“When you mop that floor, you make sure it shines and you make sure they know a Montañez did it.” When Richard Montañez went to work as a janitor at a Pepsico factory in 1976, those were his father’s words. According to Montañez, “I took that and have been living that statement ever since. It doesn’t matter who I work for, I work for my last name.”
That’s just one of many wise insights in this report about Montañez’s recent commencement address to the graduating class at Chaffey College, a two year community college in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Speaking to graduates receiving associate degrees and occupational certificates, Montañez shared the story of his rise from a factory janitor to PepsiCo’s director of multicultural sales and marketing across North America.
Among his other pearls of wisdom:
- When people tell him he started at the bottom: “No, I started at the beginning.”
- Moral of a story about being marginalized in grade school because of his ethnicity: “Graduates, remember, you were not created to fit in. You were created to stand out.”
- Although he dropped out of high school: “I do have a Ph.D.. I’ve been poor, hungry and determined.”
In addition to personal pride and hard work, Richard Montañez used his head and heart to succeed. School was difficult because he never heard English in his parent’s Spanish speaking household. He dropped out of high school. But as an adult he learned to read and write in English. And although he was “only” a janitor, when he had a good idea (Montañez invented Pepsico’s “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos” recipe) he had the courage to suggest it directly to the company’s CEO.
Would they let Richard Montañez speak at U.C. Berkeley?
Montañez’s rags-to-riches story is proof that the American dream still exists today for those willing to take risks and work hard, regardless of one’s roots. “He comes from a modest upbringing; his father and grandfather worked in the vineyards of what was then known as Guasti, near Ontario International Airport. He is one of 11 children, the eldest male.” He had no “privilege” growing up, white or otherwise, yet today he’s on the boards of some of America’s most influential institutions, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference where he is the first Latino ever to hold that position.
The “can-do” gumption and common sense advice in Montañez’s address to the graduating class of a two year community college stands in stark contrast to the pampered mindset of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” so prevalent in our major universities, where faculty and students would rather riot than listen to ideas that make them uncomfortable. Young people desperately need to hear from more people like Richard Montañez. What a pity it is when they won’t allow it.