Of the four members of MountainStar Sports Group, Alejandra de la Vega Foster may be the least known, but she has the most experience when it comes to sports teams.
She managed her first major league sports team in her early 20s and went on to serve on the board of the Mexican Football Federation, which oversees Major League Soccer in Mexico.
Now she is putting that knowledge to work as a member of MountainStar, along with husband Paul Foster, Woody Hunt and his son Josh Hunt. The group recently completed the purchase of the Triple-A Tucson Padres, a team expected to play its first season in a new Downtown El Paso stadium in 2014.
Although many know de la Vega Foster as the wife of local heavy hitter and philanthropist Paul Foster, she has a more than remarkable résumé of her own.
She’s the president of Almacenes Distribuidores de la Frontera, a company that operates more than 200 Del Rio convenience stores in northern Chihuahua, and she is actively involved with several non-profits. She is co-founder of Plan Estrategico de Ciudad Juárez, a citizens group working to empower the citizens of Juárez, and she serves on the board of the El Paso Museum of Art Foundation.
De la Vega Foster, 45, was born in El Paso and spent much of her childhood in Juárez. She attended high school at Loretto Academy in El Paso and earned a degree in industrial engineering from Monterrey Tech in Mexico.
Shortly after graduating college in the late 1980s, she became CEO of the Cobras de Ciudad Juárez professional soccer team, which rose from the second division to the major leagues.
She also played sports herself, basketball at Loretto and Monterrey Tech. She rides horses, did show jumping when she was young and now plays polo as a hobby.
“If you want nourishment for the soul, you look to the arts and sports,” she says.
De la Vega Foster comes from a family that has probably done more than any other to knit the Juárez and El Paso communities together, rallying people on both sides of the border in support of the destitute.
Her father, Federico de la Vega, is a prominent businessman with several major operations in Juárez. Her mother, Guadalupe de la Vega, was named a CNN Hero for her work in Juárez where she co-founded FEMAP – a massive non-profit whose health promotoras bring medical services to more than 57,000 people a year.
Alejandra says her parents are important role models for her.
She has served as president of Desarrollo Económico de Ciudad Juárez, an economic development organization in the Juárez region, and the Chihuahua Board of Economic Development. She is a board member of Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey in Juárez.
With her husband Paul, she has donated millions to support education in El Paso and invested in Downtown revitalization. She is now the director of the Paul L. Foster Family Foundation.
De la Vega Foster sat down with El Paso Inc. in her office at the top of the newly restored Mills Building in Downtown and talked about the importance of sports, philanthropy, growing up a de la Vega and falling in love with Paul.
Q: You have quite a family. What was it like growing up?
It was great. I loved growing up here. At our house in Juárez, sometimes we just left our keys in the car. You’d get home from school, have lunch, always a big family lunch around 2:30 p.m., and after that you’d go play in the street for a while. No one would worry.
We would do activities on both sides of the border. Going to the movies in El Paso was a big thing at the time. That was very interesting because it makes kids bilingual. We would enjoy the movies in English; we didn’t like the subtitles.
Q: Can you tell me about the business you’re involved in? I understand you do quite a bit of work between El Paso and Juárez.
I still participate in our family businesses; it’s probably been 22 years. Now I am mainly involved in the convenience store business. We have convenience stores in the north of the state of Chihuahua, approximately 200 small stores, called Del Rio superettes.
But something I forgot – you were talking about my mom – it was very interesting growing up with a woman whom… You know, it is definitely more traditional on the Mexico side, the thinking about the woman’s role in the family.
My mother, although she didn’t work for a business, she has always been so passionate about her work that she really invested the same amount of time. So, yes, a lot of times coming home from school, she wasn’t at home waiting for me. But I always thought the example she set brought so much more to my life than having her waiting for me at the house. I guess it comes down to more quality of time rather than quantity.
At one point, my mom went on a crusade to convince woman like herself that, because they had a husband who took care of paying the bills, they could work for motives other than a salary; they could help other women who were in need.
That taught us a lot; it taught us we can do what we set our sights on. We are not confined by a gender.
Q: Why did you choose to study industrial engineering?
I always liked math and computers but business also. It was something that could provide me with an analytical frame of mind that could serve me in many aspects of life, not as technical maybe as chemical or mechanical engineering.
Q: Was it a challenge studying in a male-dominated field?
(Laughs) No, they were all really nice. It was actually not a problem.
