Wladawsky-Berger, a native of Cuba, never forgets his roots. His last name hardly sounds Hispanic, but that’s because his parents immigrated to Cuba from Eastern Europe — his father in the 1920s, followed by his mother in the 1930s. “Both my parents were born in Eastern Europe, that’s why my name is Russian-Polish,” he says. They arrived in the Western Hemisphere with little in their pockets, but by the 1950s had built up a thriving store in Havana.
Wladawsky-Berger’s parents had even begun to expand their store when the rise to power of the Castro regime changed everything. The store’s assets were confiscated by the communist government, and the family made plans to flee their beloved adopted country.
In October 1960, at the age of 15, Wladawsky-Berger left Havana with his sister to stay with relatives in Chicago, followed by his parents several years later. “They had to leave just about everything behind and start life all over again,” he relates. “My father had relatives in Chicago, so that’s where we all ended up.”
Wladawsky-Berger completed his final two years of high school in Chicago, and earned both his MS degree and PhD in physics from the University of Chicago before joining IBM in 1970 as an engineer. During his time there, he also served as co-chair of President Bill Clinton’s Information Technology Advisory Committee, as well as a founding member of the Computer Sciences and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council. He is also a former member of University of Chicago Board of Governors for Argonne National Laboratories and of the Board of Overseers for Fermilab.
Despite all that recognition, the 2001 recipient of the Hispanic Engineer of the Year award considers time spent helping Hispanic students and business people to be his most significant and far-reaching achievement. While at IBM, he participated in IBM’s Hispanic leadership program, where he helped encourage technology adoption among businesses within the Latin community. These days, he continues to contribute time and expertise to encouraging Latinos to pursue careers in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math). “Whenever I can, when I travel, I try to meet with local Latin groups, just to offer encouragement,” he says. “I tell young people: ‘Don’t let anything stand in your way. For the most part, it’s all inside you. Yes, there are times when there is overt discrimination, or overt forces against you. But that’s happening less and less.'”
Wladawsky-Berger says more opportunities have opened up for young Latinos and Latino business owners than when he first started out in the early 1970s. “I speak with an accent, and that’s okay. IBM has always been so supportive of diversity, and I think the country tilts more that way.”
Wladawsky-Berger was quick to recognize the opportunities that came his way as his career progressed. While his accomplishments contributed to dramatic developments in information technology, he points out that the economy and society are undergoing an upheaval.
In the next installment of this series, Wladawsky-Berger explains who will be the winners in the new digital economy that is emerging.