Sammy Cueva ’93 on SU’s First Latino Fraternity, His Businesses and Family, and Turkeys
Zhamyr “Sammy” Cueva ’93 is one of five individuals who will receive Chancellor’s Citations in recognition of their significant civic or career achievements at the Coming Back Together gala dinner Saturday, Sept. 16, at the Syracuse Marriott Downtown.
Cueva oversees the Fraud Detection Division of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the largest transportation network in North America, covering 5,000 square miles in New York City, Long Island, southeastern New York state and Connecticut). He is also a highly successful entrepreneur with ownership stakes in three New York City restaurants (Blend LIC, Blend on the Water and Blend Astoria), as well as the Soulatino marketing group and the branding and custom solutions company ColorWerx.
In the interview below he talks about his time at Syracuse, his life and his diverse business interests.
01Why Syracuse University? Is there anything/anyone special that attracted you or inspired you to attend school at SU?
When I was younger, a close friend of the family, Doug Friedman ’56, mentioned he attended Syracuse University, and he told stories about college life. He wasn’t one who’d influence me by telling me “Go to Syracuse. You have to go to SU.” He never did that. But he put Syracuse University in my mind, and it stuck—especially when I would see the basketball team play on TV.
While in high school, I enrolled in an afterschool program called Double Discovery at Columbia University that my brother and sister attended. It was for inner-city kids, like myself, whose parents never went to college and helped motivate and introduce college life. So when the program offered to take students to visit some schools, including Syracuse University, I jumped on the opportunity. I fell in love with the campus. I knew this place would be perfect for me. The University changed my life, and I will always be grateful for the opportunities it gave me.
02In 1991, you were a founding member of the Theta chapter of Lambda Upsilon Lambda (ΛΥΛ). It was the first-ever Greek organization for Latinos at SU. Looking back, what did it mean for you and other Latino students at the time?
We were trying to fill a void, giving Latinos a choice to enter Greek life with an organization they can relate to. At 18, we didn’t know the significant impact that we created until after we established the chapter at Syracuse. We heard from alumni who mentioned to us that they wished they had this opportunity when they attended.
03Now, more than 25 years later, is ΛΥΛ—and other organizations like it for Latinos and Latinas—still important? Why?
It’s actually more important now. As the Latino population increases in this country, we need to understand how diverse it is, with various needs. In order to entice the best students from all over the world with different backgrounds, the University needs to offer various organizations as a recruiting tool so that students know there are choices for them to join, participate in and use as an outlet to express themselves and serve their community when they attend SU.
04You have a dual degree in economics/international relations from SU and an M.P.A from Columbia University, you work for the MTA, you co-own three restaurants, you stage music events, you’ve got a custom design company. What got you going in all these different directions?
Soulatino is my first company; it sets up marketing campaigns for restaurants and other businesses. While I was at Syracuse, I would do fundraisers for my fraternity. I would go around Marshall Street and speak to venue owners to rent out their space for a night. I’d organize a party and bring in deejays from New York. I split the profits with the fraternity.
When I got back to New York after graduating, I started hosting events at clubs like Palladium and the Roxy and restaurants like Tavern on the Green and, of course, Sequoia, where my company hosted and ran the longest-running after-work party in New York history, for 18 consecutive years. These venues were paying me to bring people to their establishments. Shortly after the company grew, I started renting out more venues and investing in concerts. That’s how Soulatino started. It was predominantly Latin-based themes and a lot of hip-hop as well. With the money I was generating, I partnered up with a couple of friends and we decided to open our own restaurant. Now I own three locations, the most recent being Blend Astoria in January 2017.
I am also co-owner of ColorWerx and ColorWerx studio. ColorWerx does silk screen, embroidery and clothing for other designers. ColorWerx studio is a huge studio complex we just opened this year, focusing on photography, video shoots, websites, apps and design work.
Our company is constantly looking to invest and grow.
05As a very successful restaurateur, if you were having a conversation today with a group of Falk College food studies students, what advice would you offer?
A few things, assuming that the food is great: 1) You can’t do it by yourself; make sure you surround yourself with a great team that knows as much about the different aspects of the business and has a good work ethic. 2) Be able to take criticism, but most important be open and take chances on ideas that can expand your brand. 3) Location of the venue; very important. 4) Presentation of your product: the way the food is being served, the way your drinks are prepared, the service provided by your staff, how your food is bagged when the client takes it home. All these things are important.
06You’re the driving force behind a commemorative bench on the Orange Grove that will be dedicated during CBT in honor of the now nine Latino Greek organizations at SU. What prompted you to pursue this, and why is a permanent recognition like this important?
Latino students have made many contributions to SU over the years, and I wanted to see our presence recognized on campus. I went back to Syracuse with my mentor, Doug Friedman. He hadn’t returned to Syracuse since he graduated (in 1956). I took him to a basketball game in the Carrier Dome, which wasn’t in existence when he graduated. We went on a tour. He showed me some things from his days. And we saw the bench that the National Panhellenic Council sponsored. I spoke to my fraternity brother Jesse (Mejia ’97), and he told me how long it took the African American fraternities and sororities to get that done. I said, “You know, instead of having the Latino fraternities and sororities chip in, I’ll sponsor it.” And they could instead get together and maybe start a scholarship or something, which is more important.
07Let’s talk turkey.
Every year, I give out turkeys. It used to be in my old neighborhood (105th Street, Manhattan), but now my old neighborhood has gone through the process of gentrification. So I go to other urban city neighborhoods, and we work with a neighborhood organization.
One of the organizations that we have worked with has been the East Harlem Tutorial Program. They take inner-city kids and tutor them and help them go to college. I told East Harlem Tutorial that for Thanksgiving I would give the families of the kids in the program turkeys.
The reason this came about: On Thanksgiving when we were growing up that was the one time my parents were together with me and my siblings, and it gave us an opportunity to share and learn more about each other. Family is an important part of what has made me successful. I was very lucky to have an older sister and brother who served as role models, but I know a lot of these kids do not. I think it’s the best feeling in the world when I see kids that look like me, that live in areas that I grew up in, and my actions and words can make a difference. It gives them hope.
08Being charitable obviously gives you a good feeling. Is there anything else that really makes you happy?
Having a family of my own. I have a son. He’s three, and I love being a parent. It’s the hardest job you love.
So I’m documenting everything—all my experience—in several journals. A gift to my son. Everything will be there: this is who I am, this is what I did, the good and the bad. I think as parents we play the part as your child’s first role model. You strive to become a good parent, a good husband, but there are challenges, there are life experiences that brought me to where I am today.
I want to teach my son not only from what I have accomplished, but to learn from my mistakes, so he can become a better man and in turn teach his kids our values. Because your greatest achievements should be your family accomplishments.