José Vélez-Silva: On a mission to represent the underrepresented
José Vélez-Silva has worked for decades in marketing to ensure that the Latino perspective is seen and heard.
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“José, en la vida siempre se como las estrellas que iluminan pero no encandilan”, which in English translates to, “José, always in life, be like the stars in the sky, that guide but do not dazzle and blind.”
These were the words spoken to José Vélez-Silva by his grandmother; words of wisdom that have stayed with him, guiding him through his life as he became a leader in marketing and advertising, and a staunch advocate for Latinos everywhere. Vélez-Silva’s career path has been strongly influenced by his interest and passion for storytelling.
“I think that the power of telling our stories — the way we want, the way that they are — really is what drove me to marketing and advertising. I come from a world [where] storytelling is very important,” Vélez-Silva told AL DÍA as he explained why he entered the world of marketing and advertising.
He is not the only one in his family to dive headlong into a new world.
Vélez-Silva’s maternal uncle was the founder of WAPA-TV, a Spanish-English independent television station located in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He credits this for a strong entrepreneurial spirit running in his household.
His mother was another such inspiration, working her way up to the head of HR for Upjohn Pharmaceuticals (now Pfizer Pharmaceuticals) and becoming the first woman in their family to hold a career.
Other mentors that would inspire, guide, and teach Vélez-Silva included minority-owned advertising agency d'exposito & Partners; renowned advertising pioneer Sara Sunshine; and Carmen Sepuldeva Director of Communications/Marketing at AARP NY State Office.
“I grew up in this family in which telling the stories and bringing connections and bringing entertainment into the households of all Puerto Ricans was in me since I was born,” he continued.
The Road From San Juan
Vélez-Silva began working when he was 15 years old, giving tours of San Juan to visitors to the island, telling the city’s stories to them as he invited them to explore his home.
While in college, he had an internship with YOUNG & RUBICAM, where he worked with their traffic department, helping facilitate communication between the company’s creative team and their accounting team.
His work ethic would pay off, as YOUNG & RUBICAM offered him a job two years before he was set to graduate.
It became his first real job and his foot in the door for the world of advertising, moving from local brands of beans to major brands like Wrangler. It would be years later that he would be brought to the U.S. by Foote, Cone, and Belding to supervise an account for Colgate-Palmolive.
It was this job opportunity that provided Vélez-Silva the chance to move to the mainland.
Working in the U.S. came with an ugly surprise, however. In Puerto Rico, the audience he marketed to was wholly Latino. But in the U.S., they were a demographic segment of the population, one in which executives weren’t interested in reaching out to.
“When I came from Puerto Rico, I came from an island that is 100 miles by 35 miles, and we were the total market. When I had to go at the time and try to sell to clients the importance of advertising to the Latino community, for me it was mind blowing,” Vélez-Silva said.
Before the 2000 U.S. Census, Vélez-Silva and other advocates for diverse groups had little data to work with, especially as companies were not measuring their successes among multicultural audiences.
“Having to justify an investment on the Latino community was something that I was not used to,” he said. “But without hard facts and hard data, you had to rely on pretty much whoever wanted to do something about it.”
When the census was released, companies realized the potential the growing multicultural market held. Now, with companies like Nielsen gathering data on diverse audiences, Vélez-Silva has seen a rise in attention towards cultural nuances since he arrived more than two decades ago.
The Next Big Thing
Not one to settle, Vélez-Silva has always sought to work for major companies that act as beacons of corporate citizenship, a desire that brought him to the Comcast Corporation nearly eleven years ago in 2012.
Comcast is the largest multinational telecommunications conglomerate in the U.S. Its headquarters — and Vélez-Silva’s office — are located in historic Philadelphia.
When he first met with Comcast, his soon-to-be future boss invited him for an interview, one that would last long into the evening as more and more people joined the interview to speak with him.
“The more that I met the people, the more I fell in love with Comcast, because one thing that people don’t realize about us is that it’s like a family to be quite frank. Me being here and having the opportunity to work in one of the biggest, more diverse entertainment and technology companies, obviously fills me with a lot of passion,” Vélez-Silva said.
At Comcast, Vélez-Silva has been overseeing their marketing campaigns for their multicultural segments, including Latinos, African Americans, American Asians, and LGBT communities.
Being in a place that allows him to be his authentic self as a Latino and Puerto Rican, and respects him as an employee and human being, is one of the most important things to Vélez-Silva as he works with Comcast.
“[My] values are authenticity, representation, and truth in the sense that they’re representing the community in a way that the community needs to be portrayed. I love to elevate and really empower people and empower the community,” Vélez-Silva said.
From his position as the vice president of multicultural brand marketing, he and his team have led Comcast’s efforts to connect, engage, and retain customers from a multitude of backgrounds.
“I don't control everything. What I do is try to inspire you to do your best. Because if I inspire you to do your best, then you take ownership,” Vélez-Silva said as he explained his leadership style. “It's not about 'this is what José wants to do. This is what so and so wants to do.’”
“You are part of it. And when you take ownership, you take pride, and then you try to do the best that you can in order for you to achieve the goals that we have together,” he continued.
Watching the Future Unfold
Part of Vélez-Silva’s current work is predicting how the Latino community will change by 2030 and how Comcast can best meet their needs.
In 2012, he and Comcast began seeking for what Hispanics would relate to and to estimate how the community would refer to itself in the future.
One such term he and his team have coined with NBC is the term “200%ers,” a term used to describe people who are 100% Latino and 100% American.
“That is something that we worked very diligently [on] and we brought [it] to the marketplace before [anyone] else,” Vélez-Silva said.
The term is one that holds personal meaning for him, as well.
“I'm proud Puerto Rican, and I am 100% American, and I'm 100% Puerto Rican. And I strive to represent our community the best that I can,” he added.
From where Vélez-Silva stands, multicultural marketing has a bright future ahead. From his experience, it has become a necessity for any company that wants to be successful 15 or even 20 years from now.
“This is just the beginning. And I'm very proud of the journey that still lays ahead,” Vélez-Silva said.