Evening the Odds

July 08, 2019

By Adrienne Egolf

Adis Vila on the Rollins campus.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Adis Vila ’74 has been many things in life—a Cuban immigrant, a star pupil, a presidential staff member—and she’s not done yet.

Adis Vila ’74 has a piece of advice for anyone aspiring to greatness: Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself. This professor, lawyer, government administrator, policymaker, and now professional speaker and independent director says the most important thing is to be committed to your own continued improvement.

Vila is undoubtedly a product of her own advice. Her illustrious 30-year career has included leadership positions in the service of two different presidents and culminated with her role as the first Chief Diversity Officer for the U.S. Air Force. Today, she sits at the helm of Vila & Associates, a consultancy firm she founded to help clients build diverse leadership and foster an inclusive organizational culture.

Vila’s story begins in Cuba. She remembers days at the beach and riding on the back of her grandfather’s bike. Her mother tells her stories about her early inclination to lead, gathering her cousins around when she was 3 or 4 for a lesson with a makeshift blackboard. But that part of her life ended when, at 8 years old, Vila was forced to flee Cuba with her mother, leaving her father and all those memories behind.

“My father said to me then that the only thing anyone could never take away from me was what I knew, what I learned,” says Vila. “So I’ve always strived to know new things.”

As a young student, Vila excelled in all subjects, catching the eye of many teachers along the way and eventually landing at Rollins with a full scholarship that included bus fare back home to see her mother in Miami once a quarter.

“My mom raised me as a single mom,” she explains. “We didn’t even have a car when I went away to college. I absolutely loved Rollins—and it was so close to Miami.”

Adis Vila ’74
Photo by Scott Cook.

At Rollins, Vila flourished as a mathematics major. During her first semester, she connected with math professor Ralph Naleway, and by the second quarter, she was helping him teach a calculus class, a gig she continued throughout college. Naleway went on to become a friend and mentor, helping Vila navigate the myriad opportunities that came her way.

“I went to Rollins to be a math major but then was exposed to all these other things,” she says. “I was intellectually curious, and I just took every opportunity and remained very flexible. I took world civilizations. I took history. I took government. I just couldn’t get enough.”

With Naleway’s guidance, Vila frequently found herself in new and challenging positions throughout her time at Rollins: She studied abroad in England, in France, in Switzerland. She became fluent in four languages and gave multilingual tours at Disney World. She was named chair of the Student Court and was awarded a Rotary scholarship.

For Vila, the common thread in all of her pursuits was her interest in helping people connect. As a child, she’d been fascinated by Eisenhower’s People-to-People Program, a 1950s-era humanitarian initiative aimed at enhancing diplomacy through cultural exchanges.

“It all became kind of related,” she says, looking back on her study abroad experiences and reflecting on how they reinforced her interest in global affairs. “But who would have thunk it? I started out life as a refugee in a one-room apartment with no floors,” she says. “And that was the equalizer: that at Rollins I was given these great opportunities.”

Vila’s remarkable career and achievements speak for themselves. Starting in 1982, she began a career of government service as a White House Fellow, one of the nation’s most prestigious programs for leadership and public service. Later she was appointed to positions in the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce and the White House by Ronald Reagan; she was named Assistant Secretary for Administration at the U.S. Department of Agriculture by George H. W. Bush, where she helped secure a child-care center for employees; and she served as Secretary of Florida’s Department of Administration under Gov. Bob Martinez. In 2013, she retired as the first Chief Diversity Officer for the U.S. Air Force.

Today, she runs her consultancy business from her home in Miami so she can care for her elderly mother. But she is not finished reinventing herself—and she remains committed to her global perspective that took root at Rollins.

“One of the reasons things have been difficult for me is that I never saw anyone like me doing anything I wanted to do,” says Vila. “Today, there are very few Latinas on corporate boards, and I’m committed to becoming one of the first so that I can make sure other Latinas have these opportunities too. I think it’s really that last ceiling that needs to be cracked.”

Students wearing caps and gowns walk to a commencement ceremony on Rollins College’s campus.

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