Irvin, Vernon

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Vernon Irvin


Chief marketing officer

Growing up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Vernon Irvin did not receive encouraging career advice from his high school teachers and guidance counselors. They assumed that he would follow his father into the steel mills that provided work for many of the city's working-class African Americans. However, his mother believed in her son's potential and encouraged him to complete his education by attending college. After obtaining a degree in computer science, Irvin understood that this new technology heralded a digital revolution that could transform people's lives around the world. Armed with technical knowledge, highly developed management and communication skills, and an unwavering drive to succeed, Irvin gained executive positions in several respected corporations.

As a successful business leader, Irvin contributed to the growth of the organizations he worked for by understanding and responding to customer needs. As an African-American executive in a largely white industry, he has also devoted himself both to mentoring young people of color working in the field of information technology and working to make sure that low-income people of all races have access to that technology.

Vernon Irvin Jr. was born on December 31, 1961, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, on the eastern edge of the city of Pittsburgh. Braddock was a working-class suburban community, whose economy depended largely on the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, which had been constructed by Andrew Carnegie in 1873. Like many Braddock citizens, Irvin's father, Vernon "Jock" Irvin worked, first in the steel mill, then, as the U.S. steel industry declined, in an oil refinery. His mother worked at a school of cosmetology, the Pittsburgh Beauty Academy.

Irvin attended St. Anselm's, a Catholic elementary school in the nearby, largely white suburban town of Swissdale. It was not easy being one of very few black students in his school, and it was even harder riding the bus home to Braddock wearing the jacket and tie of his school uniform. However, the taunts and beatings he received merely inspired him to learn to defend himself and to study hard so that he could build a different life.

Began Career in Computer Science

Irvin's parents encouraged him to follow his ambition. Working several jobs each, they saved money to help him attend college, and Irvin contributed by working nights while attending classes during the day. After his graduation from high school in 1979, he entered California State University, San Bernardino, in southern California. He chose to study computer sciences, not because he enjoyed working with computers, but because he recognized that the newly developing field would offer a wide range of career opportunities. At night he worked in the data processing department of the Sisters of Charity Hospitals.

Irvin soon found that he had been right about the expanding job possibilities available to those familiar with computers and information systems. The Sisters of Charity transferred him to Houston, Texas, where he continued his education at the University of Houston, earning an associate's degree while continuing to work in the field. In 1982 he took a job in the telecommunications division of Star Bank, heading their ATM and computer operations. After three years with Star Bank, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and took a job with the telecommunications giant MCI.

Irvin found that his knowledge of computers had enabled to find him good jobs with prestigious companies even without a bachelor's degree. However, his supervisors at MCI advised him that he could advance much farther if he returned to college to finish his degree work. He took their advice and graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1989 with a BS in computer sciences. During his career, he became convinced that he had made the right decision, and he would frequently advise young computer-science students to resist the temptation to leave school to take an attractive job offer. Though jobs are available to non-graduates, Irvin warned, real advancement can be limited without a college degree.

Irvin worked at MCI for six years, moving from Cincinnati to Chicago and Atlanta to the corporation's centers there. After transferring back to Chicago, he left MCI to take administrative positions in a number of other companies. From 1990 to 1992 he served as vice president of strategy, business development, and product management at Ameritech Small Business Services. He then became senior vice president of MFS Communications, presiding over that company's takeover of Internet service provider UUNET. He left MFS/UUNET in 1993 to take a position as president of the advanced data services division at eSpire, an information technology investment company. He advanced to become chief marketing officer at eSpire before leaving in 1995 to take a job at WorldCom.

Assumed International Role in Telecommunications Industry

In 1999 Irvin was hired away from WorldCom by another international telecommunications leader, British Telecom (BT). To take the position of senior vice president of marketing and Internet with BT, Irvin moved to London. Even though the job required a grueling commute across the Atlantic every other week to see his family and work at the BT North American center in northern Virginia, Irvin loved living in London and enjoyed traveling around the world as a representative of BT's international network. Through his job he met world leaders such as the French president Jacques Chirac and Jiang Zemin, president of the People's Republic of China. He especially enjoyed visiting Africa, where he met the South African Archbishop and activist Desmond Tutu.

