Finding Opportunity in Every Adversity
Story By: Diane Alter
Ralph de la Vega, Vice Chairman of AT&T Inc. and CEO of Business Solutions & International, has a rich and storied past, an unparalleled business presence, and a future that promises to be included in world history books. That makes knowing where to start when telling his truly amazing story difficult at best. Yet as is often the case, the best place to start is usually the beginning—and so we begin.
Born in Cuba, Mr. de la Vega immigrated to the United States in 1962 at the age of 10. His parents decided to leave Cuba after the revolution of 1953-1959 and flee the Fidel Castro dictatorship. But as his family attempted to board a plane to Miami, border officials maintained that only Ralph’s papers were in order. “The militia men said five words to me that would change my life forever,” Mr. de la Vega told Latino Leaders Magazine. “Only the boy can go. My father frantically started making phone calls and found a family in Miami that would take me in until my family could get to the U.S. He told me they would be there in a few days. It was four years until I saw my family again.”
Young Ralph found himself in a new country with a new language, not a penny in his pocket, and living with an unfamiliar family. His first thoughts of America were ones of curiosity and skepticism. “I was given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, along with a cold glass of milk. In Cuba, we drink warm milk often mixed with chocolate. Our traditional Cuban sandwiches are piled high with fillings and fixings. I thought, wow, I am in the greatest country in the world and they don’t even put meat in their sandwiches,” Mr. de la Vega shared with a reflective chuckle.
To be sure, those early years were piled high with difficulties. They also marked a pivotal point in Mr. de la Vega’s life. Ever since then, Mr. de la Vega has looked at things differently. Overcoming myriad obstacles, he knew that whatever else came his way would never be as trying. Mr. de la Vega also knew from then on that he would try to do his best at everything.
“As I left Cuba alone, my mother said ‘make me proud.’ I was determined to make sure that when my family finally arrived, they would be proud of me. From that moment, I have always set my bar high. What served me well then and continues to serve me well today, is to always do things the right way. When you do things with integrity and credibility, you get great results.”
Mr. de la Vega saw great results from and was inspired by the family who received him. Serial entrepreneurs, Mr. de la Vega watched as they built their own businesses and became a thriving success. They were living the “American Dream.” Despite early struggles, they were proof that the U.S. is truly the greatest country in the world.
That gave Mr. de la Vega the motivation needed to get through his early school years, which were a great struggle. Knowing little to no English, he had to rely on some rudimentary translation from classmates. But he quickly found his forte in math, where there is no language barrier.
“I excelled in math,” Mr. de la Vega said. “Math gave me the background I needed to know that I could be as good as anyone. That is what led me to want to become an engineer. But my grades and lack of finances prompted my guidance counselor to suggest I instead pursue a career as a mechanic, which I did until my spirited grandmother, a school teacher, stepped in. She told me to not let anyone put limitations on what I could achieve. After that conversation, I went to college.”
Actually, Mr. de la Vega went to several colleges, including Miami Dade College and Florida Atlantic University. He went on to receive an MBA from Northern Illinois University and then completed the Executive Program at the University of Virginia. He also received an honorary doctorate from Florida Atlantic.
Mr. de la Vega’s business resume is no less impressive.
He has held numerous executive positions, including COO of Cingular Wireless and president of BellSouth Latin America. As the COO of Cingular, Mr. de la Vega was responsible for the integration of AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless, following the largest all-cash merger in U.S. history at the time. As president of BellSouth Latin America, he was responsible for wireless operations in 11 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Uruguay.
He also held the position of President and CEO of AT&T Mobility. Under his leadership, AT&T Mobility became one of the world’s leading smartphone and mobile Internet providers and expanded into new growth areas, such as connected cars, home security and automation.
Mr. de la Vega serves on the boards of American Express Company, New York Life Insurance Company, and Morehouse College. He also serves as Chairman of All-Markets Initiatives for the Boy Scouts of America and is a member of the board of Junior Achievement Worldwide. He has received numerous awards recognizing his leadership, including induction into the Atlanta Business Hall of Fame and the prestigious Global Innovation Award from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University.
He is also the author of the best-selling book Obstacles Welcome: Turn Adversity to Advantage in Business and Life. And, he had the honor of carrying the Olympic torch for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
In his current position with AT&T, he is responsible for the company’s integrated Business Solutions group, which serves more than 3.5 million customers in nearly 200 countries and territories, including nearly all of the world’s Fortune 1000 companies. He also oversees AT&T’s wireless business operations in Mexico and DIRECTV in Latin America.
When he had the opportunity to work with Apple Inc. founder and visionary Steve Jobs, Mr. de la Vega got one of the first looks at the iPhone. He knew right away he was privy to something innovative that had the potential to change the world. That was when Mr. de la Vega realized that in order to stay relevant, businesses must always adjust and adapt. You must become a disrupter or risk being disrupted.
He sees disruption occurring at a quick clip in the communications space right now as the industry makes a hard shift from hardware to software.
“This industry continues to change how we work, communicate, interact, receive news, view movies and programming, and play,” he adds. “Applications on smartphones and mobile devices have eliminated the need for things like calculators, flashlights, alarm clocks, and maps. Software is changing everything. I am so optimistic and excited about our future as a company and what it means for the world. I think these could be the best of times.”
“Telecommunications is leading to game-changing advances in health care. It also means some six billion-plus people have access to the world. It is giving people who have never had a voice, a voice. Their input is now being heard, and it matters. We are entering an age where the data we have is changing everything.”
What is not changing for Mr. de la Vega is how he presents himself as a leader.
“The philosophy I follow in leading people is that business is a team sport,” Mr. de la Vega said. “You only get so far as an individual. But when you get a group of people to do something, you have really succeeded at becoming a leader. I also believe that the way to bring about change and to reach a higher goal is through sacrifice. When you have a talented team that is inspired and willing to sacrifice for the greater good, I believe that is when you have succeeded as a leader.”
Mr. de la Vega also is a big believer in workforce diversity. He knows it must start at the top, and it must be part of a company’s foundation.
“At AT&T, we embrace diversity, whether it is in age, gender, or thinking. Diversity must be an important part of any business. How can you serve a diverse market with a non-diverse workforce? It’s about making every head count, speaking to people in a voice they recognize, and offering products they understand,” Mr. de la Vega stressed.
We have come a long way when it comes to diversity in the workforce and we continue to make progress, Mr. de la Vega said. But we need to do more. It’s a journey still in its early stages.
Speaking of journeys, Mr. de la Vega knows it doesn’t matter where your journey begins, but where it ends – and all the steps you take along the way.
“I am a living example that the journey to achieving the American Dream is still alive and well,” he said.
Alive and well, indeed.