Tony G. Holcombe’s (B.A. ’77) story of success begins on the printed page, as a first-generation college student at Georgia State University who loved reading about world history. He built a career on the advancing edge of wireless technology and now serves as vice-chairman and board member of Syniverse Holdings, which handles business and network engineering for voice and data around the globe.
What he learned through those pages of his history books helped him understand and connect with diverse cultures. Recently, Holcombe gave back through a $650,000 bequest in support of scholarships for history students and business students.
“A history degree exposed me to a bigger world and gave me a better appreciation of people, their dynamics and historical trends,” Holcombe said in an interview at his home just outside Tampa. “Plus I didn’t graduate with $100,000 in debt. I could work and pay my way through a good school, but students can’t do that that today, and that’s a huge problem.”
“Tony Holcombe’s experience is a fantastic example of how studying history prepares students to work hard and succeed in a global society – no matter what career path they follow after college,” said Michelle Brattain, chair of the GSU Department of History. “His gift is going to have a life-changing impact on many students by helping them realize their academic goals and also by inspiring them as their own stories unfold here at GSU.”
This fall, Holcombe will return to GSU to speak to history students about the importance of that subject to fields outside of education and academia. “I do expect that the talk will be very inspiring to students who have decided to follow their passion and trust that the skills they acquire in a history major will prepare them for success in many fields,” Brattain said.
Holcombe grew up in Decatur, went to Columbia High School and remembers his interest in Civil War history piqued by a showing of “Gone With the Wind” at the Fox Theatre.
His mother died when he was 15, and GSU was nearby and affordable. “I had about two dozen part-time jobs,” Holcombe said. Similar to generations of GSU students, Holcombe found that working while attending classes gave him experience and confidence while fueling his formidable drive.
Reading about history was so engaging that he considered becoming a history professor, but was ultimately pulled more by business opportunities already coming his way as an undergraduate.
Holcombe was working for Sears at night, selling maintenance agreements for lawn mowers and refrigerators when the company had an opening for an accounting clerk in the service department.
“I had never thought about accounting, but I started taking classes in it, finance and management, enough to get a minor but I never did,” he said. “That all happened because I was at Georgia State, where you could work and go to school.”
Another influence at GSU were the Atlanta police officers he met who were getting master’s degrees in criminal justice. “They were grown men, with a serious influence on me about life, that the purpose of going to school was to find work,” Holcombe said. “I really liked the flexibility to work and mature faster, instead of just partying for four years at other colleges. Sports teams weren’t our focus; it was more about working hard.”
The heavy reading load for a history major prepared Holcombe for absorbing vast amounts of information and identifying key turning points as he rose in the technology fields. His first overseas trip was about 30 years ago to Barbados to scout a location for a credit card processing center for airlines. He ended up basing the center in Juarez, Mexico, and discovered for himself how different business is done in other countries.
“That was the most interesting experience of my life, and I had to deal with all the issues of life there,” he said, describing the challenges of setting up a microwave tower and arranging for on-site medical care for employees. “Starting a company from scratch was the most fun.”
His understanding of networks and technology grew as he worked with products and services as diverse as long-haul trucking fuel cards and WebMD. His work travel took him to many countries that as a college student he had only experienced through the written word.
“History helped me and my companies be successful because I didn’t come in as an American,” he said. “I came in with services that would help you in your country and who you are there.”
When Holcombe travels, he tries to watch local TV “to get a feel and flavor of the culture.” In Hong Kong, a public service announcement stuck with him: “Life is very hard if you don’t study and do the very best you can. You will have no future in the world.”
“Education is the only thing that makes a difference in the world today,” he said. “It’s the key to everything: to prosperity, success, quality of life and happiness. If you’re not educated in today’s world, you are severely disadvantaged.”