Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities, a chat with Fernando Niebla

A professional head shot of Fernando Niebla in a suit in front of a blue background
A professional head shot of Fernando Niebla in a suit in front of a blue background

In this episode of “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities, interviews Fernando Niebla, president and founder of International Tech Partners, about his career and philanthropic endeavors.

Tyrus Miller (0:08–1:56): Welcome to “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities” and I really do have coffee. I’m Tyrus Miller, dean of the UCI School of Humanities and I’m so pleased to be joined by Fernando Niebla. Fernando is largely retired, but still active as an investor and as an advisor to technology startup companies. At the beginning of his career, he worked at the Kennedy Space Center from 1965 through the initial moon missions. Then he returned to California, still working for the aerospace industry. 10 years later he turned entrepreneur and his main business venture was as the founder of Infotec Development Incorporated, an IT services firm involved primarily in air force satellite’s mission control systems. After merging with a public company in 1996, he was president and founder of two other technology companies International Training Partners, a business and technology consulting firm serving U.S. and Latin American markets, and CompuServe Mexico that brought commercial internet services to Mexico in the mid-1990s. He has a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from the University of Arizona and a master of science from USC. He serves on many nonprofit and corporate boards including Fortune 500 Companies. Additionally, he was a founding member of Hispanic Education Endowment Fund of Orange County, which provides scholarships to Hispanic, Latinx students of Orange County, who are pursuing college. That’s a very impressive resume Fernando and I thank you very much for joining us.

Fernando Niebla (1:57–2:02): I’m happy to be here. I’m also having coffee. I have coffee with me.

Miller (2:02–2:33): Oh good, I wanted to start with just a little note about our terminology and I want to acknowledge that some of our community leaders have a strong preference for the term Hispanic. Others have an equally strong preference for the more recent term Latinx. And I’ll use both terms typically except when I’m giving a proper name or a federal designation such as Hispanic Serving Institution, which is a label from the federal government.

Niebla (2:34–2:40): I’ve been around for a long time. So I’m used to all the terminology. So we’re in good shape.

Miller (2:41–3:21): Okay, very good. Well, you’ve been a successful entrepreneur starting multiple businesses and at least one nonprofit. I know that entrepreneurs often have various kinds of failures on the way before they have successes. And I wonder what kind of advice you would give a young person, who’s just starting out, who has big ideas and big dreams and big hopes and perhaps has actually endured an early failure in those aspirations. How did you know when to keep going and when to change direction, when to take a, you know, a side step and move forward in that way?

Niebla (3:22–5:53): Well, first of all I want to put my answer in perspective. You know, I have had a situation where I started something that I wasn’t able to finish. Other times when I had to change routes, but I don’t call those failures. I call them learning opportunities, you know, and my training as an engineer it’s really has been a good part of what’s helped me along the way. I’m a big believer in planning, you know? So, I always advise, you know, it’s great to have an idea, but until you have a plan, you know, you really can’t advance smartly through the process. So, I develop plans that, you know, set a timeline, goals and objectives. And then I revisit those plans from time to time.

And I’ve tried to be objective as to whether if I’m not meeting the goals, am I not meeting them because they were overly ambitious? You know, and I can continue and do it right. Or is it, or most of my assumptions wrong? You know, so have to call it quits or, you know, unfortunately I had one opportunity or occasion where things went right along, but the main thing is to be objective. And the way I do that is that I always share when I have an important project, I will share my plans with either friends or with official advisors. And I always pick people that I know will be very frank with me and will help me be objective. And if you have that laid out, then it really is, you know, when it’s time to make a change, you know, when it’s time to adapt and, you know, also when to, you know, the idea just won’t work out.

I am called on occasion to talk with young entrepreneurs. And that is my advice, you know, until they have a plan that has milestones and it has objectives, you know, you’re really not ready to get started. Cause you need that as a guide all along the path. So that’s my perspective on it. Yeah.

Miller (5:54–6:09): So planning and continual assessment and also that very difficult thing of being willing to listen to other perspectives when people are telling you that maybe things that, you don’t necessarily wanna hear, but that are important for you to hear.

Niebla (6:09–6:16): Yeah, you need to have people that you talk with that will be frank with you. So I’ve been very fortunate in that respect.

