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Richard Velazquez, Porsche’s First Automotive Designer of Puerto Rican Descent on Diversity

The narrative around diversity, inclusion and the gender gap is igniting a cultural shift. At Harvest Summit we feel it’s paramount to have a conversation about what is working and what is needed.

One of the chosen executives selected to lead this intimate roundtable session with invited delegates is a Richard Velazquez, Global Head of the Denon Brand at Sound United. Not who you would expect? That is exactly why we choose him and here’s why.

Aside from his background in design engineering at Honda and Porsche, to driving XBox advancements at Microsoft and leading innovations at PepsiCo, Richard has been involved in non-profit advocacy for organizations that empower others and lead to greater educational and career opportunities for underrepresented populations.

Organizations he has empowered include the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the National Society of Hispanic MBAs (NHSMBA), now known as Prospanica. His work has led to numerous awards, including a NSHMBA Brillante Award, Puget Sound Business Journal (PSBJ) 40 under 40 Award, Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility (HACR) Young Hispanic Corporate Achiever Award (YHCA), Diversity MBA Magazine Top Emerging Executive, and more.

He currently serves on the Prospanica Corporate Advisory Board, the Board of the New York Havana Film Festival, and the advisory board for Tech2025 in NYC. He serves as a mentor for several entrepreneurs and start-ups and contributes his time and sponsorship to several innovation programs and organizations, including The Geekie Awards, The One Club, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and more.

A little known fact is he’s recognized as the first automotive designer of Puerto Rican descent in Porsche’s history. Diversity of 1. 

Learn more about Richard on LinkedIn and read his blog at richardvelazquez.com

What did being “recognized” as Porsche’s first automotive designer of Puerto Rican descent mean to you?

This was perhaps the largest public recognition of my career at the time and it was an overwhelming and humbling experience. I was first approached in Germany by a reporter asking to do a story on me because of my work at Porsche. I was interviewed and the reporter took a few photos of me at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, so I thought it would be just a photo and a caption in the paper. It turned out to be a three-page spread in one of Puerto Rico’s largest newspapers that highlighted my status as the first Puerto Rican to design for Porsche. This was roughly October of 2000. Puerto Rico is a relatively small island with a population of less than 4 million, so the news quickly spread and I was inundated with emails from people on the island who wanted to know about starting a career in automotive and design engineering either for themselves or their children. There was a Hot Wheels craze going on in Puerto Rico at the time, with bars and communities around the island holding miniature car races with modified Hot Wheels, so I think the timing of the article amplified the response. I was going to Puerto Rico that Christmas season, so I bought a few dozen miniature Porsche models from the company store to pass out among some of my 62 first-cousins. I recently just came back this year from our first family reunion in Puerto Rico, and some of my cousins showed me they still had the model cars I’d given them 17 years ago, and two of them are entering college now for mechanical engineering. It was a powerfully emotional experience to know that my story influenced even a few people in their life and career trajectory.

Is there one salient instance of unconscious or conscious bias that has shaped your passion for fostering diversity, inclusion and the advancement of women in science and technology?

I can think of two instances.

One instance was during my first job after college designing cars in the heartland. The upper management were quite the hockey aficionados and over the course of time, I noticed that my peers getting the most opportunities and advancing the fastest were the ones that had joined this corporate hockey team and thus spent a lot of leisure time with management. So I took skating lessons and joined the hockey league to be part of this. There were very few women already at the time on the design team, it was a roughly 90-95% male environment, and it struck me that while I didn’t appreciate having to play hockey to improve my career aspects, at the very least I had the option to do so. Since it was an all-male league, the female design engineers were automatically shut-out of this bonding environment. This was certainly not a conscious design by the leadership team, but it was the reality nonetheless.

The other one was during the video game “console wars” between Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s Playstation 3, and Nintendo’s Wii.  Xbox and Playstation catered mainly to the 18-34 year old male demographic that most people associated as the most avid gamers. Nintendo was realizing great success with the old, the young, and women through the Wii. I recall participating in an ideation and strategy session on how to make our console more appealing to women. The meeting was in a room with about a dozen men. My comment was simply that having some women in the room would be a great start. I feel it’s widely accepted now that diversity in product teams leads to more efficient, faster, and more impactful innovation.