Q: Tell me about your experience purchasing and managing sports teams in Mexico? I understand it sort of runs in the family.
My father used to own a baseball team in Juárez – Los Indios de Juárez. In 1988, he bought a second division soccer team and the first year they ascended into the major league.
My father has always believed in sports as a way of promoting quality of life. The players are like heroes to youth and role models.
Q: What was the name of the team?
The Cobras de Juárez. They had ascended into the major league as I was graduating from Monterrey Tech. The truth is I had very different plans, but I got pulled into sports team management.
Q: What were your original plans?
To go into the logistics of the convenience store business as an industrial engineer and optimize the systems.
But I got involved with the team and very, very soon I was managing it – within a couple of months.
Q: I imagine that took you out of your comfort zone.
You were talking about male-dominated careers. Ha! Talk about a male dominated world – soccer. It was a challenge, but every person has challenges in their life. It’s how we approach them and how we get through them that matters. It’s often how we learn, and that was a big learning experience.
Q: Of the MountainStar Sports Group partnership, it sounds like you have the most sports team management experience. What is your role in ownership group?
We are in the process of defining who will play what role. Really, though, that is not the most important thing to us. The main goal was to make it happen and better the quality of life in El Paso.
Some people ask me, “Why not soccer?” Well, El Paso could support both a baseball and a soccer team. We’ve been looking and we’ve been talking, but the opportunity to bring baseball came first. Major League Soccer teams aren’t just up for grabs anytime. Like they say, sometimes the stars align, sometimes they don’t, and I think you have to be ready when the stars do align to move forward.
Q: Yeah, I’ve heard some say that soccer would make more sense given the culture here and its popularity.
I think both make a lot of sense. Baseball is played a lot, especially in the north of Mexico. I don’t know if you have seen the new baseball stadium being built in Juárez that’s about to be inaugurated in November. We have a very strong league, and a lot of people play baseball in Juárez.
Actually, when we first started with soccer back in the ‘80s it was a challenge. People in Juárez were more into baseball and, to a lesser extent, basketball. We kinda set a trend.
Q: Having owned and managed teams, what have you learned that you can apply to the purchase of the Tucson Padres and the construction of a ballpark here?
One of the more rewarding things about managing the Cobras was the impact I saw it had on the children, especially the children of the remotest colonias. The players are their heroes. Every week, we took the players to visit kids at community centers, elementary schools, and their little faces would just light up.
There was one very significant experience for me. Within my mother’s non-profit FEMAP, there was one pilot program with a group of kids from 10 to 14 who came from very, very troubled backgrounds. They lacked everything.
My mother’s a psychologist so she decided she was going to impact their lives. They had a doctor and a psychologist and a nurse, but nobody could connect with them until one day they called me and asked if the kids could go to a game. The kids watched the game, met the players in the locker room and went out on the field. The experience totally transformed them.
The players don’t realize the impact they have. The kids saw these guys and were just like, “Wow, that’s my hero.” So we started a program. Every two weeks when there was an away game, I would take one of the kids on a trip with the team. It was the only thing to motivate the kids to do what the psychologists were asking them to do.
Q: Do you envision a similar program in El Paso?
I would love to think of a program like that.
Q: Were you surprised by the opposition?
Yes. I was surprised because I had thought very carefully about it, exploring every angle. Basically, here are two guys, Paul and Woody, coming together to do this, and baseball is part of a bigger vision for El Paso that is shared by many other people.
I know Paul and Woody very well, and that was probably my mistake because I know them and I know their intention, but not everybody knows them that close.
Everybody is allowed to have their opinion. The thing is, if you oppose it, you need to have a valid reason.
Q: Did opponents ever approach you?
Well, no. It was more me approaching them.
Q: What would opponents tell you?
The timing was an issue for some. I had one person tell me we should wait three years.
But the main issue I think was the location. People would say they would like to see a professional team in El Paso but wanted it done differently.
Q: There’s been a major push recently to clarify Proposition 3. The city says it’s not a vote on the ballpark – it will be built either way – it is essentially a vote on whether visitors should pay for the ballpark or local taxpayers. If Proposition 3 is voted down, are you concerned the project could fall apart?
We are not at all concerned, because the city has a formal, legal commitment to build a ballpark regardless of whether it passes or not. As an El Pasoan, I am very concerned people would vote against it because it is like shooting yourself in the foot. What it comes down to is whether visitors pay for it or the citizens of El Paso pay for it.