Miller (6:16–6:52): Very good advice. I wanna come to the current situation, the COVID-19 world that we’re living in and COVID-19 has changed so much about our world and in many ways, you know, we can imagine that it’s gonna be significantly changed having gone through this. You’re a leader in the Hispanic Latinx community or communities and of course, you know, how hard these communities have been hit by the pandemic. How has the pandemic affected your community activities and your discussions in the Hispanic community?

Niebla (6:53–9:17): Well, you know, the Hispanic community has been hit twice, in two respects. One is many, a large percentage of the community is in the essential services, which means that many of them have a lot of exposure to people that have the virus. So they constantly having to deal with, you know, bringing the virus home, you know, then on the other hand, a lot of people that were, in the services industries that went out of business or out of work, you know, closed down hospitals and restaurants.

So the community has to deal with both of those problems and I know people that are being affected in both ways. I’ll tell you about my gardener, you know, my gardener, you know, he’s very careful. He tells me, he calls me ingeniero, engineer, “I can’t afford to get sick because members of my family are out of work, you know.” So he keeps a social distance. We keep a distance from each other. He wears a mask and he’s very careful.

Well then, I have a niece that runs the job corps operations here in Orange County, and she has a hundred people that are out distributing, mostly Latinos too, distributing food and about 20 that are involved in COVID testing. So, there’s a high exposure there. She lives with her mom, my aunt that’s 96 years old, so you can imagine that it’s a strain, you know, for her.

So that’s kind of the situation and you know, just be careful, you know, that’s what I hear from everybody. We have to be extra careful for a number of reasons. I don’t know where to go from there, you know, that’s just out of the situation.

Miller (9:17–10:44): Well, you know, obviously the pandemic situation is an unprecedented situation, but many of the disparities and problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and that’s health disparities, that is occupational disparities, housing disparities, you know, are standing problems and ones that, you know, you have as a philanthropist and as an organizer help to address. I know that you’ve also been in the educational domain, very involved in UCI, in a leadership capacity with the campus wide initiative to help UCI grow from being a federally designated Hispanic serving institution to becoming what we informally refer to as a Hispanic thriving institution. So, in some sense, not simply having the 25% demographic of Hispanic, Latinx students, but really creating an inclusive environment for those students to excel and to gain new opportunities.

So I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what you’re doing with UCI in that capacity and your vision and goals for this Hispanic thriving initiative at UCI.

Niebla (10:45–14:05): Yeah, well, let me start that it wasn’t a surprise when friends of mine trustees with the university told me that it had achieved that status. It wasn’t that long ago when the problem was getting Latino students to graduate from high school and register in colleges. So, it was just a very pleasant surprise to hear that.

Then, in talking with my friends, you know, I’m very pleased with what I heard and what I’ve seen the university doing. You know, when I talk about a thriving institution, a Latino institution, what I hear is that the university understands, like just having a lot of students, it’s not the job, you know, a job is to get them to graduate. So that’s the kind of involvement that we’re trying to develop.

You know, the conversations we’ve had that been after this point, largely informational, you know, the university telling me and a few of other quote/unquote Latino leaders as to what the university has achieved and what programs they have ongoing always with the emphasis of we want to make sure that these students graduate. So that is the conversation that we’re having and we’re not there yet. We’re still trying to figure out how can we help.

One item that comes up is it has to do with making sure that the student goes all the way through is a mentoring, you know, type of activity. Right now, we’re looking at well for a mentoring activity in today’s world, you need a social media tool, you know, we’re looking at what that would take.

You mentioned the Hispanic Education Endowment Fund. We have given scholarships to, they probably are around 40 scholars at UCI right now. So we’re thinking that they will be the core of our efforts, you know, talk with them, see what they need. We’ve heard some sad stories, you know, where we help them get in and then that’s the first year, you know, whether they do the second year, you know financial support is always needed, but also encouragement and just somebody to talk with.

On that vein, like I said, I’m very pleased with what I’ve seen the university is doing, you know, and sometimes you need to do so. We’re working at what else can we do? And it’s just, like I said, I and my friends who were pleasantly surprised to see that the university had achieved that status. We’re doing our best to help them along.

