Erwin Raphael’s global career journey is about as typical as the 2019 Genesis G70 in a sea of base-model vehicles.
A military veteran born in Dominica, raised in St. Croix, educated in Maryland and Ohio, and now, balancing duties in California and Seoul, South Korea, Raphael brings a global perspective to his role that is indeed extraordinary and much-needed for his current objective. He must lead an international team in forging results—both in sales and brand loyalty—for a fairly new, stand-alone luxury brand linked to South Korea’s long-standing, affordable car behemoth, Hyundai Motor America.
And just like driving the new G70 might make the average consumer forget who its parent company is—the interior details are sumptuous, the tech features are beyond your usual off-the-lot package, and the driving experience might lend itself to an awesome Fast and Furious fantasy—this auto exec offers a fresh take on matching disruptive ideals with a foundation of tried-and-true innovation and ingenuity.
Black Enterprise caught up with Raphael at the company’s recent launch event in Maine to talk cognitive diversity and how enriching a global mindset can help buoy career and business advancement whether you’re at the entry-level or in an executive seat.
Black Enterprise: Your team gave a presentation that incorporated dominant themes of unity, diversity, and appreciation of culture. How have these themes played roles in your career and in the vision of leading Genesis?
Raphael: We are very deliberate about inclusion, and not diversity for the sake of diversity, but more cognitive diversity.
In my career and in my life, I think that being able to bring to the table a different perspective, and positioning it in a way that it will be appreciated from a business perspective, has helped me tremendously. I’m in a role that’s typically held by people with marketing backgrounds and brand-name backgrounds. I’m not a marketer. I’ve never taken a marketing class in my life. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t learn a lot about marketing by reading and by osmosis. I’m an engineer and mathematician. We’re supposed to be rigid and very prescriptive, but the reality is the world is dynamic and fluid, and we have to use our skills and our analyses in a way that can allow us to bridge the gap between the rigid and prescriptive elements—that are necessary to design and bring great products to market—with understanding people and what people want from their product.
I think that in my career, as is the case with many of us minorities, African Americans in particular, we’re almost always in a setting where we are the minority so we have—as a shared means of survival—we’ve had to be able to see the world in other people’s shoes—to understand what they see.
That has helped me prepare for this, because it’s natural for me to try to understand what the other person’s thinking, what they see, what this might mean to them. I think it’s been a bit of an advantage. I’m not saying the road has been easy and I’m not saying it’s been easier than it would have been otherwise—it has not. But it has allowed me to hone some skills that maybe I wouldn’t have valued or needed to if I wasn’t who I am.
Being raised in St. Croix, attending college in the States, and serving in the military afforded you a variety of global experiences. How do those experiences translate into leadership and building a network?
Today, the tools that are available to maintain connections are so much better than what they were 20 or 30 years ago. With the digital world and social media, if used properly, there’s absolutely no need for you to ever lose contact with anybody. [You can] also use those tools to better understand people. … If you connect with people, get behind them, and understand the types of things [they share]—you can look for consistencies, look for patterns—you’ll get to know people.
We think about differences between people, but no matter who you are, we generally have more in common than differences. If we can understand the differences—appreciate those differences—but then also understand what we have in common, it gives us something we can work on together, we can build on together.
How has a global mindset helped in building solid teams to launch a brand that’s somewhat like a startup?
For [Genesis], it’s not only that inclusion sounds authentic; it’s not even that we just want inclusion. It’s that we can’t be the best unless we appreciate and embrace inclusion. If you’re building a team of any sort, to do anything, whether it’s building a house or playing a soccer game, you look for the best people. …You don’t want everybody to be a goalie. You will surely lose, even if you’ve got all the best goalies. So, you find the people with different skills and play different positions. And that’s what we do.
We utilize that in every area of the business—it goes into manufacturing, it goes into people, and making people feel comfortable, feel welcome and feel special—not the least of which are our customers. If you really want to make the customer feel special, you have to understand them and what’s important to them.