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Bridging the Gap

UHD Alumnus Raul Pena Leads Digital Transformation as CIO


By Ashley Kilday

Raul Pena, recently appointed Chief Information Officer (CIO) at VLS Environmental Solutions (VLS), aims to bridge the gap between intelligent use of technology and long-term business strategy with his extensive education. Pena, a University of Houston-Downtown alumnus, adopts a strategic mindset, positioning himself as “a business guy” in the arena of digital transformation.

Education and Career Trajectory

Solaris_2616_Pena_0017_copyPena earned a Bachelor of Business Administration from UHD, a Master of Information Systems from UH-Clear Lake, and an MBA from Rice University. He is currently pursuing a third advanced degree, a master’s degree in Finance at the University of Houston.

Reflecting on the impact of his UHD education and experience, Pena acknowledges the valuable skills and knowledge he gained that have contributed to his professional journey. “UHD provided me with the flexibility I needed as an adult student,” Pena said. “Although I was initially busy balancing family and work commitments, looking back, I realize the importance of nurturing relationships and networking.”

Networking played a crucial role in Pena’s career progression. “After my bachelor’s, I posted my résumé on the UHD job board,” Pena said. “An alumnus recruiter reached out to me because we had a connection through UHD. There is a line of sight between that first role after graduating from UHD and where I am today.” 

Prior to his time at VLS, Pena held positions as CFO and Vice President of Technology. Pena stresses the significance of relationships and networks, going beyond technology expertise. “You never know what friend, partner, or venture will come from those you connect with,” Pena remarked.

Driving Digital Transformation

As a CIO, Pena understands the rapid advancements in technology. His philosophy of digital transformation extends beyond leveraging analytics, machine learning, and business intelligence. Pena believes that true value creation for clients comes from listening. “To bridge the gap between technology and business strategy,” Pena explained, “professionals need to slow down and listen to what our clients require and deliver accordingly.”

Pena values information and cybersecurity while emphasizing the importance of the right team. He challenges the perspective of IT solely being a support function and urges IT professionals to reconceptualize themselves as true partners in business. “They should also identify customer needs and provide value by implementing the right solutions,” he said.

Advice for Future Generations

Pena stresses the significance of obtaining the best education and work experience. He also highlights the importance of building relationships with professors and peers, maintaining contact with friends, and embracing a lifelong learning mindset. “Never quit learning,” Pena advised. He continues to expand his knowledge and adapt to the evolving landscape of technology and business strategy.

As Raul Pena spearheads digital transformation as CIO, his journey from UHD alumnus to technology and business leader serves as a testament to the profound impact of an extensive, well-rounded education and the cultivation of meaningful connections.

About the University of Houston-Downtown

The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.

U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.