Imagine your parents were political exiles from Cuba who came to the United States as teens to restart their lives after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion: they spent their first night in this country on a park bench in Miami, and then went on to raise you and three siblings and also support your grandparents. It would no doubt instill in you a strong work ethic.
So it was for Jorge de Cardenas, executive vice president and chief technology officer at American Campus Communities (ACC).
“I saw how hard they worked to make a good life for us,” de Cardenas says of his parents. “They valued education. My father finished his engineering degree and got a master’s in metallurgy. He went to work for Shell Oil and retired as director of Shell Development Co. My mother, at thirty-three—while also working—went back to college to improve her opportunities in banking. She started out as a receptionist and worked her way up to become senior vice president at JP Morgan Chase.”
A first-generation American, de Cardenas credits his parents with instilling in him both a firm belief in the American Dream and an appreciation and respect for the hard work it takes to achieve one’s full potential. Unlike de Cardenas’s wife (his high school sweetheart), who knew she wanted to be a teacher since kindergarten, he has worked in a broad range of industries. But his career has always been aspirational.
Exploration, at NASA and Beyond
After graduating from Texas A&M University, de Cardenas began his career developing software for the F-16 fighter jet for General Dynamics and went on to complete mission evaluation work at NASA. “It was a very motivational and inspiring environment,” he reflects. “What drove me to different industries was learning about their challenges and what value I could bring to the table.”
From NASA, de Cardenas’s career really took off. In the early ’90s, he cofounded and was principal consultant of Everest Technologies Inc., an oil and gas IT consulting firm, which was sold to SAIC. He later served in various capacities at technology start-up companies, all the while moving from, as he describes it, “pure technology guy to a product manager.”
He also served as director of product management for emerging technologies at Visa before meeting with the CEO at American Campus Communities about the challenges the company was facing in taking the company public. De Cardenas decided to join them.
American Campus Communities is the nation’s largest developer, owner, and manager of high-quality student housing communities. De Cardenas’s role as EVP and CTO is to define and lead technology and digital transformation strategy for the organization. According to the EVP, one of the most forward-thinking initiatives the company has established is NextGen, a technology platform that provides scalability in the company’s current business segments and adaptability to address new and emerging market segments, a departure from one-size-fits-all housing solutions.
If there is a common thread de Cardenas has discerned over his more than three decades in the tech space, it is this: “If you put the right people in the right seats, you can solve any problem.” This, he says, means diversity in executive positions. “Diversity brings ideas from different perspectives and experiences, and produces innovative solutions to complex problems. In our case, it also helps us to have a better understanding of our diverse student body.”
But this is not the only lesson the EVP has learned. Based on his wide range of experiences in corporate and start-up environments, de Cardenas has developed five rules of leadership for chief information officers. First, he says, CIOs must strive to be the leaders they’ve been waiting for (i.e., they must take the initiative).
Second, they should remember that doing things right is not as important as doing the right things. They should also know and accept that what got them “here” will not get them “there.” They need to realize that trust only comes by delivering. And finally, understand that people and culture are everything.
That last one is especially important, de Cardenas says. “Leaders are developed in an environment in which the bar is continually raised and setbacks are reframed as learning opportunities,” he says. “If you’re not making a mistake from time to time, you’re probably not innovating.”
But despite everything he’s learned from his professional experiences, de Cardenas still cites his father as his most important mentor and source of wisdom.
“The biggest impression isn’t in any specific counsel, which I still seek,” he explains. “It is more how he lived and modeled himself in both his professional and personal life. From core values such as integrity and respect to the lessons I learned about overcoming adversity, like losing your freedoms and your country, he taught me to not be a victim and to take responsibility for my own destiny.”
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An Advocate for the Arts
A constant innovator in the tech space, Jorge de Cardenas is also helping to raise the bar in arts education. He serves as board president for the Austin School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which was founded to fill a void for students looking to pursue both academic and artistic excellence at a time when public school arts programs were among the first to face budget cuts.
“It is very rewarding to me to see children grow and reach their full potential,” he says. “When you expose them at a young age to the arts, it develops the side of the brain that sparks creativity and innovation.”