By Jonathan J. Higuera
December 2000 - As the highest-ranking Hispanic at Microsoft, Orlando Ayala shoulders a hefty responsibility. Heís part of the companyís business leadership team, a group that works directly with president and CEO Steve Ballmer.
Heís enjoyed a remarkable ascent since joining the company in 1991. Along the way, he proved his worth by plotting the companyís investment and growth strategies in developing markets such as Africa, India, the Mediterranean, and Middle East as well as Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. Within three years, the regions under his guidance doubled their revenues, from $500 million to $1 billion.
A native of Colombia, Mr. Ayala represents a growing trend of Latin American-born and -educated business leaders assuming top roles in some of the worldís most prominent companies. Carlos Gutierrez of Mexico, who now heads Kellogg, is another example.
Mr. Ayala acknowledges heís not a ďtechie,Ē but his sales and marketing expertise have vaulted him into the inner circle of one of the globeís most successful companies.
HISPANIC BUSINESS spoke with him in Washington, D.C., prior to the Microsoft-sponsored Hispanic Heritage Awards ceremony, which took place September 20.
HB: Microsoft is here to sponsor the Hispanic Heritage Awards this year, which marks something of a step up in terms of the companyís involvement with the Hispanic community. Can you describe the relationship? How long has it been going on?
OA: This is our first year with the Heritage Awards, but by no means is it the only thing we have done. We have been involved in several activities, many of them with ASPIRA [a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on youth leadership]. Through transferring products and, what is more important to me, knowledge to the community, we have been active to the tune of about $6.7 million to $7 million over the past couple of years.
HB: What are Microsoftís plans for entering and managing the Hispanic market, both domestically and in Latin America?
OA: We are in the early stages of really understanding consumer behavior on the Hispanic side. Thatís something that I am interested in specifically. At this point I think our activity is not just selling more to Hispanics. I think the priority is more along the lines of what can we do to reach out to the Hispanic community with our technology and with knowledge to help transfer technology.
HB: Do you see different marketing strategies for reaching U.S. Hispanics as opposed to Latin American consumers?
OA: No. At the core, itís exactly the same. Of course we want to market to them. Of course we want to sell to them. But most of all, I believe software has the potential to close that gap we call the digital divide and give people a chance to realize their dreams. Thatís a basic element thatís real for Hispanic Americans and for Hispanic Latin Americans.
HB: Whatís your role in developing these markets?
OA: I was hired in 1991 to create the Latin American division for the company. Now I have worldwide responsibility for sales, marketing, and services for Microsoft. I just came from Colombia, where I inaugurated a project that gives about 7,000 students from low-income families access to computers and the Internet. These are projects we try to do everywhere. So I get very active with concrete projects like that, and I get very active in terms of focusing our people on the fact that Microsoft wants to be a good citizen in every one of its locations.
HB: What strategies do you think will lead more Hispanics to become part of the IT industry?
OA: There are at least 150,000 IT jobs in the United States that are open. And the real problem with that is that curriculums are not bringing to the marketplace people fully prepared to deal with all these jobs. So we need a long-term strategy that specifically introduces technology and software into curriculums early on so we prepare people to be productive at the time they leave school.
HB: Does that mean Microsoft would like to see a higher cap on H1-B visas?
OA: Absolutely. I can tell you that there are thousands of people from Latin America with great development skills, with great sales and marketing skills, who would be of use to this country. Now other people will tell you thatís going be a brain drain out of this country. I donít believe that. I believe that if the opportunity is wide enough, if we work in the education systems in an aggressive way, there will be plenty.
HB: Does Microsoft plan to make any investments in U.S. Hispanic IT companies or even Latin American IT companies?
OA: Absolutely. We have done some already. We just cut a very important business deal with TelMex in Mexico. The idea is that they are going to have coverage on the Latin American portal. Itís MSN for Hispanics, and thatís been very successful so far. Itís targeted 100 percent to the Hispanic market both here in the United States and in Latin America.
HB: What about developing a Hispanic supplier base to Microsoft? Is there anything youíre doing to help that along?
OA: Among the objectives I have in the short term is tapping into the right pools Ė not only for Hispanics, but for black Americans and also for women in high-level positions. That is one of the highest priorities I have right now.
HB: Where do you envision the computer industry in five to 10 years, and where do you see Microsoft?
OA: We recently announced a very important strategy called the DOT.NET strategy. Iím not going to elaborate a lot about the name, but let me try to explain what I mean. We believe we are right on the verge of a new generation of applications that are going to be very Internet-centric. They are going to be based on services. How will people will use computers 10 years from now? It will be a service for which you can sign up and pay a certain amount per month. You are not necessarily going to own software, but youíll pay, letís say, $30 a month. With that, youíll be able to do a huge number of things, all personalized to you as a consumer. For example, if I want to go and visit my mother in New York, this thing buys a ticket for me. It also immediately updates my motherís calendar and tells me if sheís going to be available.
HB: Where do you find the richest areas both in the United States and in Latin America for recruiting Hispanics or finding Hispanics to fill open positions?
OA: I really try to connect with our recruiting teams in those places. In general, of course, the southern border is very active Ė California and the Miami area. There is a venture capital community in the Miami area that is very active now. It targets not only the United States but also the South American market and the rest of Latin America.
HB: Is there anything in particular you would like U.S. Hispanic businesspeople to know about Microsoft?
OA: My message is this: Every time you are given an opportunity, you have a responsibility to give back. And the best way to give back is to maximize resources for your company so you can create opportunities for other people coming through the pipeline. Second, I would tell Latino leaders that you need to get as close as you can to technology, especially to software. Thatís a very important skill you need to develop, not just because itís technology but because thereís so much potential for Hispanics to get better jobs. Iím not a technologist myself, but I am totally clear that those close to technology have better job opportunities. And from there they can influence others in the community.
HB: Finally, can Hispanic-owned startup companies count on Microsoft to do business with them?
OA: Absolutely. We are ready to listen to any great ideas for new opportunities.
Jonathan J. Higuera is business writer for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, Arizona
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