In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Danny Vargas, US Air Force veteran, founder of VARCom Solutions, and community leader, shares impactful stories from his life, from growing up on welfare to becoming an award-winning and noted business & community leader. He also shares his mission to represent and give light to the contributions of the American Latino community to the country. Through and through, Danny Vargas’ story is one that is driven by mission and service.
-Danny Vargas on how his mother’s perseverance as a first-generation immigrant and single mother impacted him
-His journey from growing up in one of the roughest streets of New York to serving in the US Air Force
-His career after leaving the intelligence community and why he started VARCom Solutions
-On giving back to the community and his mission to illuminate and champion the American Latino community
-On dreaming big, overcoming fears, and defying limits: Danny Vargas’ advice to young leaders
Mentioned in this episode:
-Frank Wolf, Former United States Representative
-George W. Bush, 43rd U.S. President
-Eva Longoria, American Latina actress
-Emilio Estefan, American Latino musician
-Barack Obama, 44th U.S. President
-Mike Lee, Senator from Utah
-Bernardo Vicente de Gálvez, Spanish General
-George Washington, 1st U.S. President
-Kim Stewart, Chairman at Leadership Fairfax
-Karen Cleveland, President and CEO at Leadership Fairfax
Connect with Danny Vargas:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Danny Vargas. Danny is an award-winning and noted business and community leader. Named as one of the most influential Latinos in America. He is a proud US air force veteran, and he is the founder and president of VARCom solutions.
I really enjoyed my conversation with Danny, from his humble beginnings, working hard to contribute to the community, the country, and now through his organization and through his service at the board level to so many different organizations, including leadership, Fairfax, Northern Virginia technology council, and having served as the chair and now chairman emeritus of the friends of the national museum of the American Latino.
I also love hearing from you. Keep your comments coming. Mahan@mahantavakoli.com. There's a microphone icon on Partnering Leadership website. Leave voice messages for me there. I love hearing those voices.
And those of you that enjoy these episodes on apple, leave a rating and review when you get a chance. That will help more people find and benefit from these conversations.
Now, here is my conversation with Raul Danny Vargas.
Danny Vargas. Welcome to partnering leadership. I am thrilled to have you in this conversation with me.
Mahan, thanks so very much again.
Danny. You've had a wonderful journey from your humble beginnings to then serving in the US military, having an impact on so many different levels including your own leadership in this region and community.
Before we get to that though, with those humble beginnings you grew up in Brooklyn, how was that upbringing, and how did that impact you?
Thanks again for having me, but will tell you usually the way I described my story is I say that my story is actually my mom's story. So my mom grew up in Puerto Rico, in a town called her family was so poor that they gave her off to a slightly better off family to work as a servant girl.
And that family will never let her go to school so she never finished the first month of the first grade. So you never learned to read or write and ended up getting married and moved to New York. She was about 18 or so and they had a child and they had divorced and she remarried and what was my father ended up having three other kids. I was the youngest of four kids and they divorced when I was two.
She had no other skills to fall back on another visible means of support. So we ended up on the welfare system but I will tell you she was the strongest woman I ever knew. She was the person that taught me that when they told you to sit down and shut up, that's when you need to stand your tallest and be your strongest.
And we lost her back in 2016, but I know that she is with us every single day and looking down on us and, her grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
So my story is truly her story of perseverance and inspiration.
So it was wonderful. It must have been by 2016, you had achieved quite a bit of success. So it must have been wonderful for her to see your journey of leadership too Danny.
It's funny, so even in her final days she would always ask, are you eating or you're taking care of yourself? That's a typical mom Right? It didn't matter how old I got and whatever I did in my life. It was always about her being a mom and me being the baby boy and the baby of the bunch. So it was fantastic. God bless her.
She never learned much English either. She didn't know how to say maybe a handful of words, then she'll say to you hello, how are you? Get the heck out of my way. That was pretty much the extent of it, but she was an incredibly strong woman. I remember growing up as a kid, there were times where we didn't have enough money for the rent and we would end up getting evicted and I would come home from school and find all our stuff on the sidewalk because the marshals had come in and we had to struggle to see where the next meal was coming from and the next bed we'd be sleeping and so there were times where I was hungry and homeless. But I know she always did her best to look out for us and she was always an inspiration in that regard.