How did this instance or others shape the way you hire and manage?

I prefer to hire based on person’s potential versus their exact skill set, which allows me to look at a broader swath of candidates in very different areas. One of my first hires at PepsiCo was for a Product Management role and I hired her from an HR role. I originally met her at a networking event and she was one of the few people that had ever followed up with me about having lunch after such an event. While I didn’t have any open roles at the time, she told me about her career ambitions and I could tell that not only was she very talented, but she was not happy with her lack of career progress and her current responsibilities. When I began forming a team 6-months later, she was top of mind. While she didn’t have direct experience as a PM, I knew she had the potential to learn quickly and excel in the role. And she did just that, advancing three levels in the course of four years. My second hire for the team was much the same way, pulled from a completely different area of the company and excelling in a new, unfamiliar role. It takes more time and effort as a manager to do this, but I feel it reaps rewards both for the individuals looking for career development and overall satisfaction, as well as for the company. As for how I manage, I prefer to give my team big responsibilities with lots of leeway to experiment and learn, and my function is to serve to break down roadblocks and ensure they have the resources needed to succeed.

Recently, the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion Initiative was launched with over 150 CEOs pledging to take action to advance diversity and foster inclusion by sharing best practices, educating on unconscious bias, and encouraging open dialogue within their organizations on these important social issues. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was front and center. Is there a best practice at PepsiCo you can share?

While I am no longer at PepsiCo, I do still think they are one of the best companies I know for fostering programs that promote diversity and inclusion. One best practice at PepsiCo is the recently launched “Ready to Return”, which offers professionals that have taken a career break of more than two years a 10-week paid opportunity to get back into the workforce. Participants receive mentoring and coaching support, training to refresh or gain new skills, and opportunities to network with PepsiCo to be considered for open roles in R&D, Marketing, and Supply Chain. It’s targeted at professionals that have taken time off from their careers to be a caregiver – whether for a child or elderly relative, which studies have shown disproportionately affect women.

Are there 2 or 3 things you feel would greatly impact diversity in corporate America?

I believe this requires both a top-down and bottom-up approach. It begins with increasing diversity in the ranks of the board of directors for US corporations, where women and minorities are are still woefully underrepresented. A diverse board tends to advocate for greater diversity in the organization and for the top leadership. There are several organizations that have been developed to address the board diversity issue. 2020 Women on Boards aims to increase female board representation in the US to 20% or more by 2020. Also, one of my mentors was instrumental in starting the Latino Corporate Directors Association (LCDA) which aims to support firms seek Latino corporate board talent.

We also have to build the pipeline of leadership and technical talent for the emerging corporate employment needs of the future, mainly around STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). That’s why I support organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), sponsoring an annual engineering competition which I developed with them. I’ve also created internship opportunities for innovation projects at PepsiCo giving diverse students real-world engineering and leadership experiences.

Finally, supporting career development for women and minorities would be the 3rd aspect, and leveraging Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) is an effective way to support talent and leadership development.

What advice would you give your younger self?

When I was younger, I lamented that there was no real meritocracy. As I described earlier with my first role post-college, I saw other people that worked fewer hours and produced less work advancing more quickly than myself and other colleagues that I felt deserved it more. The challenge for me at the time was I came directly from an educational system that prioritizes test scores above all else. The number one person in the class was the person with the highest scores and grades. The valedictorian was simply the person with the highest cumulative GPA. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate in the real world. The smartest person in the room is not necessarily the best leader or manager. So, I would tell my younger self that meritocracies do exist, but they are not measured how I thought they were. A meritocracy is a system where those with superior talents and intellect rule. The key part of that definition is “talents”, which include a lot of the softer factors that weren’t taught or emphasized in engineering school.

Your ability to influence, communicate, negotiate, empathize, and build networks and relationships can have as much of an impact on your career as your technical skills and intellectual horsepower. Those softer skills can’t be overlooked and need to be learned and developed just like any other skill, and they play a key role in a successful career.

 

Published in Blog

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