Miller (14:05–15:00): It’s very important and at the same time, as you say, we would have to acknowledge, we still have a lot of work to do in making sure that the students that we have at UCI are successful, that they, you know, that they feel at home at UCI and the community and in our courses. And also, that they have the financial support that they need in order to be secure in their studies.

And I would also say, you know, we want to see more of our Latinx students go on to graduate school, to earn Ph.D.s and masters and advanced professional degrees, MBAs, and law degrees and medical degrees. And we still have a long way to go in terms of really addressing that graduate level of education.

Niebla (15:00–15:36): You know, I’ve been getting a lot of information about the demographics of the school and courses the students are registered and it was also very, you know, I keep reading pleasant surprise, but I guess it’s just good to see that there are a number of students pursuing graduate degree programs. And also, the road is there. I think it’s happening.

Miller (15:37–16:32): Fernando is a long-term volunteer leader on our campus, particularly in the humanities. What would you say to listeners who are considering investing time or charitable giving at UCI? And I would make a pitch for the humanities as a great place for this to happen. As you know, we’re a home to the Department of Spanish and Portuguese to the English department that, you know, also does work in Latinx literatures, Center for Latin American Studies, and we’re currently engaged in a cluster hire to bring more Latinx expertise into the school.

So with that, as a background, I wonder if you could advise someone who is interested in getting involved either through their time and effort or through their charitable giving.

Niebla (16:33–18:11): You know, I had been involved with UCI for longer than I wanna tell you, and initially it was with the engineering department and then the last 15 years, you know, with the humanities department. So my experience was one of getting involved because I knew people there, you know. I had friends who I knew in the engineering department first, and then through humanities department and through them, I became familiar with and sometimes involved with activities. And although that was something I enjoyed. That’s the first thing I would tell somebody, you know, if you’re involved with the university, you’re going to find a place or activities that you will enjoy.

The giving just comes naturally out of that, you know, I had the opportunity from time to time to at one point sponsor a project in the engineering department, at another time to sponsor a professor that went to Latin America to try to recruit professors, you know, to come in and teach at the university. And those were things that were of interest to me, you know, it was something that came naturally. In the humanities department, I don’t know if you were there when Dr. Minton was there.

Miller (18:11–18:13): No, I don’t think so.

Niebla (18:14–19:25): That was a long time ago. Like I said, longer than I care to admit, but it was Dr. Minton and Dr. Bharutia were both there at the university, and I got involved with some of their programs and that I had to tell you that my involvement with humanities have been fun. I have been involved in activities that I thoroughly enjoyed. You know, with Dr. Minton and Dr. Bharutia attended and had the opportunity to sponsor some segments of conferences that they were leading. So I got to listen to excellent lecturers and see professors argue very fine points, you know, about Latin America, all in good fun. So my question will really be, how do you get people involved in the fun parts of the humanities department so that this will happen?

Miller (19:25–21:05): Well one thing I can say is we, you know, we do talk to a lot of people, and as you say, you have to find the thing that really is someone’s interest and passion and then make that invitation and to continue to talk to people and continue to engage them. I would say that the other thing that we’re doing through the Humanities Center, which we launched actually last year with our director, Judy Wu, is a very significant amount of what we would really think of as more public programming, programming that has greater public interest. You know, some of the conversations of our scholars really are for other scholars, and it will be difficult for someone who’s not an expert in those fields to step in and find that fun or even necessarily that meaningful. But we are also hosting a number of events primarily through our Humanities Center of things that we know are of public interest.

In some cases, it involves journalists. In other cases, it involves scholars, but really, you know, on those kind of big questions that matter, topics that we know will engage people in the public more. So there’s a variety of ways in which we do that. But I think that’s an important step that we’ve taken just in recognizing that, you know, not all of our things are necessarily for a broad public, but we also have an obligation really, to be talking to the public about things that matter to us and that matter to them.

Niebla (21:06–21:52): Yeah, I’ll just add that the involvement with the humanities department has been my wife and I, you know, she couldn’t get involved in the engineering activities, but certainly in the humanities activities that we have been on and off, you know for the last several years, you know. It’s something that we both enjoy, so I encourage listeners, you know, to find a way to get involved and participate.

And the first part can be just fun, but in the long run, I think, you know, that they’ll find things that they’d like to get involved in.