So your mother showed a lot of courage, having to take care of you and your three older siblings after your father left, and they divorced when you were two years old.
It was a really rough upbringing Danny, of having to make ends meet and having constantly being evicted. How did that impact your worldview?
What I didn't mention is where that was, that was called Bushwick Brooklyn. In New York City back in the battle days of the sixties and seventies and it was one of the worst neighborhoods in the country, let alone the city. So it was crime-infested. There was drugs everywhere and it was a pretty rough neighborhood growing up. Which meant that I was a rough kid, too. So I was the type of kid Mahan where if you saw me walking down the street, you'd probably cross the street, So it was that kind of an upbringing. But I was fortunate I was always pretty smart academically. So even though I started going down the wrong path in high school and almost got let go because of my truancy, my sister was able to reach into my life, grab me by the Scruff of the neck, and shake me real hard and get me back on track. So I really do give her a lot of credit for keeping me from going down the wrong path.
But it did teach me though over time. That since
statistically I ought to be dead or in jail right now. A Hispanic kid growing up on welfare in the streets of one of the worst neighborhoods in that era. Most of the people that I grew up with did not turn out real well. Some did, thank God, but statistically, I shouldn't be here right now.
And what I learned from that is the secrets to how I got to do what I got to do is because I didn’t know any better. Frankly, it was my ignorance of not knowing that I wasn't supposed to succeed.
So I just kept moving forward and every time I hit one of those milestone moments where you have to make a decision in which direction you're going to go in, I just plowed forward and I didn't stop.
So I spent most of my life growing up and as a young adult, Running away from something. And running away from that pass and that poverty And so forth, as opposed to running towards something. So I didn't reach that transition until really not that long ago. But that's what I think I've learned was just keep moving forward. The momentum and the quicksand and the gravity of growing up in that environment has a tendency to keep you down. But the, also the only antigravity to that is to keep moving forward.
And you kept moving forward. Eventually joining the US air force. Why did you choose to go into airborne?
One of the things that I did credit for keeping me out of too much trouble as a kid was, I joined a cadet group that was formed in that neighborhood to keep kids off the streets. It was a sort of maybe oriented. So I was already familiar with wearing a uniform and marching and all that stuff. So when it came time to actually join the military, because 17, I knew that I had to get out of that environment in New York.
So I went to the recruiter and I said, I joined the air force because it was the job that I wanted to get that's more cerebral in nature. And I said, show me your list of jobs and there was one that I pointed to, and I said that one and he looked and he says, "Hmm, you may not want to do that because it has to take a whole battery of testing." I said, no that's the job I want to do and there was a cryptologic linguist in the intelligence community. So I took the battery of tests and I did really well and I waited to go when my mother signed the piece of paper, putting her X on a piece of paper. Because she couldn't sign a name to authorize me to leave to join the air force underage and the rest is history.
And I will tell you when I got to basic training they said "congratulations, you're going to be a Russian linguist." and I said, no, no, wait a second. I already speak Spanish. honest God, trust me, test me. Because growing up as a kid my mother spoke english. My first language was Spanish and back in those days in the welfare system, you typically would have to go to a face-to-face meeting with a government person and as a little six-year-old kid, I would have to be my mother's translator from English to Spanish and so forth.
Going into the air force, I was already bilingual. So I became a Spanish linguist. I went through all the training. I chose to go airborne. I spent most of my life on an aC130 on a reconnaissance plane. I ended up getting stationed in Panama for almost five years back in the days of the Contras and the Sandinistas and Noriega and all the stuff. It was fascinating mission. So I wouldn't change a thing.
And you can't tell me about it or you have to kill me, right.
that's exactly right. But I will say it was a fascinating mission.
That is fantastic. And serving in the military and in your case, the US air force must have given you some of the life skills and some of the discipline that you needed to eventually continue a success in the rest of your business life, too.
Yes, so it was the discipline of serving. It was the mission orientation, which I keep with me to this day. I think as I continued in my career the one thing that I always tried to focus on with myself and my teammates and my colleagues, et cetera, was keep a focus on the mission. Don't get distracted by the noise in the background make sure that the objective is met and that at the end of the day is what is the main thing. Keep the main thing, the main thing.
