From a very early age, said Andre Mendes, he was certain about two things: He was fascinated with the United States and he wanted his life to have an impact. So it’s no small irony that the lad who spent his formative years in his native Portugal consuming Reader’s Digest and Hollywood-driven TV would grow up to lead the information and technology efforts for the U.S. Government’s independent global media agency that shares international events and everything American with people around the world who lack access to free-flowing news and information.
Mendes, who earned both his Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Management and MBA at University of Maryland University College (UMUC), functions in the double role of Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). He oversees all aspects of IT and infrastructure support for non-military U.S. broadcasting in every corner of the globe. And it’s easy to connect with the enormity of his task when you understand the agency’s scope and reach.
While the BBG itself is not a household name, most everyone is familiar with one or more of the organization’s brands―Voice of America (VOA), Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia.
“We have what is likely the widest distribution portfolio of any western media organization,” Mendes told a Forbes Magazine interviewer in 2015. “We have a very clear mission to address populations that live under regimes that have no freedom of the press and freedom of information, and to address those populations in any platform in which they choose to consume news and other information.”
Back in Portugal, Mendes imagined a different future career path … as a scientist or sports icon, perhaps. “I very much wanted to play basketball at a level that is only possible in the United States,” he said in a recent discussion with UMUC staff about the value of his degree. “I wanted to study genetics. And at that time, of course, you could not do that anywhere else.”
But in hindsight, Mendes said, his life has been a confluence of his youthful passions and events in Portugal, rolled into a set of circumstances that made his current path “the only option.”
When he was 12, Portugal had a revolution. “A week [earlier], I was a very innocent kid who just delighted in all of the things that 12- year-olds delight in. And two weeks later, I had a political consciousness,” he said.
Over the next few years, as the situation continued to deteriorate and the Portuguese economy floundered, Mendes said it became obvious that there was little future there for those his age. “And so, all of the circumstances aligned for me to arrive here [in America].”
He was 17, just shy of his 18th birthday. And he came alone.
“And then I was lucky enough to find a family that was willing to take me in for room and board in exchange for tutoring their child and cleaning their house twice a week. So it worked out very well,” Mendes said.
His immigrant’s tale of hope, hard work, initiative and determination is the very epitome of the American Dream. “I had the opportunity to work just about every single job that you can think of from waiting tables to working construction. I did gardening, I did tutoring. I did house cleaning.
“So I had, you know, to do whatever was necessary in order to make sure that I could stay in this country and survive,” Mendes said.
He managed to put himself halfway through his program at a community college before running out of money, then was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to technical school. “And that got me involved in the world of microcomputers when they first came into existence in the early ‘80s,” he said.
The tech world was wide open to newcomers at the time, according to Mendes. “There was ground-level opportunity for people [who] were enthused by the technology. And to a large degree that determined my career path from that point forward.”
And though he was able to progress from job to job throughout much of his career, completing his education at UMUC propelled his career upward, Mendes said. “Whenever I applied for a job, even during an interview, it was always in my subconscious that some of my competitors were, perhaps, better equipped than I was in terms of actually delivering on the job.
“So the confidence that came from acquiring those degrees and acquiring those skills was absolutely invaluable.”
Along the way, Mendes served as chief technology integration officer for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) where he was responsible for both information technology and broadcast engineering during the Service’s $1.8 billion transition to digital television, according to his BBG biography.
More recently, Mendes, who through family experience understands the special needs of persons with Down Syndrome, was senior vice president, strategic planning and global CIO, for Special Olympics International, where he managed the organization’s global technology infrastructure and development of the 2011-2015 Special Olympics Strategic Plan.
He received one of the 2008 MIT Awards for IT innovation, among numerous other industry honors.
Said Mendes, his life’s work with organizations that have a tremendous impact on the lives of some of the most underserved—“invisible”—people across the globe has been extremely rewarding.
“When you look at an organization like PBS where the programming influences the lives of so many children, [or] Special Olympics [where] I was able to influence the outcomes for literally millions of people, and my current job to educate and inform people who live under some of the most oppressive regimes in the world … you know, for me, that’s the essence I why I came to this country.”