Global Cars: How a Powerful Latina Drives a Japanese Company to the Top in the US

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What Drives Her? Behind Patricia Salas Pineda’s rise to the top.

Editor’s note: When we first spoke to Patricia in 2016, she was Group Vice President for Toyota North America. She has since moved on from that role, instead becoming a board member for both Frontier Airlines and Levi Strauss. Her inspiring rise within the automotive industry, however, remains fascinating.

Fun fact about Patricia Salas Pineda, her first  car was a Toyota Corolla. Today, Patricia Salas Pineda has worked for over 30 years at Toyota and is the most senior ranking Hispanic executive – male or female.

Over the years, Pineda has brought the company tremendous value in her position as the Group Vice President of Hispanic Business Strategy. Accolades include being chosen as one of Latino Leaders Magazine’s Most Influential Latinos of 2015, and People en Español’s 25 Most Powerful Latinas in 2014.

Pineda credits her success to growing up in a family with a strong work ethic – although no one in her family worked in the auto industry. “I always believed in exceeding expectations in every job I held. I think this philosophy has served me well.”

After attending Mills College in Oakland, California, and the Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, Mexico, Pineda graduated with a BA in government. Next, she went on to obtain a Juris Doctor from the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley.

Her work in the auto industry began when she started working at New United Motor Manufacturing (NUMMI) in Fremont, California.

“I was trained as a lawyer and was working in the San Francisco Bay area when I was given the opportunity to join Toyota’s joint venture with General Motors, NUMMI, as associate general counsel and head of government and environmental affairs,” she said.

What Drives Her

Pineda at home with her brand. Photo: LeAura Luciano for AGirlsGuidetoCars

The all too familiar struggle of work-life balance

During her rise through the ranks at Toyota, Pineda faced changing roles professionally and personally. “I went from a very traditional corporate and legal department office setting to a heavy hands-on manufacturing and open office environment. It took some adjustment on my part, but over time I came to love it.”

As a mother of three, with two daughters and one son, Pineda has firsthand experience with the challenges that working mothers face. “I worked for several years before having children, which allowed me to prove myself in my many roles with the company,” she said.

“I was the first female manager at NUMMI and proud to be among a group of women throughout Toyota’s companies who were moving up through the ranks,” she added. Pineda praises her husband for his help during tough times. “Having a supportive husband helped with the work/life juggle. It made my situation much easier. But that’s not to say it was without challenges.”

“Now my children are 29, 28 and 23 and I’m optimistic about other women in corporate America successfully balancing work and family. It is possible to enjoy a family life and have a successful career.” And Pineda is certainly enjoying her dynamic career. “I have found the auto industry to be an incredibly dynamic industry which has offered me the opportunity to engage in a variety of roles.”

Pineda’s keys to success

When facing obstacles at work Pineda reflects on tried and true advice from her own family. “My father instilled in me a real staying power that has served me well. I have enjoyed a lot of success and there were points in my career where I said I’m going to give up or I’m not going to do something, but in the back of my mind my father’s message was always with me.”

In her career, Pineda has been guided by mentors inside and outside of the company. She acts as mentor herself and often offers advice to women. “Throughout the years, I have mentored a number of women – Latinos and non-Latinos. I also find myself counseling young mothers who are thinking of leaving the workplace. I tell them, “Don’t make that decision now. Most women have thanked me for encouraging them to ‘hang in there’ and they have gone on to achieve success in their jobs.”

Her advice for young people entering the workforce is thoughtful and pragmatic. “Get the best possible education. When you have a job, work hard and productively. I always say to young people, raise your hand for different assignments that will serve you over the long run. Speak up, be collaborative, and don’t burn bridges—the world is a very small place. Young people in the workplace will meet a lot of people who will be able to help them over the life of their career.”

What Drives Her

Pineda is working hard to keep the Toyota brand at the top. Photo: LeAura Luciano for AGirlsGuidetoCars

Building relationships for Hispanic outreach

Pineda is responsible for optimizing relationships with Hispanic business and media communities and building a network of Toyota associates and team members across the region. “Across my many roles, I have been good at developing external relationships that have been helpful to the company. These relationships span from the Hispanic community, to the non-profit world, to elected officials, to the media. I have shared with them the wonderful things Toyota is doing.”

“My goal is to continue the pioneering work of the Hispanic Business Strategy group, now in its third year. HBSG has been engaging the Hispanic market through meaningful interaction with media, consumers, elected officials, community organizations and community leaders to integrate the Latino perspective into all aspects of Toyota’s business.”

Pineda’s efforts all work toward maintaining Toyota’s number one brand position through continued outreach within the Latino community.

LeAura Luciano is a native New Yorker and graduate of NYU and JD graduate of Hofstra Law. Her experiences... More about LeAura Luciano