Thirty years ago, Maite Iraolagoitia was told she wasn’t Procter & Gamble (P&G) material. Thirty years later, she’s still there. But when asked about the conversation she had with a higher-up at the company three decades ago, she has no hint of revenge or retaliation in her voice. It’s quite the opposite.
“I can tell you—thirty years later, and most assuredly—I was not P&G material,” the vice president of global material development and supply organization says. “I was encouraged to leave P&G as a new hire, and I probably would have had it not been for a couple of people who could see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.”
How did Iraolagoitia manage to become the best that P&G has to offer? The VP has risen through countless roles and responsibilities while also acting as an advocate and mentor for Hispanic talent, and though the latter it isn’t in her job description, it’s a responsibility that she takes very seriously. “It is the right thing to do; it has always been part of my life,” she says. There’s a lot to examine in Iraolagoitia’s rise, but some context is required for someone who managed to grow up everywhere while never feeling like she truly belonged.
Iraolagoitia’s birth was accompanied by a massive earthquake in Peru, where she was born. The daughter of two Basque parents who had found their way to Peru independently, she would move from Peru to Spain to Puerto Rico before she even began making memories.
“Wherever we moved, we were outsiders,” Iraolagoitia says jokingly. “In Peru, we were the Spaniards. In Spain, we were the Americans. In Puerto Rico, we were Spaniards, again. And when I moved to Cincinnati for P&G, I suddenly became Puerto Rican!”
Iraolagoitia says the grass almost always seemed greener elsewhere. When P&G moved her to Venezuela to help build a new technical center, she
thought she’d never return to Cincinnati because she had no roots there and because the transition to the US had been particularly hard.
“After three years in Venezuela, all I could think about were all the wonderful things I left in Cincinnati,” the VP says, laughing. “I realized how ridiculous it was and that I would never be happy unless I decided to focus on the positives of the moment. That seemingly small idea changed my personal well-being and my attitude for the rest of my life. When I travel and people ask me where I’m from, I tell them Cincinnati. It’s been thirty years. This is home.”
A Turning Point
Thinking back to her first year with P&G, Iraolagoitia says her role just wasn’t right for her. And that reality-shaking conversation she had with a higher-up? It was a conversation she sought out, not one forced on her.
“I wasn’t the P&G material that he had in mind,” Iraolagoitia says. “He had an idea of what it took to succeed in P&G, and I did not measure up to that standard. That had something to do with the way I looked and the way I talked, I’m sure. And he was right. While I was hired for my qualifications, it was also because the company values diversity. I knew I would only be able to succeed if I was myself, and I had to make that commitment.”
But the fact remains that Iraolagoitia might have left had it not been for two colleagues who believed she was capable of great things.
“They valued my unique style, found a role for me that was more in line with my academic background, and created an environment where I could grow and contribute disproportionally,” she explains. “I was still a risk, but one they were willing to take.”
P&G was expanding and had created a program to offer more affordable diapers for lower-income markets. It was brand-new and fairly under the radar. Iraolagoitia was moved into the role and since that move (and massive success), her career has not stopped blossoming. Today, she is proud that she has been able to play the same coach, mentor, and sponsor role that her two colleagues played for her earlier in her career. Her passion has helped others bring out their best.
In fact, Iraolagoitia has been involved in sourcing and nurturing Hispanic talent, especially in R&D, for such a long time that she’s now seeing the people she’s mentored mentor and sponsor others.
“It’s amazing to see that people I hired are now executives and paying it forward,” she says. “I don’t mentor to check off a scorecard or meet a requirement. I mentor and sponsor people because I want to get to know their aspirations and dreams and help bring them to life to the best of my abilities. We’re Hispanics, we’re a community, and we’re a family.”
For Those on the Rise
To those who may want to succeed in P&G today, Iraolagoitia says to be competent, be authentic, and be vulnerable. Those who can live up to those three expectations will create the kind of trust that leads to goal-stretching and access to the best growth opportunities, she says. “We always have room for great people at P&G.”
And as Iraolagoitia’s own career has demonstrated, it’s also a good idea to create meaningful connections with those both inside and outside your place of work. “I go back to my network over and over again,” she explains. “People will drop what they’re doing to help because they know I will do the same. Again, that comes back to trust.”
Iraolagoitia admits that her story may not be one that younger people want to hear. No one wants to be told that maybe they don’t belong. But hopefully, she says, this story can inspire others to become their best self by removing some of the feelings of victimization and replacing them with empowerment.
Iraolagoitia is now a pillar of P&G. And she trailblazed a path for others by doing it her own way.