So the other thing that I learned was an analytical approach to figuring out what was needed for a given assignment. And that's part of what I do with my company now with my clients is I really do help them understand that, particularly from a marketing public relations and outreach perspective, a lot of organizations will do ready fire and I think that's just a waste of resources where I really do tell them, no, we need to do ready, aim, make sure aiming in the right direction, make sure that that aim is focused on the right target and then fire. So it's that analytical approach that I keep with me in my engagements as well.
So all of those things that experienced in the military. It's something that I, kept with me it's near and dear to my heart. And to this day, I'm really proud of my service and the ability to have served with some wonderful, amazing patriotic women and men. Many of which I've remained friends with to this day.
So you had a great time, seven years serving in the US air force. What was the transition into the private sector like for you?
So the funny part for me was, so the time that I spent in Panama, especially, and then spent about a year in the headquarters element in San Antonio, Texas in those seven years that I did, I was fortunate enough and blessed enough to have been able to do most of the interesting things in my career field, that it would normally take someone 15, 20 years to do in a military career.
So I need a new challenge. And it was at that point where I decided to transition to the civilian world and I ended up getting a job with what became part of Raytheon corporation doing a similar job. But this time wearing a civilian clothes instead of a uniform so it was a fascinating transition and interesting stuff like running around the jungles of South America, chase and drug dealers, and things along those lines.
Did that for five years. So all 12 years in the intelligence community was fascinating, but it was also a time to move on to a more, I'll call it a safer career choice because I had gotten married in that interim period. And my wife and I had decided not to have kids while I was in that line of work because I never want her to go off and not come back and leave her with children to raise by herself.
So I had transitioned from doing that life to the telecommunications industry. And went to work for sprint international at the time which merged with the international elements of France telecom and Deutsche Telekom to create a joint venture called Global One and that was fascinating. So I went from megahertz, to megabits as the way I describe it from a career perspective.
But I remain heavily involved in Latin America loved being able to do business and some of the countries that I had had a military mission So it was really interesting. I remember this one time where I had gone to a particular country and I flew into the airport in a business suit and ran into somebody that I had interacted with in my previous life. And we saw each other in the airport and we just nodded and made believe we didn't see each other. It was one of those fascinating little anecdotes of stories that only happened to make that transition from the intelligence community to the civilian world.
You have lots of those different experiences. I'm sure. Having straddled, both of those worlds. Now you were in an executive position at France telecom, moving up the chain in the executive roles, but then you decided to leave and start what you're currently doing. VAR solutions. What made you decide to leave again, an executive position at a larger organization to become what back then was a one-person shop.
It was interesting. So I was doing great at the global one and when the joint venture dissolved because the French Germans and Americans realized that they couldn't get along. Mothership France telecom, the large behemoth, that it was asked me to join France telecom to head up sales and marketing for the Americas region so I was a VP of sales and marketing for the Americas, which included launching operations in United States. Because for France, telecom the United States had been sprint as part of this joint venture. So we had to start from scratch. Developing the sales and marketing plan for the United States and hiring the team and, and launching operations and got the revenue from $0 when we first started to a hundred million dollar annual run rate within eight months. So we were doing great and it was fantastic. And I had teams throughout from Canada down to Chile and we're managing that having a great success.
But I was also on the road 60, 70% of the time. By then my son was about five years old, four or five years old at the time. And I hardly saw and that was missing his upbringing. And it just got to a point where I had to make a decision as to what I was prioritizing at that time. And I said it was time to makeshift.
It was also frankly frustrating dealing with France Telecom at the time. it would had been transitioned from having the public monopoly to the private sector. Trying to stay competitive in the most hyper-competitive telecom market in the world going back to Paris with a need to change in pricing or features and invariably the response I would get back would be where we will analyze the situation and make recommendations and perhaps within five or six months And that wouldn't work in the US market for example. So it just got frustrating in that regard as well.
I Decided in 2004 I was on track to be a C-level executive in a major multinational corporation or in that realm, in the corporate executive to starting a business from scratch.
I had always had a bit of an itch to try it, that entrepreneurial spirit. So in 2004 is when I, started my company VARCom Solutions with an eye on providing the types of services that I enjoy doing the marketing public relations sales management, program management to small-medium enterprises and corporations, and nonprofits at the time.
