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Drawing on Adversity

Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, drew on his early adversity to become a leader and a mentor.

En español | For Ralph de la Vega, hope is not a strategy. In business or in life.

As a boy, waiting to board a plane in Havana, he learned his parents' and younger sister's visas weren't approved. So the 10-year-old left his native Cuba alone and arrived in Miami. The idea was for him to live with family friends until his parents and sister arrived a few days later. The days turned into years.

"I thought that God was punishing me. I thought I had been bad," says de la Vega, now 58 and president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets. "I blamed myself; [asking], why don't my parents want to come and live with me?" Even now, he sounds pained as he retells the story by phone from his Atlanta office.

By the time his parents were finally allowed to travel, de la Vega had undergone a profound change. "At some point I decided that I was better than the circumstances and that I needed to face the obstacles and work with what I had," he says.

It's a message he repeats often to his staff, to new recruits, and to the hundreds of students he has inspired and mentored throughout his career. Last year, he took that message a step further with the publication of Obstacles Welcome: Turn Adversity to Advantage in Business and Life, an easy-to-read manual on how to apply life lessons to business and use business decisions to inform life.

He harks back to his childhood in Miami, where he lived with Ada and Arnaldo Baez, who took care of him until his family arrived. From the young couple, de la Vega says, he learned the value of hard work and of beginning anew. Both Arnaldo and Ada worked in factories while establishing a kitchen cabinet business in their garage. He recalls being impressed that even Ada wielded carpenter's tools to make the cabinets—not typically women's work in his home country. The business prospered and eventually the Baez family had its own factory.

"What I know we gave him was a lot of love," says Ada Baez, now 75, from her home in Atlanta, near de la Vega's. "But he was already a very serious and focused boy. He was very studious and he could do several things at the same time—his homework, read the paper, and listen to the radio—and do them all well."

De la Vega hasn't forgotten those years and, he says, he wrote the book to give back. "I felt an obligation to share the message," he says. "A lot of people helped me when I was young. Nothing makes me feel better than helping others achieve extraordinary things. I'm passionate about that."

So much, in fact, that last year, de la Vega, who often works 12 hours a day and travels practically every week for work, spoke to about 300 students—from middle school to college—and taught a Boy Scouts class.

His focus is on disadvantaged or minority students, primarily Hispanics, who have a high dropout rate. He is the chairman of the Boy Scouts of America's Hispanic Initiative and chairman of Junior Achievement Worldwide, an organization that brings together business leaders, educators, and volunteers to help young people reach their potential.

Donna Buchanan, former president of Junior Achievement in Georgia, says she remembers how impressed she was when de la Vega joined its board of directors.

"He listens wonderfully," she says. "He asks questions so he learns more. A lot of people who have reached the stature and success of Ralph de la Vega are not good listeners or mentors, but he's both.  He always tries to help everyone to be the best person they can be."

De la Vega says he pays particular attention to young people with low self-esteem, young people who are often told not to dream big.

"It happened to me," he says, recalling a high school counselor who—despite the teen's obvious interest in engineering—advised him to become a mechanic. Instead, de la Vega graduated with an engineering degree from Florida Atlantic University. A succession of jobs in the telephone industry followed until de la Vega reached the top echelon of his field.

Along the way, de la Vega wed a high school classmate, the former Maria Martinez. Married for 34 years, they have two sons, David, 26, and Mark, 24. The family lives in a lakefront house in Atlanta, a perfect setting for two of de la Vega's passions: hunting and fishing. His other passion is all things Cuban, particularly the food, he says.

His ethnicity is an important part of who de la Vega is, says Jeff McElfresh, one of de la Vega's mentees. McElfresh, AT&T vice president of product development for emerging devices, has worked closely with de la Vega. "Many businessmen in his position are stressful to be around," he says. "Ralph is different. He's open and inviting and genuine. He's a regular guy with an inspirational story to tell."

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