How A Frito-Lay Janitor Rose To Corporate Executive

Pursued his version of the Ph.D: 'poor, hungry and determined'

Telemundo Arizona
Every once in a while the American Dream of a worker climbing the ladder to the top turns into a reality. One worker who can speak of such a life is Richard Montañez, who is currently the Executive Vice President of Multicultural Sales and Community Activation for Pepsico North America. The 55-year old, who was born in Mexico, didn't take a traditional route to the executive suite of corporate America. Montañez has never completed college, nor high school, though he now teaches leadership to MBA students at a California state university.

Not too shabby for an immigrant who started his American professional career as a janitor. How did he do it? Back in the 1970's, Montañez was working as a custodian for Frito-Lay's plant in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. And in his spare time he came up with a spicy recipe including chili powder for the company's famous Cheetos, thus creating Flamin' Hot Cheetos, according to a report by the Kansas City Star. He was able to get a meeting with the company CEO to pitch the idea, and nearly three decades later the line is consistently a best-selling brand at convenience stores throughout the country.

As the Kansas City Star also reported, Montañez spoke this past week to the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce's annual Power of Diversity event about his ascent. And he credited his success to his own personal version of the Ph.D. -- "poor, hungry and determined." Crucially, he said, he was able to rise because he always believed in his potential. "There's no such thing as 'just a janitor,'" he said during his address, "if you "act like an owner."

Montañez also said his entrepreneurial drive stretches back to his grade school days. Back when he was in elementary school he was initially ashamed of bringing burritos to school for lunch when all his classmates had bologna sandwiches, he said. But when his mother wouldn't allow him to change his lunch, and forced him to bring a second burrito to share with his classmates, he responded by launching a small business -- he began selling the burritos for 25 cents a piece, as the Kansas City Star piece reported.

That same spirit drove him to his current success, and in addition to a family with three children, Montañez can boast of meeting with U.S. presidents, speaking at the United Nations, and traveling across the world in corporate jets during his career, as the Daily Mail reported. Indeed, he's been recognized by Hispanic Lifestyle magazine as one of the most influential Hispanics in corporate America.

AOL Jobs regularly features such success stories. Of particular note is the story of Farrah Gray, who went from a childhood in the inner-city of Chicago to becoming a millionaire at the age of 14. How did he do it? A tireless entrepreneurial spirit, starting with selling rocks at the age of six to be used for doorstops and bookends. After the rocks, Gray moved onto homemade body lotions and eventually his bigger enterprises, which included prepaid phone cards. He's become known for his story, told in his book "Reallionaire," among other venues.

For his part, Montañez emphasized in his recent speech how important it is for business leaders to give workers of all backgrounds a chance. "If you're leading a company and you don't have diversity, you don't have inclusion. I don't know how you're going to survive," he said.

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