Doing something that I felt would be helpful to my clients and that would provide a living. And that would allow me to spend more time with my son. Not surely thereafter. We had the second child, my second son was born. And then I got involved in the community, got involved with the chamber of commerce and other organizations and AOL saw what I was doing in the community and liked them. They approached me and made me an offer. I couldn't refuse to join AOL as the VP of global sales for one of their value-added services divisions. I asked if I could keep my company going on with this sort of course.
I became the VP of global sales at AOL for about six months. Which is when the entire business model AOL changed from selling services to giving everything away for free and advertising. So my division was decimated. It just basically went away and they said, wait, wait, stay. We want you to stay and be the new VP of Latin America I can do that because their initial foray into Latin America years before was a dismal failure because they would go into markets like Brazil as AOL and say, there's a new sheriff in town. And that approach and the market like Brazil does not fly as you know. So I went in to redeveloped 300 hundred penetration plan for Latin America, leveraging on the relationships and contacts that I still had. And as we were getting ready to launch the new head of the AOL international was a guy based out of Bangalore India. And his idea of international for AOL was to get into your off the ground. Fix, worked in Europe, and figure out what to do in China. Oh in Latin America. Yeah. Maybe in a couple of years, you know what, it's time for me to go.
So I went back to doing my business and did more in the community as well. I took advantage to do some of the things that really came from my heart and my soul. So I became the chairman of the chamber of commerce, where I live the Dallas regional chamber of commerce. I was the first Hispanic to chair the mainstream chamber in the history of Virginia. Got involved with the national political organization. I was the national chairman of that organization. Started doing a lot of media. A lot of national television and so forth. And that was a blast. I got involved in the workforce development process in Virginia was appointed by the governor to be the chairman of the Virginia Board of workforce development. And just got involved in a few nonprofits as well. So nonprofits that help struggling families achieve sustainable self-sufficiency and the types of things that I care about deeply.
So that was really gratifying my soul and also allowed me to show my kids that there's more to life than just making money. There's having an impact and affecting other lives in a positive way as well.
Danny, a lot of times people we'll talk about living by your values, but most often, many people don't live by their values. As your son was five years old. You decided that. Living by your values meant spending more time with your family and this VARCom solutions has provided you that. opportunity and the opportunity to engage and give back to the community, which you wouldn't have had it. To do, if you were living on an airplane, traveling all around. So you've been able to live by your values and contribute to a lot of different organizations in the community.
Now, one other thing that is absolutely incredible is the fact that for 26 years there was an effort to get a national museum of American Latinos approved. And back in 2008, you were approved. To that commission.
Tell me a little bit about the why of that museum and then what you had to do, along with support from other Latino leaders to bring it to a reality and approval at the end of 2020.
Thank you for asking that question. That was a fascinating effort. So among the things that I got involved in the community was working with then-Congressman Frank Wolf on a lot of things that were happening in Northern Virginia. Whether it was the gang issue or whether it was immigration or whether it was any number of issues I was able to work with him closely. And we developed a friendship and a rapport. And then I had heard about this effort to study the potential creation of an American Latino Museum.
I hadn't been all that involved in the Latino community at the national level until I got involved in the political stuff. But I also did notice and I saw that there was a misperception of the Latino community among many populations. They saw us with a particular perspective that I knew wasn't accurate or at least not complete. So when I looked into this effort, I have saw that there was a bill in Congress to create a commission, to study the feasibility of creating this new Smithsonian museum. And I asked Congressman Wolf, I said, look, if this bill passes, I would appreciate your putting my name and to be appointed to the commission. And he did so. I got appointed to the commission and we met for the first time.
So the bill passed in 2008 and was signed by President Bush, but didn't come together for the first time until September of 2009. And included people like Eva Longoria and Emilio Stefan. It was 23 people from all walks of life and we came together quickly as a family and a very non-partisan way. And we traveled all over the country getting input from citizens and everything from New York to Puerto Rico to California and everything in between.
And we came up with three basic findings. Number ones that was clear and pressing need for the museum. Number two, it should be proud. Smithsonian Institution. Number three really should be on the national mall. And it really was about a more complete, accurate telling of American history. There was 500 plus years of Latino contributions to the shaping and building and defending of this country that are mostly untold and missing from our history books missing from our museums.
