AT&T executive Ralph de la Vega credits Northern Illinois University with helping prepare him for a career that has included guiding two of the largest mergers in telecommunications history.
De la Vega, the CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets, was the guest of honor Friday, May 6, at the college’s annual Alumni Luncheon at Harry Caray’s in Lombard, where he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Joining him among the honorees were Joshua Dean, owner and managing broker of Joshua Dean Real Estate and Element Commercial Group, who was recognized as the Outstanding Young Alumnus, and Cary Chessick, president and CEO of Restaurant.com, who was named an Honorary Alumnus of the college.
Ralph de la Vega, Distinguished Alumnus
When Denise Schoenbachler, dean of the NIU College of Business, finds herself talking with a student at a crossroads, she tells them about Ralph de la Vega.
“Whenever I have students with great leadership potential who are struggling with an obstacle, I tell them Ralph’s story,” Schoenbachler said. “I tell them he’s an NIU guy — just like you.”
That story begins in Cuba, long before de la Vega came to NIU. The day his family prepared to board a plane for the United States, a militiaman at the airport decided that only Ralph’s paperwork was in order. Expecting a delay of a few days, his parents sent him ahead. They did not see him again for four years.
Later, his life almost took another wrong turn when he nearly took the advice of a high school counselor who suggested that he settle for a career as a mechanic rather than pursue his dream of becoming an engineer – before his grandmother set him back on the right track, that is.
He overcame those obstacles to become a young executive for Bell South. When he was transferred to Chicago to help run a training center he decided to enroll in NIU’s Executive MBA program. It was a pivotal decision.
“Up until my time at NIU, I was just an engineer,” said de la Vega, who earned his MBA in 1989. The lessons he learned in the NIU program, he said, helped guide him in subsequent years as he led AT&T’s South Florida division through the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew; oversaw operations in Latin America during times of revolution and economic upheaval; and guided the company’s $41 billion merger with Cingular Wireless.
“That was probably one of the most successful mergers in history,” he recalled. “And it was all built upon the things they teach you in business school: have a good plan, execute it well and make sure you have your financials right.”
He put those same principles to work recently, negotiating a $39 billion merger between AT&T Wireless and Consumer Markets. That deal is still pending approval.
“NIU was quite a turning point for me, and for my family. I am going to be forever grateful to NIU and the College of Business,” de la Vega said. “Thank you for preparing this former student for success well beyond anything I ever dreamed of.”
Joshua Dean, Outstanding Young Alumnus
“Joshua is a very focused and positive young man. He really exemplifies the entrepreneurial spirit. We hope to instill that spirit into all of our students, and Joshua is the perfect role model,” Schoenbachler said.
Since graduating with honors in 2002, Dean has been on the fast track to success. He received his real estate license in 2003, and one year later launched Habitat Hunter, an online tool to better connect real estate practitioners with local customers.
In 2007, he opened Joshua Dean Real Estate and is currently in the process of launching Uberloop, a go-to social network for local business news, discounts, deals and more. His efforts caught the eye of the Daily Herald, which named him one of the To 10 Entrepreneurs Under 30.
Dean, of Naperville, has remained a very active supporter of the NIU College of Business, frequently speaking to classes and acting as a mentor to students.
“I attribute my success to a number of events and circumstances, most prominently my education at NIU, and in particular in the NIU College of Business,” Dean said. “I am incredibly honored to be recognized for my professional accomplishments and my continued support of NIU students, but I am even more honored to have been given the opportunity to walk through the doors of the NIU College of Business and be inspired by all that was offered to me.”
Cary Chessick, Honorary Alumnus
Schoenbachler still remembers that day.
“After I met Cary I just knew that we had to find a way to get him involved in the College of Business, he was so brilliant,” Schoenbachler said.
Getting him connected with the school did not take long.
Almost immediately, Chessick signed on as one of the first members of the advisory board that helps guide the college’s interactive marketing program, and soon he and other Restaurant.com employees found themselves frequently working with NIU students. Just last year, he created a sponsored professorship to support the interactive marketing program. He also frequently comes to Barsema Hall to speak to classes.
“The opportunity to talk to students gives me a charge,” Chessick said. “It’s an interactive session. They are giving me a gift in their questions, their attention and their time. I am supposed to be teaching them but they are also teaching me.”