By Maria Saporta
Friday, July 24, 2009
The defining moment in Ralph de la Vega’s life happened when he was 10 years old.
De la Vega and his family witnessed firsthand the Cuban revolution that led to the nationalization of his father’s business and an erosion of their personal freedoms.
They decided to leave Cuba for the U.S. But on the day they were supposed to leave — July 1, 1962 — they found out that there were problems with the paperwork, and only one person could leave Cuba — Ralph, then only 10 years old.
So he flew alone to Miami, where he stayed with a family he barely knew, Ada and Arnaldo Baez, until his parents and sister could leave Cuba and join him.
“We thought it would take a few days,” de la Vega said in a recent interview. “It took four years.”
As he explained, he arrived in Miami without his family, without knowing English and without a penny in his pocket. Somehow, de la Vega was able to overcome all those obstacles and become president and CEO of Atlanta-based AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets.
It is a story de la Vega is now sharing with the world in a book that will be published in September. The book — “Obstacles Welcome: Turn Adversity to Advantage in Business and Life” — is part autobiographical and part a business leadership book.
But the story doesn’t stop there.
As of July 1 (an important date in de la Vega’s life), he is chairman of Junior Achievement Worldwide — an organization that has become his outlet to share hope, life lessons and business skills with young people who may feel overwhelmed by the obstacles in their lives.
In true de la Vega-style, instead of keeping the royalties of his book, they are being donated to Junior Achievement Worldwide.
It’s a coming together of several pivotal elements in de la Vega’s life — an opportunity to outline his professional career from one obstacle to another, turning each one into success. And he traces his attitude back to the day he left his family, his home and his culture for the great unknown.
“Nothing has been tougher than those days,” de la Vega said. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is, you have got to make the best of it.”
De la Vega remembered when he was a mediocre high school student and told the counselor that he wanted to be an engineer or an architect. But the counselor told him he should take the vocational route, quit going to classes and train to become a mechanic.
That counselor just assumed de la Vega wasn’t college-bound.
“He had set a limitation on what I could do,” de la Vega said. “The person who broke me out of that mold was my grandmother.”
His “abuela” — Julia Diaz Gomez — had been a school teacher in Cuba. She told him to stay in school and to work toward his personal goals
Now de la Vega is spreading that same message through Junior Achievement. Despite his busy schedule, he takes time to teach JA classes in schools.
His message? “Dream big. Believe in yourself. The sky is the limit,” de la Vega said. “Many people get pigeon-holed. There are a lot of kids with low self-esteem.”
So he will outline the economics of staying in school, and urge students to not only overcome obstacles, but embrace them. “Inside every obstacle is an opportunity,” de la Vega said.
Incidentally, AT&T has made education its top civic cause, committing $100 million over four years.
In his 35-year career in the telecommunications business, de la Vega has been presented several obstacles — from being responsible for network operations for BellSouth in North Dade County, Fla., during Hurricane Andrew in 1992; to becoming president of BellSouth-Latin America in 2002 when he had to create a common vision for wireless operations in 11 different countries with 11 different approaches; to being chief operating officer for Cingular Wireless during its merger and integration of AT&T Wireless in 2004.
“It was the largest cash merger in the history of the United States,” de la Vega said. Despite predictions that the merged company would lose customers, it managed to add 1.7 million customers in its first quarter in business (the fourth quarter of 2004) and another 5 million the following year.
On the fast track
What makes that story more amazing is that de la Vega only had 19 days to integrate the two companies in order to position itself for 2004 holiday sales.
It’s that kind of track record that has led to de la Vega being named CEO of AT&T Mobility in 2007, and then given the additional responsibility for AT&T’s consumer markets, which includes overseeing AT&T’s 2,200 stores across the country.
AT&T has 24,000 employees in Georgia, and de la Vega is viewed by local economic development leaders as a key link to keep the company’s presence in Atlanta. (When AT&T acquired BellSouth Corp., a commitment was made to keep the wireless business in Atlanta for at least five years.)
“As long as we get treated well in Atlanta and get treated well in Georgia, there’s no reason to leave,” said de la Vega, who added that the nature of business is changing. “To me, the location of the headquarters is more virtual than it’s ever been.”
De la Vega then demonstrated the latest technology AT&T and Cisco Systems Inc. are offering to its corporate customers — TelePresence.
The experience is as close to real face-to-face communications as technologically possible, although people sitting around the table could be in several different cities. The people sitting across the table from you are lifesize, nearly three-dimensional, and facial expressions and body language are in full view.
Instead of having to board a plane on Monday mornings to go to AT&T’s headquarters in Dallas, he can go to a room at his Atlanta offices and conduct a meeting through TelePresence.
And it solidifies de la Vega’s relationship with Atlanta, a relationship that has spanned four decades.
“I have lived in Atlanta five different times — in the late ’70s, the ’80s, I came back in the ’90s, then in 2000 and then in 2007,” said de la Vega, who has moved 13 times in his career. “I love Atlanta. It has everything you want in a city, from education to business to culture.”