Richard Montañez was born in Mexico and grew up in Guasti, a small town close to Ontario, California, picking grapes with this family. They would have dinner at the communal table in the kitchen they shared with six other families.
As a child, Richard had no idea that he was poor. “No one ever taught me what was on the other side of the tracks,” he says. And on his side of the tracks, the aspirationsweren’t very high: Most of the kids he knew hoped to get a job at the town’s factory.
Richard had trouble learning English and he dropped out of high school because he couldn’t understand the teachers. Without a high school diploma, he got a job as a janitor at the Frito-Lay Rancho Cucamonga plant in California.
Richard came from humble beginnings and had modest ambitions (“No disrespect to anyone, but my dream was to drive the trash truck”) but that all changed when someone told him he could have bigger dreams. The president of the company sent a video message to his employees and “he told us to act like an owner,” says Richard. “I looked around and didn’t see a lot of reaction from my co-workers, but for me it was the opportunity to do something different. ”
One day, a machine broke in the assembly line, causing some Cheetos to not get dusted with the bright orange cheese powder, so Richard took some home and put chili powder on them. He created his own recipe for a spicier version of Cheetos that was inspired by a Mexican street snack called elote (corncob).
“I see the corn man adding butter, cheese, and chili to the corn and thought, what if I add chili to a Cheeto?” Richard remembers. His family, friends, and co-workers all loved the new creation and they encouraged him to tell the plant supervisors about it. Richard called the president and talked the secretary into putting his call through. Richard told him that he had an idea for a new product and he got a chance to give a demonstration.
“I had two weeks to prepare a presentation to company executives,” says Richard. He had never given a presentation before and knew nothing about marketing, so he and his wife went to the public library and copied a strategy from one of the business books. He bought a $3 tie, his first ever. (A neighbor helped him tie it.) He put the Cheetos in sample bags that he designed himself and he went to the meeting.
The company executives loved his idea and the Flamin’ hot line of products was born, including Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which is Frito-Lay’s top selling snack. Today, Richard is the executive vice president of multicultural sales and community activation for PepsiCo’s North American divisions. He also helped influence Hispanic products and marketing promotions for KFC and Taco Bell.
“Latinos who have made it like myself have a responsibility to open doors to younger generations and teach them that they can do it,” says Richard, who provides college scholarships to young Latinos. He also gives back to the community through food, clothing, school supplies, and other services. “I do it because I can and I know what it is to be hungry.”