Liliana Gil Valletta at the Impact Wahine Forum

By Public Affairs staff, U.S. Consulate, Auckland.

This September the U.S. Embassy in New Zealand welcomed a very special guest – Liliana ‘Lili’ Gil Valletta.  A global business leader and entrepreneur, Lili emigrated from Colombia to the United States at age 17, and would later became one of the youngest executives at Johnson & Johnson, launch CulturIntel™ and co-found cultural intelligence and business consultancy CIEN+ in New York.

A pioneer in America’s Latino community, Lili brought her knowledge of cultural intelligence, and the importance of diversity, in driving the modern business environment and workforce.  While in New Zealand, Lili conducted a whirlwind tour of seminars, workshops and talks to a range of audiences in Taranaki and Auckland.

Working with Maori women in the Hawera region, Lili spoke alongside a number of local Maori women leaders at the ‘Impact Wahine Forum’. This forum was created to inspire nearly 100 emerging Maori leaders to make real change in their communities and to empower them to reach their full potential.

Lili speaking to local Maori women leaders at the Impact Wahine Forum. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.
Lili speaking to local Maori women leaders at the Impact Wahine Forum. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.

Lili candidly explained the challenges in being both a woman and minority in society and business but focused on challenges that can be framed as a unique value proposition. Encouraging the audience to achieve success through adversity, and inspire others to step forward and create a tangible change, Lili explained the unique cultural value that diversity in the workforce brings can helps business leaders unlock the power of today’s diverse market place.  Diversity is an asset, and an opportunity.

Lili empowers young people of Patea. Photo Credit U.S. Department of State.
Lili empowers young people of Patea. Photo Credit U.S. Department of State.

Lili’s next visit was to a well-known town, visiting Patea Area School with the aim of empowering the next generation of future leaders in the area.

Maruata Ngarewa Cribb, a year 10 student from Patea Area School wrote:

With an image of Wonder Woman projected on our school wall and Liliana Gil Valletta standing center front on the stage…. challenging us to ‘find our why’, ‘make it happen’ and very importantly ‘never forget where we come from’… we couldn’t help but feel inspired and stirred to change.

Lili shared her story and how she has used firstly her cultural well-being to then empower her educational and economic well-being.  A message that can be quite the reverse of what we are normally told.

But the most significant aspect of Lili’s message for me was no matter who you are or where you are from, you can go on to shape and drive whatever your heart desires, with your culture at the front, footing who you are. Culture is cool.

Thank you Liliana for taking the trek to an often overlooked part of New Zealand and reinforcing our belief that we represent a unique part of the globe that is well worth the investment of connectivity.

Returning to Auckland, Lili took the time to connect with future entrepreneurs from the Young Enterprise Scheme, discussing tips and insights for women entrepreneurs to achieve purposeful leadership.

Patea School students pose for a selfie with Lili. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.
Patea School students pose for a selfie with Lili. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.
Lili encourages up and coming entrepreneurs. Photo Credit U.S. Department of State.
Lili encourages up and coming entrepreneurs. Photo Credit U.S. Department of State.

Vanisha Swamy, a passionate high school entrepreneur was inspired.  She said:

Being a young woman who has always been passionate about leadership, from a young age to leading my company to success in my final year of high school, this definitely sparked an interest within me. It made me curious to see Lili’s perspective and mindset which has made her a successful entrepreneur so I decided to head along with a strong will to learn.

Lili started off by elaborating the cul(GAP)tural and cul(VALUE)tural we have in our society but most importantly using Cultural Intelligence TM as fuel to drive purposeful profits.

She taught us it is vital to use our voice in the right manner when pitching to potential investors and this can be done effectively by using “What? How? Why?” inside out. By using, “Why? How? What?” we are taking a different approach.

This lead to Lili’s famous Marketing Macarena; heart, brain and wallet, which we all got up and danced to.

Lili asked us to pitch our ideas but there was something common in the way we all pitched. We all began with ‘What? Why? How?’ – which was quite frankly boring.

Lili rephrased every single pitch by using her technique and it was hard for me to believe she was pitching the same idea as it captured my attention from the get go. I was stunned and in total awe of the power her voice held, which potentially our voices could hold too.

Just like almost everyone, I despise public speaking – but this technique made me want to do Dragons Den again. And this time be able to confidently share my ideas and trust in the power that my voice holds.

After the session, some of us had the opportunity to join Lili for lunch which allowed us to ask questions and seek advice.

One thing I had been dying to ask was “Are you satisfied knowing you have achieved so much in life? Do you feel a sense of fulfillment?” She replied, “No, no I don’t. I always want to achieve bigger and better things. It’s a never-ending cycle. If you are passionate about it your hunger to achieve and overcome hurdles will keep growing.”

At that moment, I felt content and I knew that this is what I vision my future to be. Lili taught me that not being satisfied and fulfilled with a project meant I am willing to grow and continue to endeavor. The lunch also helped me grasp a better understanding of all factors that come into play when a woman such as myself aims to follow the footsteps of Lili Gil Valletta.

Lili joining young entrepreneurs and Auckland Public Affairs Officer Natalie Wilkins for lunch. Photo Credit U.S. Department of State.
Lili joining young entrepreneurs and Auckland Public Affairs Officer Natalie Wilkins for lunch. Photo Credit U.S. Department of State.
Lili Valletta hosts a dinner discussion Maori and Pasifika women business leaders. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.
Lili Valletta hosts a dinner discussion Maori and Pasifika women business leaders. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.

Keeping the day busy, Mrs. Valletta also held an in-depth workshop on ‘Brand You’ for Maori and Pasifika women business leaders at the U.S. Consulate General, discussing the strengths of using cultural diversity to improve business and civil society as a whole.

