A 17-year-old Liliana Gil Valletta exited a plane at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport after a six-hour flight with only a student visa, a suitcase, and a dream. Some 2,500 miles from home, Valletta stepped onto the scorching Texas pavement. As a young girl, Valletta dreamed of attending college at Harvard University. Her parents—both engineers in the oil and gas industry in Valletta’s native Barrancabermeja, Colombia—couldn’t afford the tuition of the pricey Ivy League school. Instead, they scrimped and saved to send their precocious and outspoken daughter to a one-year English as a Second Language program at Southwestern Adventist University.
A short 45-minute drive from DFW Airport, Keene, Texas (population: 6,500), would be where Valletta would begin chasing her childhood dreams. “I was probably oblivious to so much back then,” she says today. “There was very little diversity in small-town Texas at the time. So, here was this little brown girl from another country who didn’t look like anyone else or know a single word of English. Because I was from Colombia, people automatically assumed I must be related to Pablo Escobar. But I always saw my differences as an opportunity to help others understand who I was.”
Valletta would learn English through the ESL program. She’d throw herself into her studies and extracurriculars, and, she says, work her ass off until graduating summa cum laude from the small Christian school. Ever the overachiever, Valletta wasn’t finished there; she’d go on to obtain an MBA from the University of Colorado and work her way up the corporate ladder to lead global marketing for a giant pharmaceutical company. She’d then leave the safety net of her cushy corporate job to ignite the entrepreneurial fire that burned inside her and build not just one but two successful businesses. Along the way, she’d move to New York City, fall in love, get married (to Plano High School grad, Texas A&M University football star, former NFL player, and The Apprentice contestant Chris Valletta), have two beautiful children, be named a prestigious World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, advise U.S. presidents, and not only achieve her childhood dream of attending Harvard but also teach as a guest lecturer there. Last year, after a nudge from the pandemic, she moved her companies and family back to where it all began.
“Texas was always home from the get-go for me in the United States,” Valletta says. “It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized y’all wasn’t something everyone said. Like many people chasing their dreams, I felt like I had to be in New York for career, opportunity, and business. It’s interesting because there are so many transplants in NYC, and everyone you talk to says they’re only there for a little bit. That little bit became 15 years for me, but I always dreamed about coming home.”
‘Firmly in the Business Lane’
At the helm of global marketing services at Johnson & Johnson, Valletta was responsible for billion-dollar promotional initiatives and agency contracts. To help the healthcare giant gain even more market share and grow revenue, she developed a strategy that leaned into her background as a Hispanic female. Called MMx, it was J&J’s first multicultural marketing plan for the pharmaceutical sector.
“I realized no one was truly looking at the numbers, shifting demographics in the market, and the size of the collective economy and what it would look like in three, five, and 10 years through an inclusive and cultural lens,” Valletta says.
The business-savvy leader seized an opportunity and founded the inclusive marketing agency CIEN+ in 2010. Today, the woman- and minority-owned company provides business consulting and marketing services to Fortune 500 companies such as CVS/Aetna, Google, and PepsiCo. Although Valletta declined to provide revenue figures for the privately held firm, she says it employs 80 (or more than 100 when including part-time employees) and boasts offices in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Denver, Bogotá, Medellín—and, as of last year, its brand-new headquarters in Irving.
Valletta’s second venture, CulturIntel, was founded in 2016 and uses artificial intelligence to provide data-driven market research to tap into diverse and high-growth markets. Valletta says her companies are different than most DEI-focused consulting groups in that she focuses on consumer products, technology, and healthcare—not human resources or advocacy work. “I am firmly in the business lane,” Valletta says. “The reality is that we live in a multicultural world. Anyone in business who wants to win and capture the market’s full potential must be inclusive in how they understand their customers.”
According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, nearly four of 10 Americans identify with a race or ethnicity other than White. In addition, 2010 to 2020 saw the overall percentage of the country’s White population as a proportion of the total U.S. population decline. Most demographers agree that by 2050, the United States will see a minority-majority population shift, with growth predominately driven by younger individuals who identify as multicultural.
We live in a multicultural world. Anyone in business who wants to win and capture the market’s full potential must be inclusive in how they understand their customers.
