Before he came up with the idea that changed his life, Richard Montañez, the son of a Mexican immigrant, grew up in a migrant labor camp in Southern California. He and his ten siblings lived in a one-bedroom apartment with their parents before moving to an 800-square foot three-bedroom home. Those experiences shaped him.

“I have a PhD of being poor, hungry and determined,” the janitor-turned-inventor-turned-executive told the Washington Post. “And I think when you’ve experienced those three things, there’s a lot of wisdom. When you’ve been poor, there’s so much innovation that comes out of that.”

Montañez, now in his 50s, has been innovative since grade school.

When his mom sent him to school on the first day of 3rd grade with a burrito for lunch, he was embarrassed. It was the 1960s, and back then, “very few people had seen a burrito,” he writes in his memoir A Boy, a Burrito and a Cookie. “There I was with this burrito and with everyone staring at me. I put it back in my bag and hid it.”

The next day, when he asked his mom to make him “a bologna sandwich and a cupcake like the other kids,” she instead packed him two burritos: one for him to eat and one for him to use to make a friend. By the end of the week, the seven-year-old entrepreneur was selling burritos for $0.25 each.

“I learned at that moment that there was something special about being different, that there was a reason that we all just couldn’t fit into the same box,” Montañez writes.

After struggling to pick up on basic reading and writing in school, Montañez dropped out before getting his diploma and worked a series of low-paying jobs, including slaughtering chickens and gardening. He was working at a car wash when a friend came by and told him that Frito-Lay was hiring.

He went to the Frito-Lay plant in Southern California, asked for an application and had his future wife fill it out on his behalf, since he “could barely read or write,” he recalls. He returned the application later that day and the company hired him as a janitor.

The idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came to him when, one day, a machine broke in the assembly line and a batch of Cheetos didn’t get dusted with their standard orange cheese powder. Montañez took the plain Cheetos home and experimented with putting chili powder on them, an idea inspired by a street vendor in his neighborhood, who made Mexican grilled corn with lime and chili. 

His friends and family liked the taste, so he decided to pitch the product to the CEO. After all, the CEO at the time, Roger Enrico, had sent out a video “telling all employees he wanted them to take ownership of the company,” Montañez writes. He decided to do just that: “I called him up, not knowing you weren’t supposed to call the CEO.”

He got the CEO’s assistant on the line, who helped put him through to the CEO. Enrico then gave Montañez two weeks to prepare a presentation for the company executives.

Montañez headed straight to the library to check out books on marketing, designed a unique bag to package his product and walked into the meeting wearing a $3 tie.

“They were amazed at the product design,” he recalls, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was born. Cheetos Flamin’ Hot is now the biggest selling, single-serve SKU in the company. The success of the product influenced and created the first Frito-Lay Hispanic marketing team. Rather than rest on this accomplishment, Richard instead fills his days with ways that serve to nurture our country’s future leaders. He’s worked with PepsiCo to develop college scholarships directly catered to minorities and the less fortunate. He has also launched the Continuous Improvement Initiative, and helped influence Hispanic products and marketing promotions for KFC and Taco Bell. 

Montañez’s career took off after the presentation. He climbed his way up the corporate ladder within PepsiCo to executive level and now he gives motivational talks and presents to companies on the importance of diversity in business. Fox Searchlight Pictures is even making a movie about his rags-to-riches story. 

Richard has used his life experience to influence not only the gente but the world at large. That same nervous little boy who was embarrassed of his lunch is a living testament that you can make it in this world if you accept who you are, carry yourself unselfishly and confidently, and learn as much as you can from others. “I believe that God made us all unique and that you have a genetic code that no one else has. In all the ages of time there has never been or will ever be anyone like you. We are all gifted, and when you find your purpose, you find your gift. I tell my children to never let any man, woman, or society tell you who you are. You know who you are, and you’re destined for greatness.” Spoken like a true leader.

Kits for kidz ™and Feed The Children are just a few of the charitable programs that PepsiCo Sales Executive Richard Montanez demonstrates his passion to help the needy. He says “True performance with purpose begins by serving in all communities across our country, especially during rough economic times.”

The former janitor realizes that his life would probably look very different today had he not called up Enrico, and he uses that fact to inspire and encourage others. “Don’t take your position for granted, regardless of what that position may be,” Montañez writes. “CEO or janitor, act like you own the company.”

INFLUNSR. defines grit as choosing to create a better future by going the extra mile. The extra mile idea is taken directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:41 where He said “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” These words of Jesus would have been profoundly disturbing to his first-century audience. The “second mile” that Jesus was referring to was not just a nice platitude that he made up on the spot. Rather, it would have struck a very real and painful nerve.

Soldiers of the Roman Army, who in certain aspects we might consider the “Nazis” of their day, had the legal right to force any subject of an occupied territory to carry their heavy packs and gear for them. However, the legal limit was 1,000 paces — that is, one Roman mile (approximately half a mile today).

Thus, the “subject” was actually turned into an object to be used as a pack mule. But by offering to exceed the limit, the silenced and oppressed human object would be regaining status as a subject. By making this free choice, he would not only be demonstrating the extravagant generosity of God; he would also be placing the soldier into an embarrassing situation, because to allow the extra mile would actually be breaking the law.

And if you think about, that is exactly what Richard Montañez, the son of a Mexican immigrant, did with creating the recipe for Flaming Hot Cheetos. He moved from an object to a subject.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve adopted this phrase into our culture and completely misappropriated it. Many say “he went the extra mile” to only indicate someone working extra hard on a project or staying late at practice.

It’s also unfortunate that the historical and cultural weight of this passage is missed. This verse comes right smack dab in the middle of the most explicitly nonviolent teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5. Here we have the classics: love your enemy, give to those who ask of you, and turn the other cheek.

The offer of the “second mile” was actually a way to unmask the power play, to nonviolently subvert the system by playing right into the ridiculousness of it all. And this is not cowardly. It takes great courage. This subversive act flips the power dynamic. The soldier’s attempt to intimidate and humiliate the peasant now leads to uncomfortable embarrassment. The oppressive system has been caught with its pants down, and it doesn’t know what to do.

Wouldn’t the events of this past Wednesday, January 6 been different if people in Washington DC had “gone the extra mile?”

It is in these moments that the opportunity for influence is opened up. This is why the picture of Jesus and the Nazi is so powerful. Jesus isn’t just passively walking with the soldier; he is sharing with him and even teaching him. For added effect, remember that Jesus was a Jew. And even though Jesus is clearly the one without any power at all in the situation, the soldier is captivated by what he has to say, because Jesus speaks from the unique wisdom that exists only in the hearts of the oppressed.

There is a reason why the greatest example of the heart of God was precisely God himself becoming a servant — accepting death at the hands of the oppressors to overturn not only the system of empire, but also sin, death, and oppression everywhere.

Grit — choosing the extra mile — is more than just determination. 

It’s much deeper than that.

Journal your thoughts. We will discuss this later in the month in the Circle…

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