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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series profiling winners of the 2011 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention this month in New Orleans.
“‘Only the boy can go.’ Those stark words, from the mouth of the Cuban official that day at the Havana Airport, changed my life forever.”
So begins Obstacles Welcome: How to Turn Adversity into Advantage in Business and in Life, an autobiographical saga charting Ralph de la Vega’s journey from a 10-year-old, non-English-speaking refugee, to president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets.
De la Vega boarded the plane for Miami alone as a boy and spent the next few years living with family friends.
“Arriving in this country without family, without knowing the language, I was in a difficult spot,” de la Vega says. “I almost settled for something less than I could achieve by taking the advice of my high school counselor, who recommended that I become a mechanic, even though I dreamed of becoming an engineer.”
He was taking courses in aviation mechanics when his grandmother, a schoolteacher in Cuba, arrived in Miami to change his life.
“She said, ‘Don’t let anybody put limitations on what you can be. If your dream is to be an engineer, you can be an engineer,’” de la Vega says.
A starting point
Encouraged by his grandmother, de la Vega enrolled in Miami Dade Junior College in Florida (now Miami Dade College).
“I had average grades and was just trying to learn the language,” he says. “Miami Dade gave me the opportunity to start my pre-engineering curriculum at a two-year school I could afford. And as a result of the courses I was taking, I got a job as a draftsman and made decent enough wages to support myself and pay the tuition.”
De la Vega went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Florida Atlantic University, and was hired right out of school by Southern Bell, which placed him in its Initial Management Development Program (IMDP).
“IMDP was designed to develop high-potential college hires, proving my grandmother was right when she insisted that I continue on to college,” writes de la Vega.
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From then on, de la Vega enjoyed a steady rise in the telecom field, first developing the curriculum for the Bellcore Technical Education System, then as vice president consumer services for BellSouth overseeing operations throughout Florida, and as a BellSouth vice president handling network operations in the South.
At the same time, he earned a master’s degree in business administration from Northern Illinois University and completed the Darden Executive Program at the University of Virginia.
As president of BellSouth Broadband Internet Services, he oversaw the introduction of broadband services throughout the southeastern U.S., and while serving as president of BellSouth Latin America, he supervised company operations in 10 Central and South American countries. In 2004, as CEO of Cingular Wireless, de la Vega shepherded Cingular’s acquisition of AT&T Wireless, and in 2007 he assumed his current position at AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets.
Among his many honors, de la Vega was named 2004 Atlanta Telecommunications Association Professional of the Year, and in 2005 was designated Executive of the Year by the Atlanta Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He is listed on Laptop magazine’s 2009 “25 Most Influential People in Mobile Technologies." In 2010 he served as chairman of CTIA-The Wireless Association, the international wireless communications trade association.
De la Vega and his wife, Maria, a high school classmate, live in the Atlanta, where most away-from-the-office activities involve working with disadvantaged minority youth, particularly Hispanics. As chairman of the Junior Achievement Worldwide Hispanic Initiative, he oversees a program that helps Hispanics stay in school and prepare for the business world by bringing professionals to recount their experiences in the classroom where, by de la Vega’s estimate, they have reached over 3,000 students.
"Education dramatically changed my life—that’s why I’m so passionate about getting young people to get a good education,” says de la Vega, who also chairs the Boy Scouts of America Hispanic Initiatives.
De la Vega emphasizes the vital role of community colleges in providing that education.
“Community colleges are for many young people their first entry into higher education, a kind of stair-step approach that allows them to see that they can achieve their dreams and realize that a great education is not out of reach,” he says.
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