am today, both as a father and a business person.”
Caruso began honing many of his skills and talents at school, as well. He gained experience in leadership and decision-making as president of organizations such as the Order of Omega, a Greek honors society, and the Trojan Squires, a sophomore version of the Trojan Knights. As president of his fraternity, he worked with parents and administrators, monitored campus rules and strived to keep his brothers inspired.
“You have to give a reason for people to follow you, trust you and believe in you,” he says. “You also learn to collaborate. You realize you can’t do it all on your own. You need a support system. You need people you can rely on. You need trusted advisors.”
That philosophy is at the heart of his approach to leading the USC Board of Trustees. He aims to encourage robust debate among the 57-member body but also must ensure the group reaches timely decisions. “We have a lot of people who are relying on us. As a group, the trustees are passionate about USC and tremendously dedicated, and they are working hard,” he says. “I need to work just as hard. Together, we can and will make some really meaningful changes at USC.”
A Man of Faith
A devout Catholic, Caruso also heads the advisory board of the USC Caruso Catholic Center. It was named in honor of a major lead gift in 2006 from the Caruso family that helped build a place for the USC community to worship and socialize as well as a sanctuary where all faiths can come together.
Parish pastor Rev. Richard Sunwoo sees Caruso’s influence firsthand during the center’s board meetings. “Everyone sits two inches taller when he speaks,” he says. The two first met in 2014 when Sunwoo ministered at the Caruso family’s parish, St. Monica Catholic Church. Caruso’s warm and easygoing nature quickly put Sunwoo at ease. And although Caruso often has to make tough decisions, Sunwoo calls his problem-solving “thoughtful and careful,” noting that he listens openly to many opinions.
Caruso emphasizes this approach to decision-making when talking about his role as board chair. He acknowledges the sense of disconnection between top administrators and the USC community in recent years, asserting his desire to reestablish bonds and eliminate the board’s reputation among some as insular and distant. “To do our job well, we need to be visible, we need to be available and we need to be approachable,” he says. “I want students in particular to hold us accountable.”
Caruso says that the process of listening carries with it a responsibility to engage in difficult conversations and a willingness to effect changes that may be unpopular with some, but are in the best interest of the USC community as a whole. He has placed a premium on transparency, holding public listening sessions with students, faculty members, employees, alumni and others to guide the selection of USC’s next president — which he views as the board’s most important task.
In his view, one of the key responsibilities of the university’s next leader will be to enhance the sense of community at USC. “At its best, USC has a very distinct and wonderful and positive culture that is based on positive shared values,” he says. “The next president of USC is going to be respectful of this tradition and culture and grow the university in a way that only reinforces that spirit.”
A Mission to Succeed
Caruso’s interest in community makes sense, given his background: He grew up in a family that emphasized warmth, fellowship and support.
“Being surrounded by people you love and enjoy being with — there’s a positive energy that comes out of that,” he says. “It’s really my fuel.”
His elders also stressed hard work and sacrifice. Both his grandfathers held blue-collar jobs while his grandmothers took care of their respective households. Even now, Caruso wraps a simple brown rubber band around his money clip every day — just like his paternal grandfather, August Caruso, an Italian immigrant who toiled as a coal miner and landscaper.
Caruso sees the rubber band as a reminder to stay humble. “You always stand on the shoulders of those who came before you. You have to be grateful. And you have to honor and thank them.”
He is especially thankful that his family instilled the importance of schooling throughout his childhood, ensuring that he became the first member of the Caruso clan to earn a college degree.
“They knew that education led to opportunities, and so more than anything, they made sure we all had a great education,” he said during a ceremony in 2017 recognizing him with the Asa V. Call Alumni Achievement Award, USC’s highest alumni honor. “And thank God, because of that I came to USC.”
Being born into a warm and hard-working family is one of two major factors Caruso credits for his success in life. The second is his wife, Tina, and their four children: Alex, Gregory, Justin and Gianna. He relies heavily on them for advice and support — even consulting with Gianna, now a freshman at USC, to make sure she was comfortable with him becoming USC’s board chair.
With her blessing, Caruso set about tackling what he views as one of his most important leadership assignments. Now almost a year into the role, he is brimming with optimism. “Members of the USC community should have confidence that the university is moving into a bright and promising future,” he says.
“There is a spirit to USC that is alive and well, and I want that to grow. It’s an exciting time to be part of USC. I hope they keep the faith and stay excited.”