Oscar Munoz is living proof of the American Dream. Born into a Mexican-American family, Munoz is a first-generation college graduate. And he went on to become the first Hispanic CEO of a major US airline.
Munoz, now the executive chairman of United Airlines (UAL), told CNN Business that even though “bias exists” in the United States, the American Dream is still within reach.
“Despite the facts that point otherwise…I have to believe that,” Munoz said in an interview. “We have to believe in this country with all of its great history, with all of its great sort of melting pot and historical success.”
After five years leading United Airlines, Munoz was still one of Corporate America’s only Hispanic leaders when he stepped down as CEO in May.
Today, there are just 16 Hispanic CEOs running Fortune 500 companies — a little over 3%, according to the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility.
Diversity is also lacking in C-suite positions that often lead to the top job. For instance, just one of the Fortune 100 chief financial officers is Hispanic, according the Corporate Governance Research Initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
“I long for the day when someone like me is not the exception, but the expectation,” said Munoz, who is a marquee speaker at L’ATTITUDE, a national initiative focused on helping executives understand the US Latino cohort driving the modern economy.
Corporate America has to ‘take a chance’ on diverse voices
Munoz, an icon in the airline industry who previously worked as CFO at a division of AT&T (T), urged Corporate America to give people with diverse backgrounds opportunity. (AT&T (T) is the parent company of CNN).
“Back in 2003, some young leaders at an airline took a chance on a young CFO who happened to be Hispanic to join their board,” Munoz recalled. “And that worked out OK.”
During his five-year stint running United, Munoz weathered his share of turbulence. He suffered a heart attack and received a heart transplant. He was the public face of the airline during the debacle when a passenger was dragged off an overbooked flight in April 2017 — an incident Munoz later called “a horrible failure.” by the airline. More recently, Munoz has helped guide United Airlines through the worst crisis in the industry’s history.
Munoz said that part of the problem is that too often boards only look to recruit well-connected individuals with the deepest government and corporate experience.
“A lot of us have to sort of take a chance, if you will, on some folks that are just up-and-coming,” Munoz said, “because over the course of time, that’s how voices get heard and how people get elevated.”
But the United chairman said the onus is also on individuals to earn their promotions.
“We can’t always just sit and demand and beg. We have to work for it. All of us,” Munoz said. “Listen, work your ass off.”
Recovery from pandemic ‘has to work for all of us’
As the United States recovers from the economic shock delivered by the pandemic, L’ATTITUDE is drawing attention to the central role that US Latinos will play.
The sheer spending power of the rapidly growing US Latino community is staggering. If they were an independent economy, the US Latino population would rank as the 8th largest economy in the world — ahead of both Brazil and Russia, according to the Latino Donor Collaborative.
“Inside the United States, you have this young, growing, digitally native, loyal, family-oriented brand that is the size of the 8th largest country,” Munoz said. “This is a true market power.”
The shifting demographics inside the United States underscore the importance of addressing inequality.
“This recovery has to work for all of us, not just a few of us,” Munoz said.
Hispanic unemployment hit 18.5% in April
Wealth and access to power in America tracks along racial lines. The net worth of white households is about 10 times larger than that of Black households, according to 2016 statistics by the Federal Reserve. And white household net worth is eight times greater than that of Hispanic or Latino households, the Fed said.
A Pew Research study found that Latino households in the United States are having more trouble making ends meet during the pandemic than any other demographic group. Hispanic unemployment peaked at 13.9% during the Great Recession but climbed to 18.5% in April. That’s well above the peak for non-Hispanic white Americans of 12.8%.
And some minorities who have kept their jobs may be exposed health risks during the pandemic.
“If you think about the essential workers of America, they tend to be of color,” Munoz said. “They are the ones that have to go in…I don’t know that we always comprehend that some people’s livelihoods is their safety. ‘I have to go to work because I can’t afford to stay.’”
Pointing to a record lows in Black and Hispanic unemployment prior to the pandemic, President Donald Trump has argued his administration is helping to ease inequality.
Immigration should be a ‘no-brainer’
Yet others argue that Trump’s rhetoric and stance on immigration is holding the US economy back by failing to recognize the collective power of young and growing communities.
“When we attack, criticize and make fun of cohorts creating growth, as a businessperson, I say that’s illogical,” said Sol Trujillo, a former media and telecom CEO who later co-founded L’ATTITUDE. “The crown jewel we have in the economy today is the Latino cohort because they are so young.”
Trujillo, a registered Republican who sat on the boards of PepsiCo (PEP), Western Union (WU) and Target (TGT), urged the United States to encourage more immigration to fill the hole left in the workforce left by aging baby boomers.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Trujillo. “Those who think we shouldn’t have any more immigrants are just absolutely wrong and they don’t understand how an economy will grow.”