Sol Trujillo is a global business executive with numerous successes while serving as CEO of three large market-cap global companies in the three different corridors of the world: the Americas, Europe and Middle East as well as Asia-Pacific (AMEA).
In a recent interview with Culturs Founder Doni Aldine, Trujillo talks about the lessons he learned during his career and the importance of Latinos in the United States.
Trujillo growing up
Trujillo’s family roots trace back to the 1520s in Santa Fe, N.M., U.S.A. His parents married very young — ages 16 and 14 — and moved to Wyoming after World War II in search of work.
“I was kind of a unicorn in Wyoming — weren’t many Trujillos or Lopez’s there,” he says.
Trujillo chose to attend the University of Wyoming because he really wasn’t aware of any other options.
“My only choice at that point in time and my only knowledge in my universe was the University of Wyoming, in the state where I lived,” he says, adding: “Later on, people asked me, ‘Well how come you didn’t go to Stanford and Harvard’ and all that, and I didn’t even know about them. I was never recruited there because nobody would recruit somebody named Trujillo out of Wyoming. It was not in my realm of thinking.”
I was kind of a unicorn in Wyoming — weren’t many Trujillos or Lopez’s there.
One of the main reasons why Trujillo chose to study business in college was seeing the wealthier kids around him, as well as the work ethic his parents instilled in him.
“I knew one thing growing up: I had to work starting at the age of eight, but the kids that had cars, that had nice clothes, and lived in nice houses and all that kinda stuff, their parents were people that were generally in business,” according to Trujillo. “So I was correlating the two of them, and I said, ‘Gee, if I were gonna make a difference in terms of my life … going forward, I would go into business.’ So I majored in business, went to the University of Wyoming, and took the courses, took classes like Calculus, where you’re doing differential equations and I’d be sitting there saying, ‘How would anybody ever use this stuff?’ Right? I mean, a differential equation — is that real or is that just something that we’re doing here in class?”
Knowing mathematics really does help
It didn’t take long after college for Trujillo to learn not only how helpful that math would be, but how it would frame his way of thinking.
In his first career position one year out of college, Trujillo says, “I was doing differential equations — creating new pricing models for a company that was an old, a hundred-year-old company that needed refreshment, they needed change, they needed all that. And I found myself doing this and all of a sudden saying to myself, ‘Wow, I never thought it would be useful’ because I didn’t have any background, I didn’t have any context, but once I got into business, I started thinking about all the ways to do things differently, in a different way and that was part of the competitor’s side [in me] and I was one of those people that just said, ‘Look, where there’s a problem, let’s solve it, let’s not talk about it, let’s solve it.’ And that started my career where I then was asked to go turn around every bad business, every company problem or whatever, and I used to love it. I liked to do what other people couldn’t do.”
Trujillo and his knack for ‘innovation’
What got him out of Wyoming, Trujillo says, was his knack for “innovation.”
“I was always innovative, even on boring process kinds of things, you know, tools that people use that needed to be taken to a different level,” he says.
After developing a lot of innovation in Wyoming, “I was asked to go to our corporate headquarters and then when I was there I worked on supporting a lot of things in different parts of our company and I used to be sometimes critical of people that weren’t doing well.”
His bosses’ response to his criticisms was to send him to AT&T’s corporate headquarters.
“So it was kind of a pushback to a person that was outspoken,” Trujilllo says. After a stint at HQ, Trujillo was sent to New Mexico “because it was the lowest- earning operational state in the old AT&T. I took it on, I took the problems on that were there and we turned it within two years to be the highest earning state.
“It was about innovation and innovation process, innovation with regulators, innovation with customers, innovation in rural areas. We were the first state in the country to put a fiber backbone. This is in the seventies, late seventies across the network to provide better services and afford companies the opportunity to start doing more for their customers. ‘Sol, why are you putting fiber across the state of New Mexico?’ And I said, ‘Because we’re gonna make this the most competitive state in the country.’ He said, ‘But it’s a lot of money,’ and I said, ‘Yeah but there’s a lot of money to be made.’”
It was about innovation and innovation process, innovation with regulators, innovation with customers, innovation in rural areas.
“We were doing those things because I was always thinking about making things better, making life better for our customers, making our company better, generating more revenues, more services and all that sort of thing and then that carried me back to Denver, Colo. where it was the same thing: ‘go fix that place’ and the next, and the next, and then the rest is history,” he says. “As you take on different jobs and different issues and you innovate each time and you make it better — it’s always about making them better.”