At a Glance …

Born Vernon Irvin Jr. on December 31, 1961, in Braddock, PA; married Erica; five children. Education: University of Cincinnati, BS in computer science, 1989.

Career: Star Bank, director of telecommunications, 1982-85; MCI, 1985-91; Ameritech Small Business Services, vice president of strategy, business development, and product management, 1990-92; MFS/UUNET, senior vice president, 1992-93; eSpire, advanced data services division, senior vice president of marketing, executive vice president of corporate development and strategy, chief financial officer, 1993-95; WorldCom, 1995-99; British Telecommunications Worldwide, senior vice president of marketing and Internet, 1999-2002; American Management Systems, global communications, media, and entertainment division, executive vice president and general manager, 2002-03; VeriSign Telecommunication Services, executive vice president and general manager, 2003-06; XM Satellite Radio, chief marketing officer, 2006—.

Memberships: Center for Telecommunication Management, board of directors; CTIA, The Wireless Association, board of directors; William and Mary School of Business, board of directors; Wireless Foundation, board of directors.

Awards: National Eagle Leadership Institute, Eagle Award, 2004; 50 Most Important African Americans in Technology, Pinnacle Award, 2006.

Addresses: Office—XM Satellite Radio, Office of the Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, 1500 Eckington Pl. NE, Washington, DC 20002.

Irvin left BT in 2002. After a year as executive vice president and general manager of the global communications, media, and entertainment division of American Management Systems, he was hired as executive vice president of VeriSign Telecommunication Services. Irvin's innovative work at VeriSign helped the corporation to double its earnings in just two years, boosting its gross income to $850 million. One of his biggest contributions to the telecommunications company was the concept of easily downloadable cellphone ringtones taken from popular songs. Irvin initiated VeriSign's acquisition of a German company called Jamsa that had created a number of downloadable options for cell phones, such as games, wallpaper, and ringtones. Expanding Jamsa's idea, Irvin created Jamster, which offered cell-phone users access to a wide variety of ringtones.

However, Irvin's contribution to VeriSign and to the mobile phone industry in general went beyond the addition of a few ringtones. Aware that cell-phone options were especially appealing to young audiences, he worked with music industry leaders to make the connection between cutting-edge hip-hop artists and the individual mobile phone. The broad marketing vision he had developed during his varied corporate career enabled him to understand that the telecommunications industry and the entertainment industry could develop a mutually beneficial relationship. He could not only use popular music to sell ringtones, he could use the sale of ringtones to promote rising musical stars, such as rapper Mike Jones, whose early career was boosted by Jamster. In addition, Irvin began to envision immediate mobile phone connections to music, photographs, and even television broadcasts. Irvin's innovations in telecommunications earned him the nickname of "ringtone czar."

In 2006 Irvin left VeriSign to take a position at XM Satellite Radio, where he has continued uniting technology and entertainment. As chief marketing officer for XM, he is responsible for market research, retail sales, and advertising. He has continued to reside in northern Virginia, where he spends rare leisure moments with his family. An avid golfer, he is also an amateur artist, creating sketches in charcoal and pastels.



Black Enterprise, July 2006, p. 65.

Inter@ctive Week, December 6, 1999, p. 18.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 7, 2006.

Telecommunications Reports, June 5, 1995, p. 36.

Wireless News, September 13, 2006.


Bolden, Janeé, "Vernon Irvin: Ringtone Czar,", (accessed December 28, 2007).

"Convergence of Communication," IT Conversations, (accessed December 28, 2007).

"Vernon Irvin," Tavis Smiley Show, (accessed December 28, 2007).

"Vernon Irvin," Urban Influence Magazine, (accessed December 28, 2007).

"XM Satellite Radio Names Vernon Irvin as Chief Marketing Officer," Orbitcast, (accessed December 28, 2007).


Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Vernon Irvin on October 18, 2007.

—Tina Gianoulis