Alumni Spotlight: Fernando Arias, mentee of MEF Executive Director Glenn Wilke

We started out in Pilsen, where I’ve gotten shot. Then, we moved to Bridgeport where I was beat up by Italians being the only Mexican kid around.
— Fernando

Name: Fernando Arias, Alumnus of Midtown Center for boys in Chicago
College: University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana, Chemistry
Grad School: Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, MBA
Occupation: Spent nine years at Cargill; Currently at Roquette America

What was it like growing up in Chicago?

My family and I emigrated from Mexico in September of 1970 without the ability to speak English. We started out in Pilsen, where I've gotten shot. Then, we moved to Bridgeport where I was beat up by Italians being the only Mexican kid around. My parents worked night and day. It was hard.

Why Midtown?

In 7th grade, a local family introduced me to Midtown. It was an affordable oasis from my rough neighborhood. I came from a very loving family even though my mom had a 2nd grade education; my dad, 3rd grade. Midtown gave me direction and helped to reinforce the values I was taught at home. It was lots of fun, full of good people, and they exposed me to things an inner-city kid never knew existed. People really cared and wanted the best for me. It was the foundation for me. Some of the things I do for my own kids today, I learned at Midtown.

And guess who my mentor was decades ago? Glenn Wilke, MEF's current Executive Director!

How did you learn about college?

Glenn talked about it. Midtown talked about it. There were expectations from my parents but no direction regarding school selection. They did not understand the academic and achievement standards of the different colleges and universities. They were proud of me having graduated high school. Midtown helped me apply to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was there that I found out I was poor. My parents were working hard to pay my tuition. I'd come home and find that the TV was gone. Other belongings were gone and sold. I applied for scholarships to afford it all.

How do you bring your lessons in character into the workplace?

It's important to me that the values of a company coincide with those of my own and that I respect what they stand for. Roquette Frères is a $3.5 billion, eighty year-old company. I work for the US subsidiary Roquette America and manage sales, marketing, R&D, and regulatory affairs. The character and values I learned at Midtown, I've applied to my work, and I expect the same from my team. I use the following six Standards of Behavior for inspiring excellent team performance: Courage, Conviction, Integrity, Respect, Solidarity, and Trust. It's important that each individual embody them. What is integrity? Who you are at the workplace can't be different from who you are outside. If the values are violated, those employees may be let go. We even have an Ethics Committee at Roquette, where the company has the responsibility to give those who are let go (not due to cause) with the skills to find a new job.

What kind of impact do you see on the company?

It is for the broader good of the team. They trust each other. Sincerity increases, and they support each other through hard times, even personal struggles. The group has become more productive because of the increase level of trust among the team.

Any problems with HR?

No, it actually helped the company. Because we define the standards of behavior, we have proof of their room to grow, and help our employees to do just that.

What shortcomings have you had to overcome?

Coming from a poor background, I didn't know the classics, how to eat properly, order from a menu, or go to a theatre. I expose my son to all these things now. He and I ate oysters and went to the symphony last Saturday night. I had to learn all that on my own and competed with the people who had all of that. 

After being promoted to Global Director of Sales for FMC BioPolymers, I traveled. Having never lived outside of the country, I learned how to eat and explore around the world. My salary tripled coming from Northwestern, and I had a $100k expense account. I got caught up in all the money. Then during 1996 Atlanta Olympics, a man in a Dodge pickup who was drunk with a .286 blood alcohol level ran me over in my car. I was in a coma for 4 months, hospitalized for a year, and had 72 broken bones. I needed that smack in the head to come back with a sense of humility.

I was so upset, I wouldn't talk. I was mad with God. I went to a Roman Catholic rehab center. It brought me back to who I was and who I had become and made me overcome adversity.

After being away from the Chicagoland area for 20 years, it's been fun to return to Midtown and talk to Glenn again. I'm back home.

Fernando Arias and his wife Katie have been married for 23 years and live in the Chicagoland area with their two children, Nando, 15, and Tatiana, 8.