The politics of color
As his stock rose with AT&T — at the time the largest company in the world — Trujillo learned more about the politics involved in interacting with his co-workers as well as superiors, and being Latino didn’t exactly help.
“If you’re a person of color it’s like you’re not in the inner circle, you’re not invited to this or that and you don’t spend time with whoever,” he says. “I would watch all that and I’d see sometimes people that were not performing like I was, getting promotions and I was a fast riser but early on I was not so fast and then I caught fire because I took on big stuff and made results.”
Even with that success, Trujillo says he was “always the maverick and people took me aside during my progress, and they’d say, ‘Sol, you have to conform, you have to be like everybody.’ Then I’d say, ‘But I’m not and I can’t.’ I want to get to the top.’”
“And I had one person that took me aside — one of my higher-level people — and he said, ‘Sol, you should never talk about wanting to be the CEO of the company.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Why?’ I mean what’s wrong with wanting to be the CEO someday and he’d say, ‘Well, you should never say it. It’s okay to want to but it’s not okay to say it.’
“And I’d say, ‘Well but if I don’t say it, how do people know that that’s what I want?’ And if I don’t say it, maybe I can get some advice from people on how, how to get there, how to do it,” he continues. “So all of this starts coming together in terms of my rise in a corporate world as a very nontraditional person.”
If I don’t say it, how do people know that that’s what I want?
Trujillo’s rise culminated in him becoming the first U.S.-born Latino heading up a Fortune 150-size company by the age of 42, where “everybody that I dealt with was generally 10 to 20 years older, generally you know they went to schools that are the name plate schools.”
But for Trujillo, “it isn’t about your pedigree (where you went to school or where you grew up). But your pedigree is defined by what you do. And who you are and how you do it.”
Trujillo on opening doors for Latinos
While Trujillo is proud of how he went from growing up poor and working his way up the corporate ladder and being CEO of three major companies, “the real thing for me has been opening doors and in some cases breaking down doors so that others can pass through,” he says.
“And I felt that responsibility,” he adds. “Because again as I watched my parents, as I watched their struggles and I thought about how they every day sacrificed (not for themselves but for their kids), and I just feel that right now in our country, the place our country is today, the only way that we are going to be competitive going forward, the only way that we’re gonna grow GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is by everybody valuing the U.S. Latino cohort.
“And understanding that we’re the youthful cohort and the most entrepreneurial cohort — and this is based on data,” he continues. “So the other thing I learned in my career was when you make decisions based upon data versus just opinion you can be much more effective but also effective in helping people understand.”
‘This is not my country’
Having worked outside the United States helped Trujillo see his own country in a new light.
“I was watching TV, and any American that grew up in the United States you watched stuff back home, and I saw all this stuff about building a wall and deporting people and there was a guy named Herman Cain that came on and said, ‘We need to build an electric fence so that people who try to climb the fence to enter the country they will be killed.’
“I was shocked sitting there in Sydney [Australia] watching this on the news and said, ‘That is not my country,’” Trujillo shares. “That is not the country I grew up in, it’s not the country where I remember Ronald Reagan pointing at to the Russian president saying ‘take down the wall.’ And see what’s happened — I’ve been gone for almost eight years out of our country when I came back and they said, ‘Look, we get it, we have to change this,’ the narrative is wrong, the narrative is wrong because the fact base doesn’t exist. It’s an opinion base and so people thought that if you were a Latino from Mexico or a Latina from the Dominican Republic who might be an Afro-Latina or whatever it might be. These people come here and they’re parasites. They’re the takers, they’re not givers and they’re taking jobs and they’re doing all these things we’ve all heard, and I said. ‘That’s wrong. It is wrong.’”
But Trujillo says he’s not the kind of person that sits back and complains and whines. I called a friend Henry Cisneros who is a Democrat — I’m a Republican but I never became a ‘Trumpendejo’ in terms of that kind of Republican — but I’m a believer in our country and so we have to come together, we have to have this notion of valuing all people.”
I’m a Republican but I never became a ‘Trumpendejo’ in terms of that kind of Republican.