The increase in the hotel tax would add at most $1.40 to the average hotel bill. I don’t think people would make a decision not to come to El Paso because of $1.40. It is a great funding idea. I mean, we’ll have more than 70 games, and the teams alone will provide more business for local hotels.
I respect different opinions; there needs to be tolerance and an effort by both sides to understand the position of the other side. But when some opponents want to confuse people and spread false information because they have some sort of agenda, that’s frustrating.
El Paso has already progressed a lot. When you walk Downtown it feels like a forward thinking city. That’s what we need. It might sound bad and my husband might not like it, (laughs) but we need more places for people to go other than malls.
Q: Right. Your husband is building The Fountains at Farah, a large shopping center near Cielo Vista Mall.
If you want nourishment for the soul, you look to the arts and sports. El Paso is a great place to live, but we do lack quality of life. That’s why it is hard to bring talented people to El Paso and sometimes even hard to get young folks who may go to college in another city to come back.
Q: Let’s move on to philanthropy, something you and your husband seem passionate about. What is your perspective on the culture of philanthropy in Mexico and El Paso?
There are many different ways to do philanthropy, no? I am convinced that every citizen has a responsibility to give back – especially people who have had more successes. That comes from both family values and religion. I’m Catholic. Giving is an important part of religion.
We’ve been very fortunate to be a part of this community and to be successful. Our success is driven by many factors, so we feel that we owe the community. I mean, we have more than 2,000 employees in Juárez and every one of them contributes to the success our business has. So we definitely have a responsibility to give back to the community, and there are many ways to do it.
People are passionate about different things, and you should give back in the way you can, whether it be monetary, giving of your time or your talent.
This is a great place to live, but I think we can make this a better place. This is a great moment. What I see in El Paso is people organizing to create a better community. Now that Juárez is doing a lot better, there is also a big project to do a convention center right on the bridge. Imagine if we could have binational conventions here. How unique would that be?
Q: I understand you are also quite involved with the development of the children’s museum in Juárez.
Yes, I am a member of the board. It is a dream we have had probably for 10 years, and it was only a dream until a few years ago. Now, the state government has constructed the museum.
Q: I was there a couple weeks ago for an Amor por Juárez event. The building is absolutely massive, but empty.
The plans we have for the exhibits are fabulous. They are being done in Mexico City by the same people that did the Papalote children’s museum. It’s a big dream, but we need to think big if we are going to transform Juárez.
Q: When will it open?
Q: You mentioned transforming Juárez. How is life there now?
Things are a lot better – much better than many people even perceive. I participate in a group called the Security Task Force. It is a volunteer citizens group. We get together with the heads of the security institutions, and we have learned to work together over the past four years. We’ve surpassed the aggressive goals we set then.
It’s hard. It’s an international problem, but we as a community need to work together. Our best asset is each other.
Q: What were some of those goals?
For example, our goal for homicides was 50 per 100,000 people. We’re under that. We’ve had a couple of months that have put us in the 30s. We still have many challenges – it’s not perfect – but we have learned to work together to work them out. I’m convinced that the best asset El Paso and Juárez have are each other.
Q: You and your husband have stayed in El Paso when I imagine you could live just about anywhere. Why have you guys stuck by the city and invested so much into this region?
I’m from here, my family is here and my friends are here. This is my community. My husband has fallen in love with the region. He loves it here. It is a very nice place to live. People from outside don’t know that. “You live where?” they say.
Q: Where do you live?
On the Westside in The Willows.
Q: How did you and your husband meet?
We met through a local Young Presidents Organization chapter. Paul was president of the El Paso chapter and they invited 10 prospects from Juárez to join. I was one of the 10 and I did join and we got married, which was not the purpose of the organization. (laughs)
Q: Love at first sight?
You know, it was – we both perfectly remember – it was an event in the spring at La Viña winery. I hadn’t met him and didn’t know who he was. I was much more involved in the Juárez community, so we kinda started a friendship and from there…
Q: So there’s the $50 million donated to establish the medical school, $1 million donated to UTEP, the renovation of the Mills Building and new retail. Professional baseball is coming to El Paso, and the renovation of the Plaza Hotel is under way right now. What’s next for the Foster and de la Vega families?
Right now, we are focused on baseball. All the things you mention, though, are really all related to the same vision.
E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.