What I learned also was that the idea for this first came from a report from a Smithsonian task force itself in 1994 where they were tasked to see how the Smithsonian was doing in terms of portraying Latino stories. They came up with a report. The title they chose for their report was "willful neglect.” Saying not only was the Smithsonian doing the poor jobs as if they were doing it on purpose.
So when we delivered our reports to Congress and President Obama in May of 2011, the title we chose for our report was to illuminate the American story for the benefit of everyone, Latinos and non-Latinos, and those visiting our country to get a better sense for who we are as a nation.
November of that same year, 2011 was the first introduction of an authorization bill because the bill, the new Smithsonian, you literally need an act of Congress and then I also joined the board of a father one C3. Friends of Group to shepherd along that legislation. It took several years to getting traction for that bill, as you know, in Congress, nothing moves quickly unless it's a crisis.
I became chairman of that 501c3 in December of 2016. And we worked really hard to develop a bi-partisan coalition of leaders as well as any number of national organizations to really hone in on the fact that this museum was needed for not just Latino community, but for everyone to get a better feeling for our history as a country.
And in July of 2020, we were able to get the bill passed unanimously in the house in November. The goal was up for a unanimous consent vote in the Senate and was blocked by one single Senator from Utah Senator Lee at which point we switched the plan B, which was to get an included in the must-pass omnibus. And that actually passed on my birthday on December 21st, 2020 and was signed into law six days later by the President on December 27th, just a few days before the end of my term as chairman. So that was a great birthday present, Christmas present, and going away present was to get that bill passed and signed into law.
And the Smithsonian is now in the process of building out a board of trustees and identifying the first founding director. And we will have the museum within the next eight to 10 years. And that's been just such a gratifying process to really pull together this national bipartisan, optimistic, positive effort at a time with so much division and polarization and tribalism in our country. that really was just such a gratifying process.
What a tremendous success, Danny, kudos to lots of different people that got involved in your leadership all along the way. Also the vast majority of people hear this podcast and can't see that you're glowing talking about it, which is wonderful. To see that.
Now I know you had a great answer to this, but I think it's important. Mike Lee of Utah had a concern about it, in essence, saying, why do we need another museum? What is your response to that? Why is a museum honoring the legacy of Latino Americans on the national mall? Important.
So I answered it in three ways. Number one is a story that was left out on purpose. As shown in the willful neglect report, as shown by the numbers in terms of the content of our national museums, even to this day.
So that's number one, number two, Hispanics are a significant portion of the population today. We're 18% of the population or more 60 plus million people. It's estimated that within a generation and a half or so we'll make up 30% of the population. So it's really important to educate and inspire those young people.
And number three, you really can't get a full understanding of a story unless you look at it from every important perspective and angle.
It's like looking through a prison, color's changed the dynamics change. If you go to an accident scene every eyewitness has a different version of the story. The perspective from the Latino community that was here long before the British got to Jamestown in 1607 is a very different dynamic and a very different story.
One that's got the good and the bad and the ugly, some really positive aspects and really negative aspects. But that story needs to be told. And I often say that by the time the British got to Jamestown, Virginia 1607, there's already been a bunch of Latinos and so I think there's a lot of reasons as to why this museum is needed. it was never intended to be a buy-in for Latinos, only, a museum, but really is to enrich the understanding of our national story for the benefit of everyone.
Understanding those different perspectives and also being able to celebrate those different milestones successes the contributions all along the history is really important for all of us, not just for the Latino community.
you are continuing to be a significant force. You love the service that you had to the country as a veteran, and you want to champion Latino veterans launching a new non-profit to support Latino veterans. What is that about Danny?
went through the process of trying to get this museum bill passed, it became very apparent to me as a veteran. That just wasn't a whole lot of awareness in terms of the contributions that Hispanics have made to our nation's defense and our nation's military from the very beginning.
Spanish General Galvez, General Washington likely would not have won the revolutionary war and there are- here's so many stories like that throughout our nation's military. So the level of recognition understanding of those contributions was one reason.
And then there was also just, it became apparent that Latino veterans didn't have a lot of great resources to turn to. So I thought it would be a good way to be able to give back. Brothers and sisters in uniform who served and the generations before them to create a new non-profit.