“And in particular, we’ve struggled in this country with quote ‘diversity.’ We’re struggling with it today probably more than we have even maybe in the sixties because now it’s a broader issue,” he continues. “And so I decided I was going to come back and focus on the Latino cohort, because within the African American community there’s a lot of leaders and there’s a lot of organizations that have been effective at times and ineffective at times but there’s a thrust.”
Within the Latino community, there really hasn’t been any real, forceful pressure on helping everybody understand the Latino cohort — its economic significance, its cultural significance and more, according to Trujillo.
“I’ve been a brand builder and a believer in brands and so I sat down with Henry and some other leaders from across the country and I said, ‘Look, we’ve gotta rebuild our brand.’ And we’ve gotta take control of our brand because what was happening is the entertainment media was taking control of defining Latinos. When I grew up, there was a show called the Desi Arnaz show, with the elegant, muy elegante Latino who happened to be married to the redhead. Then after that there was a show called ‘Fantasy Island’ with Ricardo Montalban and I remember being young in my career and people on the weekends coming back they say to me, ‘Sol, how do I roll my Rs like that when he talks not only on the show but when he does a commercial on the rich Cordoban leather.’
I’ve been a brand builder and a believer in brands.
“People wanted to know Spanish, they thought it was elegant,” he adds. ”And then we moved into the nineties and all of a sudden in the entertainment media you always need bad people, right?
“When I was growing up it was the Russians and all those people, then it became the black cohort and then in the nineties it moved after the civil rights and the issues like that people became more sensitive around the African-American cohort and they shifted over to the Latino cohort where it was your gang bangers or drug dealers or criminals sneaking over the border and in the positives we had Maria the maid or nanny. And we had Pablo the jardinero which is you know, Pablo the gardener, right? And then I was looking at that and saying, that’s just so wrong,” he says.
“It’s not that we shouldn’t have people that are doing some ofthosejobs — we have a lot of other people that are doing other jobs and they’re valued,” Trujillo continues. “So long story short, we started gathering data. And today you see the fulmination of some of that with the GDP report, the Latino GDP report. And it shocks everybody every time we released a report because today in the U. S. the Latino cohort is the seventh-largest economy in the world — two point seven trillion dollars of gross domestic product.”
“It’s as big as France, soon to pass it, soon to pass the U.K. and when we issue probably the next report — and this is all actual data, not survey, not anything else, actual data — and it may be rivalling India within the next year or two in terms of economic studies so now think about this right here inside our country. We have a cohort that is really the main, as we would say in Spanish, the ‘mero mero’ of growth rate … the one and only centerpiece of growth inside our economy,” he says.
The census data, according to Trujillo, shows that for 48 out of the 50 states in the last decade, the majority of their growth came from Latinos and Latinas.
We have a cohort that is really the main, as we would say in Spanish, the ‘mero mero’ of growth rate.
“Forty eight of the 50 states so when you look at a state like Tennessee guess how it’s growing its economy? You can’t grow an economy without workers and workers of all types,” he says. “And when you look at the Californias and Texas’s which everybody tends to look at; yes that’s logical but my view has been I want to open more doors, and the only way you can do it on a broad basis is to provide a broad set of context with data about how attractive, you know when a Latino or Latina walks in the room everybody should be saying, ‘Whoa. That’s our growth, that’s our future, that’s our innovation, that’s our labor force. They are doctors, they are nurses and yes they’re the people that sometimes are in the fields extracting vegetables and whatever else.
“But we’re all kinds of people and an economy is an ecosystem,” Trujillo continues. “It’s not one job, it’s not one sector. And Latinos and Latinas are everywhere in this country geographically now. And also in every sector, providing a value. So I want to open doors and I want to create bridges. And I hate to see walls because the one thing I learned as a CEO is when you have internecine battles going on — one department versus another or one person competing with their colleague versus competing against those that you’re supposed to be competing against, you start having problems and right now we’re going through a period in our country — and I see this very sadly — we’re going through a period where we’re more like the Divided States of America than the United States of America and part of my objective is bringing the United States of America back in my little way that I can affect it and part of it’s gonna be because we’re now valuing everybody. Whether you’re Latino or Latina, African American, Asian American, Middle Eastern, whatever because nobody has a singular right to say we are America. It’s a collective ‘we’ and ‘us’ as opposed to ‘me’ versus ‘you.’”
Check out our full interview with Sol Trujillo on the Negra Como Soy podcast.