George Mason University President Angel Cabrera takes a group picture on move-in day last week in Fairfax, Va. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

When he was a young boy growing up in Madrid in the early 1970s, Angel Cabrera would spend summers in El Torno, a poor agricultural village in western Spain where his grandfather taught school.

“If I would get in trouble, all I had to say was, ‘I’m the grandson of my grandfather.’ Immediately, they would go and tell the story about how my grandfather taught them everything. They spoke about him like he was a big deal.’ ”

Duly impressed, Cabrera decided to set about being a teacher because “it was a very cool thing.”

He still is one — at George Mason University, where he teaches a leadership seminar but also is president of the Fairfax County-based college, which has a budget of nearly $1 billion and around 34,000 students.

Cabrera, 48, who took over in 2012 from Alan G. Merten, wants to turn George Mason (the slang GMU is frowned upon) into a catalyst for business creation. In particular, he wants to further its mission as a local incubator that will help wean the region’s private sector from its dependence on federal contracts.

The George Mason University mascot welcomes students and parents on move-in day. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

“We are among the top 200 research universities in the world,” Cabrera said. “We need to make it to the top 100. This region needs us to do that. It needs a top research university at its core. It is essential for this region that we become a more entrepreneurial institution, that we diversify from the federal government.”

The school recently opened its $40 million Institute for Biomedical Innovation at its science and technology campus in Prince William County. A $73 million health sciences research facility, spearheaded by a multimillion-dollar gift from the family of local real estate developer Milt Peterson, is underway. The 160,000-square-foot building will be the new home for the College of Health and Human Services.

Cabrera said George Mason has also nurtured a few cybersecurity companies and is planning more efforts.

“Our goal is to turbocharge the innovation fabric of this region,” he said. “If you think about Silicon Valley and what is happening in Austin and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and if you think about what it is that they have in common, it is that there is always a world-class university or universities as part of those hubs.”

As an immigrant, Cabrera is an unabashed fan of the U.S. melting pot — particularly of Northern Virginia.

“This country has managed to attract talent from around the world and create an environment where anybody from any background can feel as at home and as American as anybody else,” he said. “Americans may take that for granted, but that’s very, very unique and very, very rare.”

His father ran a popular tapas bar and coffee shop in Madrid when the precocious student was growing up as the second of four brothers. The oldest runs a bank in Bogata, Colombia. The last two took over the family restaurant, and they still run it.

Cabrera and his older brother were the first members of the family to go to college.

He showed a strong curiosity about the world beyond Madrid, even as a young man. He was smart, and he traveled a lot, visiting France when he was
9 years old. He became fluent in several languages.

“I always had an itch to see the world, get out from my comfort zone,” he said. “I don’t know where I got that from.”

He won a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship after graduating from college in Madrid, where he studied electrical and computer engineering. Using Fulbright money, he earned a doctorate in psychology at Georgia Tech in four years, finishing in 1999. He also met his Alabama-born wife — another psychology student — there.

“I thought it would be very, very cool to understand how the mind works,” he said.

They both earned their doctorates in a speedy four years because, he said, “we didn’t want to have to owe money to anybody.”

And borrowing scared him.

The young couple went back to Spain, PhDs in hand, where Cabrera worked as a management consultant for Accenture for a few years. He became an expert on the effects of technology on employees. His job was to help people and organizations to become more productive and comfortable with advances.

He eventually wanted to get back into academia, so he began teaching organizational behavior at IE Business School in Madrid. The president of the school quickly spotted Cabrera’s talent for presentation and leadership, as well as his desire to put the nascent school on the international map. Cabrera became dean of the fast-rising school at 33.

It was 1999. After a six-year stay at IE and several years leading the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, he joined George Mason University, replacing Merten, who led the school from 1996 through 2012.

I asked him whether his business experience prepared him for running a big institution such as George Mason. Isn’t it like being a chief executive?

“In academia, the business lingo is frowned upon,” Cabrera said. Yet, basically, “the president is the chief executive officer.”

He said he has experts for all the complex assignments such as finance, marketing, infrastructure and day-to-day operations. The challenge, and I have heard this from most executives who run large organizations, is people.

“The part you cannot delegate is the people issue,” he said. “It’s leadership. Collecting and retaining and inspiring the right team. Creating a culture that will make your organization a success.”

The thing I find inspiring about Cabrera is his commitment to helping others like him, who were born with raw talent but without the map forward that comes with the privileged background.

About a third of George Mason students are of the first generation in their family to go to college, as Cabrera is. About half come from minority groups. Many are from privileged backgrounds, the sons and daughters of judges, academics, lawyers, doctors and businesspeople.

“If you think about an elite university with already selected people who are already wealthy, smart and who have been exposed to all the right things . . . all you have to do is not screw it up.

“That’s not what we do here. What we do is select people with potential and we help them realize that potential.”

What does he not like? The public scrutiny takes some getting used to.

“There is no hiding,” he said. “You are always on.”

Many mornings, he walks two miles to his $500,000-plus job from his university-owned home down the road.

Earlier this month, he posted an online comment to the parents of his students: “I get it now.”

The message came right after he had dropped his son off for his freshman year at Georgia Tech, where he is going to major in computer science. His daughter is two years away from college.

“It is painful,” Cabrera said. “We took him down. Cried. I am the guy who gives the speech to parents when they come here. I feel like I was connecting much more emotionally.”