Colombian Aims to Alter Views of Multicultural Markets

Lili Gil Valletta giving the keynote speech during the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR) Corporate Achievers Summit held on April 28-30, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of CIEN+)

Lili Gil Valletta’s consulting business, CIEN+, helps multicultural entrepreneurs to understand and harness the economic power of the multicultural market. As co-founder and CIEN+ CEO, this businesswoman has led large national digital campaigns for big companies like PepsiCo and Post Foods.

According to her client Mike Foley, senior marketing manager of brand integration at PepsiCo Foodservice and former senior brand manager at US Hispanic & Export at Post Foods, “we have worked together over seven years now, at two different companies on very different brands, and I think she is a phenomenal partner, a strategic thinker and extremely creative. She also is extremely loyal, a great friend and co-worker and we have definitely formed a strong friendship over the years.”

It should be noted that Colombian-born Gil Valletta is the creator of Dreamers Ventures, an alliance of investors and business experts that select, train and help Latino entrepreneurs via Project American Dreams. The goal is for them to accelerate the sale of their products on Home Shopping Network (HSN).

Before founding CIEN+, Gil Valletta worked at Johnson & Johnson, where, thanks to a leadership program, she realized her goal to reach the executive level before age 30.  During her 10 years at the company, she worked in different departments with her final post being that of director of global markets for the pharmaceutical sector.

One of her achievements at Johnson & Johnson was founding HOLA, a leadership program for Latinos through which she learned the importance of strategizing and finding ways to improve multinational businesses. “One of our objectives in HOLA was to create a case study for business in our specific market,” explained Gil Valletta.

“I took the initiative and told the executives that they were leaving millions of dollars on the table. That’s what gave me the courage to have a sit-down with the global CEO of Johnson & Johnson who started seeing me as a consultant when I was only 28.” After that, he started connecting her with public relations companies, consultants, etc. “I was seeing the different presentations that existed at that time for the market, but I wasn’t satisfied,” she said.

Gil Valletta realized that there was a need that wasn’t being met. What was needed was someone who could sit down with the CEOs of these different companies and explain what opportunities existed for them in multinational markets.

One of Gil Valletta’s most difficult decisions was to quit Johnson & Johnson and start her own company. “I met my business partner, Enrique Arbelaez, at Johnson & Johnson.  When I left in 2009, he and I founded Accento Group. A year later, we grew into XL Alliance and by 2010, we were up and running,” Gil Valletta said. In 2016, both decided to change the name to CIEN+.

The name stands for Cultural Innovation Engine. In addition, notes Gil Valletta, the reason why she and her partner chose this name is because “cien” means one hundred in Spanish and it is impossible to achieve 100 percent growth of sales without the cultural intelligence they offer to their clients. The partners added the plus as a figurative way to say to their prospective clients that they are capable of helping them achieve even more than 100 percent sales gains.

CIEN+ co-founder Enrique Arbelaez was a high-level executive at Johnson & Johnson when he joined Lili’s leadership program HOLA. When Arbelaez decided to leave Johnson & Johnson in 2008, Lili was still working in a multicultural strategy project at HOLA.

Arbelaez quit Johnson & Johnson three months before the recession of 2008, but the global economic downturn didn’t discourage both entrepreneurs from forming Accento Group, which now operates under the name CIEN+. “I started with all the preliminary work in 2008 and Lili joined the project in 2009. So the company was really born in 2009,” Arbelaez said.

“Lili is a tireless person, a visionary leader… Having her as a partner is awesome because she has a constant positivism. She never has the slightest doubt that we will be successful, no matter what obstacles she faces. I think employees do not see her as a boss or her clients as a provider. She is a mentor and a referent beyond being a person assigning tasks and projects,” he added.

For Giselle Chollett, communications and media relations manager at CIEN+, “Lili is a very passionate and committed person, with great compassion, especially for the Latino community. She’s also a person with a dynamic outlook on life who gives plenty of freedom to those under her guidance to learn and experiment with different situations at work.”

Lili Gil Valletta was born in Bogota, Colombia. Her parents were from Cali and worked as petroleum executives. Although she was enrolled in a Colombian university, at the age of 17 she decided to leave and moved to Keene, Texas.

Although she couldn’t speak a word of English, she decided to stay and through her studies at Southwestern Adventist University received a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Due to her student visa, she was not allowed to work, so she decided to continue her studies and received an MBA from University of Colorado in Colorado Springs and a master’s in global leadership and public policy from Harvard Kennedy School.

During the time she was pursuing her studies, Gil Valletta started working at Disney in Orlando while they were working on a project with Florida Hospital called Celebration Health, the “hospital of the future.” One day while she was working on this project, an executive at Johnson & Johnson invited her to apply for a job with the company in New Jersey and she agreed. “In six months, they called me and that’s how my great career began,” Gil Valletta said.

Gil Valletta considers herself a woman of faith, passion and purpose. Her first marriage was at 21 and ended in divorce. Her second husband is a businessman from Italy and they have two sons together.

Her plans for the future are to “perfect big data’s technology and artificial intelligence. These machines can interpret millions of comments and this information is what we use to analyze and find patterns that will tell us what makes people engage,” she says.

Gil Valletta is sure that although Latino businesses grow at a rate of 15 percent faster than the rest of the country, only 1 percent looks for investors. She knows that most Latin entrepreneurs, when they decide to open a business, empty their own bank accounts and hit their family and friends for loans. She considers this a big mistake because there are many financial mechanisms that are able to help small businesses.

Lili encourages everyone to live their dreams and to have the confidence to ask for help when needed. “In the quest for success, a person may fail. It’s OK to fail, the question is what to do when you do fail. Do you allow the circumstances to define you, or do you define the circumstances?”

Niurka Vidal is a reporter for Impacto Latin News. This article was produced as part of the 2016 Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. 

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