“We can keep telling ourselves that what I do is some niche marketing,” Valletta says. “We can continue to debate labels and segment our society. But if we’re doing that and not focusing on how much we need to invest in our business plans, product development, and market strategies to change with the times, I think we’re putting our energy in the wrong places.”
From Student to Board Member
Education, Valletta says, is one of the greatest equalizers. It’s what she credits for many of her early successes and how she built her business empire into what it is today. It’s also why she decided to accept an invitation delivered via LinkedIn from Ana Patterson, a classmate at Southwestern Adventist University who was teaching business classes at their alma mater. “Next thing you know, Lili was dropping everything and hopping on a flight from New York to Texas to speak to our class,” Patterson says. “That’s just the kind of person she is.”
Southwestern Adventist University has an average enrollment of between 900 and 1,000 students. It is also a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution whose student population is between 40 percent and 45 percent Hispanic. “Our school closely mirrors the demographics of our state,” says Patterson, who was named the university’s first female and Hispanic president in 2021.
Through the guest lecture, Patterson connected Valletta with the school’s administration, and Valletta eventually joined the school’s Board of Trustees in 2019. Soon afterward, Valletta created the Aurora Hispanic Leadership Endowment Scholarship in memory of her mother to support first-generation Hispanic students.
Valletta says her mother was her guiding light and a trailblazer for women in Colombia when she graduated with a degree in chemistry to pursue a STEM career in the 1960s. Challenging cultural and societal norms of the time, she showed Valletta the definition of hard work, discipline, and a commitment to excellence. She passed away in 2011 after a 10-year battle with cancer, never seeing her daughter fulfill her dream of attending Harvard University in 2012. “But I know she was right there with me, every step of the way,” Valletta says.
Using Her Superpower
In 2017, Valletta was asked to join a group of 11 other women business owners at the White House to meet with former President Donald Trump and advise on matters affecting small business owners. Despite harsh criticisms and even some death threats on social media, Valletta joined the non-partisan group. “We have been complaining for so long for a seat at the table in business and boardrooms,” Valletta says of the experience. “If all of a sudden I’m invited, you can bet I’m going to show up and be very intentional in my role.”
During the meeting, Valletta says she clicked with Claudia Mirza, a fellow Colombian and CEO of Plano-based Akorbi. Along with Valletta, Mirza was among the four Latinas selected to participate in the forum. The two called each other nightly and formed a support system that remains today.
“Our companies are similar in that my firm provides multi-lingual translation and staffing services, complimenting her company’s diverse and data-driven analytics and marketing offerings,” Mirza says. “It was the start of several business projects together—and it was also the beginning of a remarkable friendship.”
On the event’s last day, Valletta said the highlight was touring the oval office with the president. Valletta says she’d happily accept the call if asked to participate in a similar program again. “It had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with purpose and responsibility,” she says. “One thing I kept repeating in the press afterward was, ‘I’d rather influence from the inside than complain from the outside if given a seat at the table.’”
Valletta hung a poster in her office to serve as a daily reminder of her life’s purpose. It reads: “Inspire and unleash possibilities in others.” She says we all have a responsibility to give back to the world equally or more than what we’ve received from it. “Especially for me, as a woman, minority, and immigrant to this country, I’m called to continually give back to my communities,” she says. “I hold myself accountable and always to try to remind myself to unleash and inspire the possibilities in others.” Valletta also believes strongly in the power of unity. “Today’s notion of DEI shouldn’t always be about looking for injustices,” she says. “If you look at any community, you can find those. The uniqueness of you, if you choose to dive into it, can give you an edge instead of being a disadvantage.
“I tell people of all backgrounds to take your unique upbringing and cultural context and use it as your superpower—not as a handicap. My career path and life story are proof.”
As she has climbed the corporate ladder and built her own thriving enterprises, Lili Gil Valletta says she has learned important lessons along the way.
- Chase your purpose. No amount of money can replace loving what you do.
- Preparation creates excellence. Results always speak louder than anything else.
- Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. That includes mentors who will champion you.
- Prioritize work-life balance and family, emphasizing the three F’s: faith, family, and fun.
- Grow and give back by inspiring and unleashing possibilities in others.