Wrapping up her time in New Zealand, Lili gave a presentation at SUPERdiverse WOMEN, speaking alongside the organization’s founder Mai Chen, as well as Carolyn Luey, Priti Ambani and Riahn Hoani. The group spoke about their experiences, successes and challenges to more than 100 professionals at Auckland’s Northern Club.

Attendees Rebekah Craig and Jeanette Ross Smith gave their accounts of what they learnt from the experiences, Rebekah commented that:

“The SDW Voices held in September hosted Lili Gill Valletta as the keynote speaker. Lili is an international voice and influencer on cultural intelligence and articulates cultural valuation in a way that has brought about significant change in how businesses invest in growth markets.

Her big, hairy, audacious statement was, “It is mathematically impossible in today’s diverse conditions, patterns, and population growth to achieve the full potential of growth and market share, without fully tapping into diverse segments.

This statement was built around 3 main points:

Know your power in numbers and rewrite the narrative of cultural representation.

We need to start thinking differently about the cultural advantage we have as individuals and collectively as a segment. Globally, 100% of growth segments are coming from diverse markets; this is true in the NZ context as well, where a large segment of Millennials are already ethnically diverse. Although official stats and Census info break up segment growth by individual ethnic groups, we need to rewrite the narrative to reflect what is to be segmented as a cohesive body.

Since 50% of diverse segments of NZ are Millennial with the average age of 25 years, businesses need to start thinking of future-proofing in terms of population growth + buying power = future market; this is where you invest your money.

Unify and collaborate.

Form cultural groups with a deliberate purpose that delivers VALUE. If we want to see real change in how businesses invest in diverse markets, we need to come together as a cultural group that focuses on creating convincing business cases with NUMBERS and not opinions; we also need to move away from thinking of cultural diversity in terms of NGOs, food, and cultural dress.

Ask for money.

When you unify and collaborate, you have strength in numbers. Then when you create a compelling business case based on undeniable facts and numbers, you have bargaining power and leverage. These two together will compel businesses to invest their resources in the growth markets you represent.

These three steps were so simply and clearly presented and provided such a clear roadmap for every individual in the room to be able to execute on cultural intelligence.

I learned that cultural intelligence is not about representation, it is the capacity to be aware of, understand, and apply cultural competence into everyday business decision making. It made me aware that in a world where there is a cultural shift towards ethnically inspired products that I grew up with and take for granted, I need to be able to be aware of, understand, and apply my cultural advantage. I am now working on collaborating with other like-minded professionals to crunch the numbers on applying cultural intelligence in hiring decisions, where it no longer matters whether candidates have “local” experience in a “global” world.

Last but not least, while businesses focus on traditional ROI (Return on Investment), we also need to talk about another kind ROI – Return on Ignored. When businesses ignore the fact that diversity = growth, they will eventually miss out on market share because someone else will capitalize on it.

Liliana Valletta and Mai Chen discuss challenges faced by minority women in business. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.
Liliana Valletta and Mai Chen discuss challenges faced by minority women in business. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State.

Jeanette went on to comment that:

I remember it clearly, it was Friday the 8 September at 10.05am, an email hit my inbox from Super Diverse Women. The email was about their next event – ‘SDW Voices’. What really got me excited and itching to whip out my credit card to make payment to avoid missing out, was the Keynote speaker – Lili Gil Valletta, Award Winning Entrepreneur, Co-Founder and CEO of CIEN+ who was going to be talking about Cultural Intelligence, a topic I’m passionate about.

This was an opportunity, one that needed to be seized to share with others, so a table for 10 was booked and I got busy extending invites to some of our emerging leaders and young accountants within the Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand Membership, to join me.

As a migrant to NZ from South Africa, I could totally relate, as I’m sure many of us can, when Lili shared her experiences as a Columbian born migrant to the U.S., and people’s initial assumptions about ‘who’ or ‘what’ she was all about, based on where she was from – references being given to the infamous “Pablo Escobar” known to many of us recently through Netflix’s ‘Narcos’ series.  Similarly when she spent a year in Australia studying, she was regularly asked “Are your Greek or are you Persian?” based entirely upon how she looked.

The bottom line is, if we are different – language, accent, skin pigmentation, culture, religious beliefs etc.  – assumptions are made, which might not be entirely accurate and at times – are very far from it. Lili shared that, “It is our duty to use these opportunities to educate and be an ambassador of culture. So, when we have the opportunity to ‘fill a cultural gap’ we have the responsibility to execute on our cultural advantage, when given the option to do so.”

I can’t begin to cover all that I personally got out of this session, but here are some of my key highlights:

Food for thought, for any one of us that play down our cultural background and don’t ‘own’ it… “Think differently about what you represent and the cultural advantage that you have, that you were born with, because you were blessed to come from where you come from.”

Lili stressed, “Cultural Intelligence is NOT just pigmentation or representation of how many ‘brown people’ you have at the table. It is about having the capacity to be aware of, understand and apply cultural competence into everyday business.”

Cultural Valuation can turn into a very viable commercial advantage for businesses.

“It is mathematically impossible for any company to achieve their full potential in growth market share without fully tapping into diverse segments.”

For Business: Diversity = Growth & Diversity = Return on Investment.

“In NZ the numbers are there, but the numbers alone won’t do anything. The numbers have a story to tell, but the numbers rely on YOU to give them a voice.”

Lili left us with:

KNOW YOUR POWER IN NUMBERS – it’s hard to argue against the numbers.

UNIFY – with a deliberate purpose, to show how powerful you are as a market.

DO – what are you going to do to re-write the story and make a difference?

If each one us contributes in our own unique way to filling the ‘Cultural Gap’ in the world, through our daily opportunities to influence and educate, imagine the change that could bring to our future generations of leaders and decision makers across all industry sectors.