I understand that you just returned from a trip to Chile. How did you get involved and what was the purpose of the trip?… why Chile?
IBM is seeing its greatest percentage revenue growth in developing countries, termed “growth markets”. Infrastructure can often be a bottleneck for those countries’ growth. Things like adequate roads and transit, water quality, power availability, education and healthcare are examples of basic infrastructure that may lag behind potential explosive growth and ultimately limit the economy. IBM is investing over $50M in pro-bono projects around the world to address some of these issues. We launched a “Smarter Cities Challenge” where cities would submit applications to land one of these projects. 400 cities applied and Valparaiso, Chile was one of 100 selected. Their application was based on economic growth which has personal automobile purchases and usage skyrocketing but with very limited space to carry the traffic, due to the geography of the region. They needed help developing an action plan to address the movement of people, goods and services in the Valparaiso region.
My involvement came from something in IBM called the Executive Service Corp. The Executive Service Corp was created to give individuals in IBM the opportunity to apply their skills on a global philanthropic project like the one above. Think of it as an IBM Peace Corps. It is very selective, as there are only a few projects in any given year. You submit a number of essays and your resume. I applied multiple times and was finally selected on the third try. You are taken out of your daily IBM job and placed on a global team for typically a three-week engagement. I was notified of my selection in December, 2012 and deployed in April, 2013 to the project in Valparaiso, Chile.
Where were you in Chile and what was it like… city/country? How long were you there?
I flew into Santiago, Chile on April 24, 2013 and returned May 19th. After only a couple of days in Santiago for orientation we headed off to Valparaiso, about 1.5 hours west for the next 3 weeks. Valparaiso is a port city located on the Pacific Ocean. It is a hub for employment and draws commuters from 4 other cities and the area is a very popular vacation destination because of beach towns like Vina del Mar and Con Con to the north. Think of the area as a very small San Francisco. The ocean, then a very narrow strip of flat land about 6 blocks wide and then very steep hills that rise up immediately where people live. Valparaiso, because of its unique geography and the very unusual, colorful housing that is clinging to the surrounding hills (40+ hills) was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What is the political climate in Chile like for Americans? Were you welcomed?
Political climate is very stable right now. This is a country that was under a dictatorship until about 20+ years ago. The people talk about it like it was a few weeks ago and clearly it takes a while when the model changes like that, but it seemed like a very dynamic, growth-oriented country. We were very welcome. Chile has so much to offer from a natural beauty standpoint and it is embracing the tourism that seems to have discovered this country. The Andes, Patagonia, the Pacific Coast, a beautiful lakes region and interesting landscapes in the northern reaches. That is the natural beauty side.
Did you travel throughout the country or did you spend most of your time in one area?
We were working hard so we only had a couple of opportunities to get away from the project. But when we did it was spectacular. One day we visited the Casablanca Valley. This was recently named the 10th World Wine Capital. Beautiful vineyards and fantastic wines. Destinations that stack up with the best of Napa. As you would expect, I was appointed social chairman for our team and our one free weekend I arranged a trip into the Andes to an eco-lodge called Cascades de las Animas. Here is a picture of my personal lodge room. We went hiking to waterfalls, white water rafting and enjoyed the beautiful scenery.
Who were you traveling with and what were they like?
This was very cool. As I mentioned this was a global project. My team was made up of six IBM execs. Me, from the U.S.. Lou from China, Armelle from Paris, Ramon from Germany, Andy from Spain and Janice from Raleigh, NC. So not only are you in a foreign country, but you are working together on a project with 5 people you never met before from different cultures. It reminded me of the bridge on the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek. What you find out is how strong the IBM culture is. While our countries were different and our native tongues were different, we all spoke IBM and you kind of knew what to expect from each other.
Who did you work with mostly in Chile? Did they speak English? How did you communicate?
This was very interesting. To do the project we conducted interviews with over 100 people so that we could understand the issues surrounding transportation in Chile in general and Valparaiso specifically. This included the National Transportation Secretary, mayors, tourism, regional government execs, bus drivers, taxi drivers, citizen groups, regional planning organizations, university professors. Some people spoke english, but most of the time we had an interpreter for the meetings to do the translations. A couple of meetings were high profile and everyone was wearing the earpieces so that people could speak and you would hear the translation at the same time. We had a translator, Francisco, who was assigned to our team. He was fantastic and his background, fascinating. His family traces back to one of the early families from Europe that came to Chile.
I understand from one of your facebook posts that you had to draw upon some of your engineering background from college and very early in your career. What was that like? Were you able to get up to speed fast enough to contribute?
When I was selected for the Executive Service Corp I did not know the project purpose or location. For the four weeks before we left for Chile we would get briefed for an hour each week on different aspects of the project. On the first call I learn it is a transportation project and the person that coordinates the project refers to me as the “subject matter expert” based on my civil engineering degree, majoring in transportation engineering. I suppose I got picked as social chairman because of my masters in recreation or that somewhere is my file they saw that I was a Tau, and if you have an ATO on your team then they must be the default fun organizer. Once I knew the topic I reached out to the U of I’s Civil Engineering Department and the hooked me up with one of the professor’s who is very active in traffic analytics. He spent time talking with me about the current thinking and practices in this area. And then…..he gives me the name of a Professor he knows in Chile as they studied together at Cal-Berkley. I ended up meeting up with the colleague in Chile plus his mentor professor who is sort of the godfather of public rapid rail transit in Valparaiso. Two lessons here: 1. If you remember how many times you thought you were never going to use that stuff you were learning in college…well here I was 38 years later, applying it. 2.It is a small world. Connecting through the network of the U of I was very cool and gratifying.
