Jesús León

Posted On April 21, 2014 by Benjamin Austin
Categories Reflections

MBA, General Management, 1985

Jesús León was looking to expand his knowledge for business fundamentals when he signed up for the Executive MBA program at the Robinson College of Business.

Jesús LeónUntil he was 10 years old, Jesús León planned to be a doctor. “I learned early that you had to have some sort of job eventually,” he remembered, and becoming a doctor seemed as good as any. However, when a family friend who was also a surgeon stopped by one day with live footage from the operating room, that plan changed. “I saw two of the films and knew I didn’t want to be a medical doctor. It was gruesome,” Jesús said. He was 10 years old when he opened his mind to new possible career options.

That was in 1954. His father was a pharmacist and his mother an educator. Both were successful, and Jesús’ future was bright. But unrest fomented in his homeland, Cuba. Rebels gathered in the mountains, discontent brewed in the cities, and in 1959 the country boiled over when Fidel Castro took power. By the time he was a teenager, his bright future in Cuba would end.

Exodus from Cuba

Castro’s revolution, before any revolution took place, was purported to bring democracy to Cuba, Jesús recalled. “That was the promise that Castro made,” he said. He had cousins and aunts who actively supported Castro before things went bad.

Even after the promise of democracy faded the León family didn’t immediately leave. Their entire lives — the house, their jobs, friends and family – were in Cuba. It was still home.

A rumor finally broke the camel’s back. Whispers circulated that Castro was shipping children to the Soviet Union for indoctrination, and Cuban parents began making the trade — established lives in Cuba for their children’s freedom.

“Thousands of Cuban kids came to the U.S. through the Pedro Pan operation,” Jesús said. “It was all because of a rumor, and whether it was true or not, people believed it. They didn’t want to lose their children.”

Jesús was 15, the eldest, and came with his four siblings to stay with relatives in Miami. The five children were split among various relatives, and Jesús and his brother were sent up to Philadelphia for their first year in the U.S.

Changes

“Philadelphia was not a bad experience — except that I almost died,” Jesús said. While there he caught meningitis and spent four weeks in the hospital’s poor ward, three of them quarantined in the contagious disease wing. A Catholic priest read him his final rights.

But he recovered. Once strong enough, Jesús took a job, scrabbled together money to survive, learned English and got his social security card. A year later his parents arrived in the U.S. and he and his brother rejoined their family in Miami to begin preparing for college.

Though they had little money, they were one of the few Cuban families that had a telephone, and a family friend began stopping by to call his daughter, who lived at a boarding school outside of Chicago. Because the friend spoke only Spanish, Jesús placed the call each week.

“One day I asked him to see a photo of his daughter, and he showed me the picture of my future wife.” When he looked at the picture, Jesús thought, “That is a beautiful woman. I’m going to marry her,” he recalled. “It was a beautiful picture.”

It took the family a month to save Consuelo’s airfare from Chicago, but she returned to Miami, met Jesús, and the two fell in love. They decided to wait until after college to tie the knot.

While the idea of marriage was straightforward for Jesús, the proposition of going to college — it required money he did not have — was trickier. There was never a question of whether he would go to college, though, and he credits his mother for his respect for education.

“Love of learning, love of education came from my mother’s side of the family. It was in her blood,” he said. “She expected us to go to college. It was not discussed. It was understood.”

He enrolled at Miami Dade junior college, which had a $5 application fee. The next year he took out a loan drafted especially for Cuban immigrants and worked as a math grader. But there was never quite enough money, and three quarters of the way through each semester, Jesús could not afford to eat full meals. It was quite a diet: Jesús would lose 15 pounds before returning home, where his mother would feed him and he would regain his weight.

Graduation eventually came for both Jesús and Consuelo, and they married that August. Jesús got a job at Scientific-Atlanta, stopped skipping meals, and became financially stable. But even today, 50 years later, he has not forgotten the Cuban revolution.

“It marked me. It marked all of us who had that experience,” he recalled. Jesús entered Philadelphia a child and left an adult — he had no choice but to grow up. And he says that Castro’s revolution has left such a bad taste in his mouth that he still has not returned to Cuba.

Management

Jesús managed a small group of engineers at Scientific-Atlanta and then went on to hold various leadership roles at several small, medium and large companies in the U.S. and Europe and eventually CIENA Corporation. However, his engineering degree did not prepare him for business fundamentals, and when his boss would ask for quarterly projections, Jesús would have to guess how to do it.

“At that time I decided I ought to learn something about business,” he said, and so he enrolled in Georgia State’s Executive MBA program.

He was shocked at the change in learning atmosphere from his undergraduate years: “Now I was in a classroom with 44, 45 people who were all successful in business. It was a very thorough exchange of ideas with professionals, and it was a completely different learning experience.”

“I met a wonderful group of people, faculty and students — great people, excellent people. So it was a much more enriching experience than my undergraduate experience,” he said.

Upon graduation from Georgia State, Jesús was managing as many as 40 engineers, and he attributes his EMBA for preparing him to take on significant management roles as he moved through his career. He eventually led more than 1,200 engineers in multiple locations at both Alcatel in Europe and CIENA Corporation in the United States. In so many ways he had fought, overcome, and succeeded. But his experiences leading up to that success underscore what he considers his greatest accomplishments.

“I’m happy with my life. I couldn’t have picked a better wife, my kids are great, and I’m a very happy person,” he said. “That’s the best kind of accomplishment to have. It’s not necessary to have a nice house. I had a nice house in Cuba, but Fidel came and it was gone with the wind. One day you may have it and tomorrow you don’t have it.

“But the others you can have all your life.”