Jose Cardenas, chair of Lewis and Roca law firm of Phoenix and chairman of the board at Translational Genomics Research Institute, has a full plate, to put it mildly.
“The hardest part of what I do on a daily basis is finding the time to do a good job,” Cardenas said. “I’m always concerned that I do a lot of things, but none of them particularly well.”
But it is hard to find evidence that bears out that concern. Cardenas was most recently named to the board of the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and the Council on Foreign Relations, showing that his reputation for excellent service and civic leadership has spread beyond the courtroom and the Arizona state line. He has been a delegate to the North American Free Trade Agreement Advisory Committee on Private Commercial Disputes, and vice chairman of both Greater Phoenix Leadership and the Commerce and Economic Development Commission, which sets the agenda for the Arizona’s economic planning and strategic initiatives.
Cardenas started out as a wayward engineering student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But not taking to the engineering life, he followed the advice of a professor and explored law school. It is safe to say that came more easily to Cardenas, who received his law degree from Stanford University in 1977 and joined Lewis and Roca the next year.
The sheer number of boards Cardenas serves on demonstrates not only the esteem in which his colleagues hold him, but also his strong commitment to community in all its forms. As a former board chairman for Valley of the Sun United Way and the Center for the Future of Arizona, and current board member of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the Maricopa Partnership for Arts and Culture, and the Arizona Family Housing Fund, among others, Cardenas credits the breadth of his involvement in the community to his “upbringing in the firm.”
Though Cardenas is very involved in his local and legal community, he is probably most well-known as host of the weekly current affairs show “Horizonte,” which first aired on KAET-TV in Sept. 2003 as a complement to Michael Grant’s “Horizon.”
Amid all the challenges he sees facing Arizona, Cardenas says that the state’s biggest hurdle is education. Even if he were not a parent, Cardenas, the first member of his family to graduate from high school, says he would still believe strongly in the power of education.
“If we figure that one out, we will go a long way to dealing with something that is both a challenge and a great opportunity—our rich diversity,” he said.%pagebreak%
Cardenas has earnestly seized that challenge and opportunity in many ways: through “Horizonte”; in his eight years as president of the Arizona-Mexico Commission; on the board of Chicanos por la Causa and Xicanindio Artes; and while serving on the Arizona State University Minority Advisory Council. In recognition of his rich and varied service to the Mexican-American community in the U.S., the Mexican government awarded Cardenas the Ohtli Award in 2000. The Ohtli is presented by Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to individuals or organizations that have a positive impact on relations with Mexico.
Cardenas also brings his eye for cross-cultural cooperation to his chairmanship at TGen, where he recently helped form a pact to do collaborative research across the Arizona-Mexico border with INMEGEN, a Mexico-based genomics research institute similar to TGen.
His interest in—and affection for—his own Mexican heritage spills over into his pastimes, which include reading history and historical fiction. Right now, Cardenas is reading a book about the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-1848 authored by Mexican historians and rich in primary sources.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved to read. My tastes are quite eclectic,” Cardenas says. As a boy, they included reading Fantastic Four comic books. So what superpower would Cardenas choose to wield now?
“Having the ability to get skinny like the leader of the Fantastic Four would be a handy superpower to have,” he joked. “I wouldn’t need to fit through keyholes as he could. Getting into last year’s suit would be quite satisfactory.”
Cardenas’ knack for being in 43 places at one time seems to be a superpower he has already mastered. But it also seemed a superhuman effort to get Cardenas to take much of the credit for his success. Asked about his multitude of civic honors and leadership roles in the many illustrious organizations to which he belongs, Cardenas consistently shrugs off accolades and credits others for helping him get there.
“There is not a person on our board who would not make a good chair,” Cardenas says of his colleagues on the TGen board, adding that he is uncertain that he brings anything unique to the chairmanship at Phoenix’s new genomics research center.
“But I do think it is an honor and a privilege to be even a small part of this great adventure,” he says.
Cardenas is not troubled by critics’ claim that Phoenix is putting all of its eggs in the bioscience basket. In fact, he says, he believes the danger in the biosciences is having too broad a focus.
“We need to select the niches in which we excel, and translational genomics is one of those.”
As for his most important job, Cardenas says he hopes that he and his wife Virginia have set a good example and provided the opportunities for their three sons—ages 29, 26, and 24—to “make of themselves the best that they can be.” And what trait of his own does he hope he has not passed on to the boys?
“The clumsiness gene,” he says. “They certainly are much more balanced than I am, in many senses of the word, but I see signs every now and then that they are every bit as capable as I was of putting their elbow right in the middle of someone’s birthday cake.”
For Cardenas, that is a literal example—he planted his funny bone in his cousin’s cake at her 13th birthday party right after he set it in front of her. “I think it was a set up,” he says. “They should have known better than to let me carry it!”
Asked what the easiest part of balancing his hectic professional life with the challenge of raising three sons, Cardenas’ reply was winningly simple: “showing up.” And then a final slice of that trademark humility:
“Being associated with tremendously talented people makes me look much more accomplished than I am,” Cardenas said.
But on that count, the jury’s still out.