When we introduced ourselves in the meeting with the Chile Transportation Secretary and I said I was a Civil Engineer from Illinois, she said “I am a Civil Engineer, too. We are colleagues”
How do you think you did against the initial goals of the trip?
Based on the local reaction we did very well. The Chile Transportation Secretary wants to make a real impact on how people travel in Chile and she does not want to do it building more roads. She wants to do it smarter and asked us to come back with a handful of recommendations that could be realistically implemented. Not pie in the sky theory. We came up with 32 recommendations that ranged from short term to long terms in a number of critical categories. Our final presentation was given to a packed ballroom and we were featured on 3 minute story on the national television network and made front page of the newspaper. When my German teammates went to pick up his laundry the next day, the person working behind the counter grabbed her mother and said in Spanish, “That is the man that was on TV last night!”
What were the highlights of your trip? Lowlights?
The highlights all have to do with people. You feel like you are doing something that can have an impact on many people’s lives. The sponsoring government executive in Valparaiso was totally engaged and building that relationship over the three weeks was a really gratifying and one that I intend to continue through periodic emails. My global teammates are my friends for a lifetime. The local IBM person, Piera, is responsible for our corporate and community relations in that country and worked very closely with us, helping us with the local relationships. One of the weekends she arranged for our group of six to be taken to one of the poorest neighborhoods in Valparaiso for a community project. We spent the day with shovels, saws, paint and the locals building a small park. One of the unique things about this city, but not unusual in South America, is that the poorest neighborhoods are often up on the surrounding hills and have the most beautiful view of the city and the ocean. They would be the expensive neighborhoods in our country. The park we built, complete with a bench and planters was created out of small piece of land between very simple apartment buildings with a spectacular view to the ocean. Great pride in the neighborhood people in creating this space. Some months after we returned to our respective countries we received a picture of a plaque that was mounted afterwards at the park’s dedication, that lists each of us by our first names and country. So in a place in Chile that I would likely never be able to find again is a small sign with my name on it for building a park. Pretty cool thought.
The lowlight – my favorite teammate, Ramon from Germany, caught an intestinal bacteria with a week to go in our project and ended up in the hospital for several days and it was contemplated whether we needed to have a plane chartered to take him home. But all’s well that end’s well. He received excellent care and was able to join us for our final presentation.
Would you recommend others do something similar and why?
Absolutely yes. I have been at IBM for over 30 years and consider this experience the highlight of my career. Doing something completely different from the everyday, testing and stretching my skills, embracing a different culture, being someplace where it was challenging to communicate, trying to make a difference in a developing country, being a positive face for the United States. For all those reasons and many more would I recommend this type of experience. And there are ways to do it. You don’t have to be employed by a big global company. Even IBM worked with a small company that has people throughout the world that help put these types of projects together.
Would you recommend others visit Chile? Would it be a good vacation destination and if so, what would you recommend?
Another resounding yes here. I did not even get to scratch the surface. We were there in April/May -our spring but their fall. Because of the onset of harsher weather to the south the mountains and lakes of the Patagonia region were not a good option for me. There are several resort/beach cities along the Pacific. The Andes mountain are literally 30 minutes from downtown Santiago and loom over the city when the air is clear. And to the north are lunar-like landscapes that I have heard are fascinating. I will go back
Do you have anything else to add about your trip?
Dogs. Lots of stray dogs everywhere in Valparaiso. I’m not kidding. Well-behaved but when I would go out for a run, I was careful to not encounter a pack. I mean whatever you are thinking when I say lots of stray dogs, think more. And they are loved by the locals.
What’s going on with you now besides this trip… family, work, hobbies, community service
Married for 23 years to Lynn, an Indiana University grad from the Isaiah Thomas era. Our son, Colin is a senior in business at the U of I and a pledge brother of John Aymond’s son Ben. Our daughter Emily is a sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville, TN and our youngest, Megan is a freshman at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School in Wheaton. I continue to be in Sales at IBM, focused on the healthcare market. It is hard to believe that it has been almost 32 years. And it was Dane Luhrsen that was the person that helped me get that job in 1982. If not for Dane, I would not have met my wife Lynn and then kids and so on and so on. Dane has been a great friend and connection point in so many lives.
I count Bob Mathias, GZ ’74 as my closest friend. We have a football block for the Illini in the top row of the stadium for over 30 years along with my brother Rick, Bob’s brother Vince and Tom Hough’s GZ(72?) family. I still run a little bit, golf a little bit and go out to the mountains of Colorado whenever I can. I look forward every year to B.B.’s March of Dimes Event and am on the Board of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago.