Hot Cheetos creator speaks about his Latino heritage

Richard Montañez’s voice boomed through the room as his intense gaze met the eyes of several dozen students. Gesturing with his hands and speaking with complete conviction, Montañez told the crowd that when he was growing up in Guasti, a small town near Ontario, California, one moment in the second grade changed his life.

“At my school, everyone spoke English, and I didn’t know English,” Montañez said. “On the first day, when I pulled out my burrito for lunch, everyone stared at me — and I put it back in the bag, because I was embarrassed. I wanted to be like everyone else.”

But when Montañez went home and told his mom that he didn’t want to be different, she told him something that stuck with him.

“She said, ‘No, mijo, this is who you are’ — and the next day, she made me two burritos,” Montañez said.

On Monday night, Montañez addressed the Latina/o Student Assembly in a talk that covered his journey at PepsiCo, from working as a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant to serving as the executive vice president of multicultural sales and community activation for PepsiCo North America. As the inventor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Montañez discussed his pride in his Latino heritage as well as his determination to succeed when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds.

Montañez, who never completed high school and made his way through the corporate world without a college degree, stressed the importance of pursuing the education that he was never able to attain.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t know how to dream — my generation weren’t dreamers,” Montañez said. “Our fathers and grandfathers weren’t dreamers, because they didn’t have time to dream — they were too busy working. The generations that came before me kicked down the door for me, but you don’t need to kick down that door, because you have the key: your education.”

While working as a janitor at the Rancho Cucamonga Frito-Lay plant in the 1970s, Montañez came up with the idea of creating snack products specifically marketed toward Hispanics, a market that hadn’t been touched by an American company at that point. Taking the initiative, Montañez developed his own recipe for what would later turn into Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and pitched his idea to the plant’s CEO.

“There’s one thing you need to start a revolution: a revelation,” Montañez said. “There are so many ideas in front of us that nobody else can see. You have to be a leader and a visionary in seeing what no one else can see.”

Today, Montañez teaches leadership to MBA students, delivers keynote speeches at universities around the country and has met several U.S. presidents and spoken at the United Nations. He runs two charitable foundations, Kits for Kids and Feed the Children, and gives away college scholarships to young Latinos. According to Montañez, the secret to success is to embrace what makes you unique, as well as to have confidence in taking the initiative.

“I never once went looking for money,” Montañez said. “It just so happened that money found me. The first thing that I wanted was happiness, and I wanted to be respected, but you have to respect yourself first.”

Ultimately, Montañez emphasized that although it’s important for students not to let their background — zip code, skin color, or education level — define them, minorities should also never forget their heritage. When asked if he had ever considered going back to school, Montañez said he had decided not to — even if lacking a degree made him ineligible for a CEO position — because it “wouldn’t be him.”

“I’m proud of you being here and trying to get an education,” Montañez said. “I don’t have an education. But I’m the most brilliant uneducated person you will ever meet.”