Overcoming obstacles, recognizing opportunity and experiencing the likelihood of being perhaps the first person outside of Apple to see a new invention called the iPhone.
Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility, talked about all of the above Tuesday at Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business as the keynote speaker for the Davis Leadership Series. AT&T Mobility is AT&T’s wireless services provider.
“Obstacles are the best things that can happen to us. When you take an obstacle head-on and conquer it, it makes you a better person and a better leader,” said de la Vega.
He recalled one he faced at 10 years old when his parents decided to leave their homeland of Cuba after Fidel Castro took it over.
De la Vega said the revolution that led to communism created an erosion of freedom. That prompted his parents’ decision to give up all they owned and leave for America, which de la Vega said represented “a beacon of freedom and opportunity.”
De la Vega said his parents thought making the decision to give up their home for a new life in another country would be their most difficult decision, but that changed when the family arrived at the airport in Cuba.
“Five words changed our lives: only the boy can go,” said de la Vega.
His father called friends in America who could offer his son a home until the rest of the family could leave Cuba.
It would be four years before de la Vega saw his parents again. In the meantime, he learned a new language and a new culture.
The experience also formed the mindset that would take him from being an immigrant to becoming the president and CEO of AT&T Mobility.
“Something inside me said it doesn’t matter what situation you’re in. You can’t let the situation dictate who you are and what you’ll be,” he said.
In 2007, de la Vega was named president and CEO of AT&T Mobility.
A year later, he served as president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets, where he led the conversion of 800 bilingual retail stores to better serve the growing Hispanic market.
When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs contacted AT&T to discuss its new iPhone, de la Vega went to California to see the product. He signed a nondisclosure agreement before being shown the revolutionary touch-screen device.
“The first question everyone asked when I got back to Atlanta was, ‘what does it look like?’ All I could say was, ‘I can’t tell you. But you’re going to like it,’” he said.
De la Vega sold the idea of becoming the iPhone’s wireless carrier to AT&T’s board of directors without showing them the device.
“That took a lot of trust, but we changed the way people communicate,” he said.
In the past four years, smartphone network capacity has grown 20,000 percent and there currently are more smartphones sold each year than personal computers, de la Vega said.
He said one of the greatest growth trends on a global scale is how women are driving the economy.
De la Vega said women control two-thirds of annual consumer spending and they own 35 percent of startup companies.
Women from 22-30 years old are earning, on average, 8 percent more than their male counterparts, he said.
Almost twice as many young women than young men are purchasing homes, he said.
Looking ahead at wireless communications, de la Vega said clothing with embedded chips will be the next trend.
He said athletes at the NFL Scouting Combine are outfitted with the devices to measure and transmit their heart rate and other vital signs during workouts.
The technology also is used by police officers, firefighters and military personnel.
On the consumer side of the market, de la Vega said he believes wearable wireless devices will enter the home soon.
“I think parents would love it for babies. I think they would buy that,” he said.
“Business is limited only by imagination.”