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NIU College of Business opens the doors of innovation, launches De La Vega INNOVATION LAB

August 23, 2021

Donor-funded collaboration hub will foster creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship throughout the NIU community and beyond.

Lead donor Ralph de la Vega, MBA, ’89, delivers the keynote address at the grand opening.
De la Vega is the chairman at the De La Vega Group and serves on the boards of American Express, New York Life Insurance, Amdocs and Outreach. He is the former vice chairman of AT&T, responsible for all of AT&T’s global business operations and CEO of AT&T Mobility, COO of Cingular Wireless, and president of BellSouth Latin America. He is the author of Obstacles Welcome: How to Turn Adversity into Advantage in Business and Life.

To enter Barsema Hall is to enter a world where anything seems possible.

The high ceilings and busy common areas seem to vibrate with the energy and ideas of those who work and learn there.

That energy was at a fever pitch on August 18 when faculty, staff, students, alumni, and donors gathered in the College of Business to celebrate the grand opening of the De La Vega INNOVATION LAB.

Ideas for a Better World

The 3,000-square-foot space is a state-of-the-art hub for bringing interdisciplinary approaches to real-world problems. All NIU stakeholders will have the opportunity to use the lab to identify emerging needs and create new products and services.

Users will have access to 3D printers, rolling white boards, and conferencing technologies. Moveable seating and tables allow for a range of configurations to suit a variety of needs.

“By design, the lab will help users hone their creativity and empathetic skills because we know those are really the cornerstone of innovation,” said Christine Mooney, Barsema Professor of Social Entrepreneurship.

She explained the lab’s fun and relaxing atmosphere helps facilitate innovative thinking. “When we ask people to be creative, we’re asking them to pull on their vulnerability, and in order to be vulnerable, you need to feel safe,” she said. “Safe emotionally, safe that you can make mistakes.”

It is expected the work done in the lab will contribute to solving pressing global problems including food insecurity, sustainability, and climate change.

“This lab provides an opportunity for our entire diverse student body, working with faculty and staff, to do what we do best here in the United States: innovate,” said NIU Trustee Dennis Barsema, ’77.

“As long as we do that, we will retain our leadership in the world as a global business partner for other countries. It will create jobs and a better world for those who come after us,” he said.

The ribbon cutting ceremony included Beth Ingram, Executive Vice President and Provost; Dennis Barsema, ’77, NIU Trustee; Balaji Rajagopalan, Dean, College of Business; Ralph MBA, ’89, and Maria de la Vega, donors; Catherine Squires, ’80, President & CEO, NIU Foundation; Lisa C. Freeman, NIU President; Mike Cullen, ’87, Chair, NIU Foundation Board of Directors; Bob Pritchard, NIU Board of Trustees; Jerry Blazey, Vice President for Research and Innovation Partnerships; Eric Wasowicz, ’80, Chair, NIU Board of Trustees and his wife, Ann Lawrence.

Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

NIU College of Business Dean Balaji Rajagopalan described the lab as a fitting tribute to its naming benefactors, Ralph and Maria de la Vega. “Ralph and Maria personify the magic that occurs when innovation, creativity and empathetic leadership are combined,” he said.

As young children in 1962, Maria and Ralph each travelled separately— mostly alone — from Cuba to the United States.

Along the way, they each encountered many obstacles, including cultural and language barriers. “Ralph and Maria have mastered the art and discipline of converting adversity into positive, significant opportunity,” said Rajagopalan.

“What has really resonated with me is the de la Vegas’ belief that some people never reach their full potential because they don’t see the opportunities embedded within challenges,” said NIU President Lisa Freeman.

“Through the de la Vegas’ generosity, we now have a space that will support our students not just in seeing opportunities but in seizing them as well,” she said.

Fortune Favors the Prepared

This fall, credit and noncredit courses on a range of topics will take place in the lab including entrepreneurship, innovation, new product development, and lean business methodologies. The space is also available on a scheduled basis for all university constituents as well as College of Business partners.

Ralph de la Vega, MBA, ’89, is the former vice chairman of AT&T, responsible for all of AT&T’s global business operations, CEO of AT&T Mobility, COO of Cingular Wireless, and president of BellSouth Latin America.

He said that the education he received at NIU helped him continue learning his entire life. He added NIU prepared him to compete–and thrive–in an industry that didn’t exist when he was a student.

“In 1985 there were 300,000 cellular phones in the whole country. They cost $3,500 a piece, and some were so big you had to put them in the trunk of your car,” he said.

“Starting in an industry with 300,000 wireless subscribers, and by the end, being responsible for a company that had 100 million subscribers and was generating $80 billion in annual revenues, is something that dreams are made of,” he said.  “NIU made that happen.”

Giving Comes Full Circle

The lab’s Networking Circle space was named in honor of Eric Wasowicz, ’80, Chair of the NIU Board of Trustees and his wife Ann Lawrence for their generous support to help make the lab a reality.

The innovation lab is the result of a wide base of donor support in addition to the de la Vega lead gift.

The lab’s Networking Circle was named in honor of Eric Wasowicz, ’80, Chair of the NIU Board of Trustees and his wife Ann Lawrence for their generous support to help make the lab a reality. In addition, the Tech Hub was named in honor of Jim Wong, ’92, and his wife Kathy Harenza for their generosity.

Mike Cullen, ’87, NIU Foundation Board Chair, said the lab will raise awareness of the importance of philanthropy at NIU.

“The quality of education that students receive here will help them find success after graduation,” he said. “It will put them in a position to give back and start the whole cycle again.”

President Freeman reminded donors their impact will reverberate far beyond the NIU community.

“Your contributions will not only serve our students today but will extend into the business world when our students take what they have learned here and apply it in ways we can only begin to imagine,” she said.

At NIU, Anything is Possible

For their generous support, the lab’s Tech Hub was named in honor of Jim Wong, ’92, and his wife Kathy Harenza. Pictured is Christine Mooney, Barsema Professor of Social Entrepreneurship with students in the Jim Wong and Kathy Harenza Tech Hub.

Standing at the top of the stairway leading to the lab, Ralph de la Vega said he hopes it will be a place for great innovation and inspiration.

“When students walk up these steps and see the innovation lab, I hope they know that a 10-year-old boy who got to this country by himself, without his family, without speaking a word of English, and without a penny in his pocket, had something to do with it, and there was a school named NIU that helped him do it,” he said.

“I hope they also see that they too can make it, because once you are a Huskie, everything that you want to do is certainly possible.”

For more information about the De La Vega INNOVATION LAB, contact Kelsey Johnson at [email protected]