We're in the process of launching that it's an American Latino veterans association. So we're going to be rolling that out in the coming weeks and months. and in the future, I'll be able to provide you the website for that, but it really is going to be a way for us to be able to not only give back but also celebrate and commemorate those contributions over the centuries of this country.
That is wonderful because Danny, you have established a successful business of your own VAR comm solutions. You're contributing to many different aspects of the community from the chambers of commerce, to regional leadership organizations and to the Latino community across the. Country.
So if at this point you were asked to give advice to your younger self and younger leaders. What advice would you give Danny?
I appreciate that question Mahan because that's something that I've, thought about. The first thing I would say to my younger self is don't let anyone or anything define what you're able to achieve. The only limit to what you are able to achieve is your capacity to imagine and dream, and your willingness to work hard to achieve that. Had I paid attention to what society expected or didn't expect of me I would be dead or in jail right now At a minimum, I wouldn't have succeeded. So I would say don't pay any attention to external limits that are placed on you.
Number two, I would say don't be afraid to dream big and to dare. I think as I described earlier when I've gone through my life, running hard in a particular direction, then you get to fork in the road where I call a set of doors and you actually have to pick a door and when you open that door, there's a new hallway that you have to go down and then you'll probably come to another set of doors and so forth. I think the biggest challenge that most people face is that when they get to that sort of door, they're frozen by fear and they get stuck and they refuse to select the door because they're afraid of what's on the other side of it. I think that's what we need to have the courage to do.
Courage is not the absence of fear. It's the ability to move forward in spite of fear because fear is normal for years. But you can't let fear freeze you from moving forward. And I think that's the one thing that I've learned. Look there's absolutely no reason for someone like me. So I've been able to run for office back in 2015. There's no reason for someone like me to become a successful corporate executive or a small business owner, or being able to give back in the community and the ways that I had. there's no logical reason for me to have been able to do those things other than the fact that I was too ignorant to know that I shouldn't have gone for it.
So the only reason that I've been able to do some of these things is because I was willing to jump off of that tall ledge into the unknown. And I think that's the one thing that I would urge people to do is be willing to, take that leap.
What great advice, Danny, and not just necessarily for younger leaders or your younger self, all throughout our lives, professionally and personally, there are leaps we need to take and fears that we have to create that better future for ourselves, our families, and our communities. So it's great advice for all of us listening to your experience.
Now in addition to that Danny, are there any leadership resources that you typically find yourself recommending when people around you want to become more effective? You've done great things, both professionally and with respect to the community, achieving some incredible success and leadership resources you typically recommend.
For me personally, Mahan, What I found is I need to unplug and disconnect. No one thinks that I'm in the process of doing now. I'm currently the vice-chair of Leadership Fairfax and every friday morning, myself and the current chair, Kim Stewart, and the President Karen Cleveland, we have a call that we get on just to level set and make sure everything's going properly and redoing things that we have to do.
And the funny thing is that on each of those calls, I'm walking my dog- my dog Leo. So every morning I take an hour or so, and I will walk my dog and I will unplug and I will disconnect and I will regroup and refresh and that allows me to level set for the rest of the day. So when you asked Karen about those Friday morning calls, she was out. So as she's pulling it down, she says making a call from outside. But it really is, and it lets you commune with nature and it lets you sort of, recharge the battery for the rest of the day. So whether it's walking the dog in the morning or if it's better for you to meditate or do exercise in the morning, do something that allow you to refocus the mind, get your mind off of the days drudgery so that when you do dive into it, you dive into it with a fresh perspective and a better productivity and better efficiency and effectiveness. I think that's what I've been doing lately is just disconnecting for a while before jumping in, because it really does help to refocus.
It really is important and it's great advice with us being surrounded with technology. There is a tendency for executives to feel like they can't unplug and therefore. Become more inefficient and more stressed. So it's really important to be able to unplug and recharge those batteries.
Now I know Danny, your mom had a significant influence on you and. She saw much of your success and having seen you being as a critical contributor to establishing the national museum of American Latino, nothing would have made her more proud. So it's wonderful to be able to hear the stories of a great leader like you and shared with a partnering leadership community.
Thank you so much, Danny Vargas.
Mahan thank you. so very much and good luck to you and your audience and thank you all so very much.