Miller (21:52–22:19): We really appreciate your involvement and your participation in the humanities. I wanted to ask you a little bit about kind of the bigger context in which you see my works and you know, we’ve already raised this question of the public. Orange County is home to one of the largest Hispanic, Latinx populations in the country. So what role do you think that UCI should play in advancing Hispanic, Latinx community and culture in Southern California?

Niebla (22:19–24:58): You know that’s a difficult question, but let me take it in parts. You know there’s the work the university does because it is a university, you know, and the university is doing very well in that respect. And I’ll just point to something you’ve told me about, you know, the cluster hiring that you’re doing, you know, that involves cross work across the several disciplines, cross discipline work. And I know of other activities that are taking place, you know, that, so from that perspective, you know, I’m not in a position to advise anything more to be done there.

The other one is in making sure the doors are open to the students, Latino students. And, you know, the Latino population in Orange County is around 30%. And the enrollment at UCI is 26%, you know, so there’s a little bit to be done there to get to an even distribution, you know, but I think 26%, is terrific, you know, that’s a good way, so I don’t know that there’s huge amounts of additional work to be done there.

The third component is community involvement that you just mentioned. And it’s a little bit difficult for UCI, I think because it is a remote campus, you know, so maybe opening, well you have a medical center in downtown Santa Ana, you know, so I think that is providing a tremendous service. So I guess I’m kind of going around the question you know, that I don’t know what else UCI could do or what it’s doing, and right now with the initiative of the trustees, you know, to get me and a few of my friends involved, you know, we’re trying to come up with an answer, you know, we don’t have it yet. But all I can say is that UCI is active in trying to make that happen.

So, like I said before, we’ll do our best to help and contribute, but don’t have an answer yet, right.

Miller (24:59–25:31): I’m really happy for your engagement. And I’m proud of UCI and the School of Humanities also for really helping to step up to this question and be engaged and work with you and other community leaders. I’d like to finish just with a couple of, you know, lighter note, personal questions.

Let me ask you, do you have a favorite artist or work of art, or, you know, it doesn’t have to be a visual art, but music or theater or?

Niebla (25:32–27:10): Well, yeah, a guy my age has to say Frank Sinatra, right? Then of course I have my favorite Mexican folk singers. You know, there’s some people, some of those singers are traditional, you know, so just mention a name. Of course, the Alfredo Jimenez you know, he talks about the trials and tribulations. He sings corridos, which are like folk songs. Sang because he’s passed away.

But, you know, that’s in terms of an artist, I have a good friend. I think I mentioned his name to you, Gregorio Luke you know, he was the cultural attaché from Mexico in Washington at one time, but now he’s local; he’s in Southern California. But he’s giving a series of lectures on the Mexican muralists. So I have become a big fan of the art of the muralists that took place in the mid-1900s, so we’re putting a lot of time into that, you know. Every Sunday he gives a lecture at four o’clock and this last one he had over a thousand people from all over the world really, you know, so we were having fun. My wife and I are having fun with the Mexican muralists.

Miller (27:10–27:31): Yeah, it’s an amazing movement and set of individual artists, so a real contribution and achievement of Mexican artists in that mode. I’d also just like to ask you what you’re reading now, or if you have a book recommendation you’d like to make.

Niebla (27:31–28:53): Yes. Another person I mentioned to you was Father Luévano. He’s at another university here in Orange County. Head of the religion, at the department. And he and I are reading Octavio Paz, you know who has a Nobel Laureate from Mexico. And we’re discussing, you know, his motivations and his writing and the lessons that he had, you know, for our communities. So Octavio Paz wrote a book called Labyrinth of Solitude. He wrote it in 1945, and it was kind of a reaction to what he saw in California when he visited here in 1943, so that’s what I’m reading right now. And along with that, a lot of other books that are relevant to that topic but that’s the main thrust of my reading.

Miller (28:53–29:20): That’s a great recommendation for people. Octavio Paz is just a fabulous writer and poet. Fernando, I wanna thank you again for taking the time to share your story with our viewers. And I want to thank our viewers for tuning in. So, I hope that people will join us with coffee cup in hand for our next episode of “Over Coffee.” Thank you for Fernando.

Niebla (29:20–29:25): I enjoyed the talk, the conversation. Happy to be here.

Miller (29:25–29:26): Thank you.

Watch all episodes of “Over Coffee” here.

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