Ezequiel Olvera: Sweet success

Ezequiel Olvera, standing on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, holds the gumball machine that launched his boyhood business.

Alfredo Vargas remembered the skinny 11-year-old boy who came into his shoe repair shop in East Los Angeles and asked if he could put a secondhand gumball vending machine inside.

"I asked him why he wanted to have the machine there, and he said because he wanted to go to college," said Vargas; then he laughed. "I didn't even want it in my shop."

But, Vargas said, he could see a determination and intelligence in the boy, and so he agreed. "I told him, 'I think you're going to go far.'"

Six years later that boy, Ezequiel Olvera, had 40 gum and soda vending machines in shops around East L.A. and an acceptance letter to UC Santa Cruz.

At UCSC, the now six-foot Olvera got a job as a campus tour guide despite being self-conscious about his background in front of the dignitaries he met. One of them, the sister of then Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, was so impressed, she encouraged Olvera to get an internship with the California Commission for Economic Development. Olvera, a business management and economics major at Oakes College, seemed to be fulfilling Vargas's predictions.

But then trouble intervened. The fiancé of one of Olvera's sisters died and then she suffered a paralyzing stroke. His father was also having a hard time. Duty made Olvera take time off from college, although he didn't tell anyone his reason for leaving.

"I thought it would be seen as a weakness," said Olvera, now 25. "But it was just part of life."

Discouraged, Olvera went home but saw an opportunity to work in Antonio Villaraigosa's L.A. mayoral campaign. There, he met labor leader Dolores Huerta, who encouraged him to not lose sight of his dreams.

Olvera eventually returned to UCSC, where he founded the Latino Business Student Association and then, after graduation, landed a job with a major accounting firm in San Francisco. But drawn to Barack Obama's historic campaign, Olvera quit his job to work for the candidate. Now he is helping spearhead a friend's congressional campaign.

Remembering the lessons he learned at UCSC, Olvera became a lifetime member of the Alumni Association.

"For me, it is a big benefit to be part of a large network of people that I can reach out to in the future," Olvera said. "And, I think it is very important to give back."

Give back or pay it forward: Join the UCSC Alumni Association.