Bill Morrow's father died when he was very young, and his mother worked to pack cauliflowers in the day and served at a cafe at night.
The now-outgoing NBN chief executive's seven older sisters helped raise him in a family with very little income.
"I suppose if you have to divide the world into the haves and the have-nots, we lay squarely in the have-nots," he told the National Press Club on Tuesday.
For Mr Morrow, it was his four years of military service in exchange for taxpayer-funded education that helped pull him out of the have-not category.
"But for Australians, maybe the NBN could be that neutraliser."
Mr Morrow shared his story as he talked up research commissioned by the company showing the network is delivering economic benefits in the billions.
The findings from AlphaBeta show the NBN generated an additional $1.2 billion of economic activity in 2017, through helping create new jobs and businesses, as well as boosting productivity.
Mr Morrow's address on Tuesday is expected to be his last after he announced he would be stepping down at the end of the year after nearly five at the helm.
His tenure has not been without criticism, with ongoing concerns about the rollout and technology choices.
The latest Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman report shows complaints about NBN services grew by more than 200 per cent in the last six months of 2017, compared to the same time in 2016.