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Looking to Build a Diverse Team? Pepe Palafox Has Insights

September 09, 2019 | by Jessie Dibb
Pepe Palafox is someone who knows the importance of hard work and diversity firsthand.

“The way I was brought up, my train of thought is: Do whatever you can to get the job done,” he says. In other words, it’s about delivering results, not just putting in a set number of hours.

Palafox was raised in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights and learned from an early age what it means to make your own way in the world. “My parents immigrated to this country before I was born,” he says. “My dad, he’d always worked in restaurants and eventually he said, ‘If I’m going to get my kids through college then I’d better get a head start.’ He eventually decided to venture off and run his own restaurant.” Growing up, the restaurant was an all-hands-on-deck affair; his dad worked the night shift and his mom worked the day shift. “I got through every single role at the restaurant, from bus boy to dishwasher to cook,” he says.

His diligence paid off, though a career in engineering, let alone aviation, wasn’t something that Palafox initially saw in his future. “I never had that one inspiring experience early in my youth, like some do, being exposed to working on cars, or playing with Legos, or playing with STEM toys, or building robots,” he says. “The earliest memory I have where I really got excited about engineering was working on electric car models in junior high school.”

Palafox eventually got hooked and after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from Syracuse University in 2002, he was offered a spot in a PhD program at Oxford University, where he studied gas turbines. It was his gateway to aviation.

Above: Palafox after receiving the Young Hispanic Corporate Achievers award in leadership and dedication to the Hispanic community. Top: Palafox and the YHCA book team winning the presentation competition.

These days, Palafox is an Evaluation Leader in Test Systems Engineering, where he manages the engine testing portion of certification for several different product lines, including LEAP, Passport, marine and industrial, and advanced military engines. As an Evaluation Leader, he collaborates with a variety of teams.

“I look at some of the things that I learn now as a manager and I often think, ‘Wow, my dad was the quintessential manager for me,’ ” he says, recalling how his father was constantly thinking ahead about what needed to get done and how certain people would fit into a role. “I got a lot of management experience from just running the restaurant with my dad at times.”

Having that managerial gene in his DNA was a big help when he first joined GE at the Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York, in 2006. Right off the bat he was struck by how few Hispanics he encountered at work and in the surrounding community. And just as quickly he set out to remedy that situation—by jumpstarting the Hispanic Forum at the GE Research Center.

The Hispanic Forum is an affinity group that was founded over two decades ago to attract, develop, inspire and promote Hispanic talent within GE. “Part of my initial activity was really bringing life back to the forum,” he says. “I started to ask people, ‘Why aren’t we getting together? Why aren’t we doing activities to develop our knowledge, our networking?’ Like other affinity groups were doing.”

At the end of the day, the strength of diversity lies in collaboration and perspective. A diverse team encourages a variety of opinions and can work together to bring the best possible solution to the table. “It’s not just one train of thought, right?” Palafox says. “You really want to bring in the best ideas from everywhere.” That means giving people space and making them feel welcome so that they can connect. “To have diversity, you need diversity,” he adds. “Sort of a catch-22.”

Palafox put a lot of effort into revitalizing the Hispanic Forum at the GE Research Center and was instrumental in developing the Aviation chapter’s “education pillar,” a community outreach effort that works to inspire a passion for education—particularly in STEM fields—in elementary and high school students. In July 2018, he took the lead on the Hispanic Forum Engineering Pod, a smaller subset within the larger group focused on exchanging knowledge and developing connections within engineering.

This spring, Palafox was surprised—pleasantly, this time—to be recognized for his long-standing performance in his career and his outstanding work with the GE Hispanic Forum. The Young Hispanic Corporate Achievers program, an annual event put on by the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility, honors the work of rising stars in Fortune 500 companies who show strong leadership qualities and dedication to the Hispanic community.

Palafox found it hard to believe his name was on a list that had recognized the work of Teresa Saint-Blancard, Customer Program Manager for regional engines and services and a previous leader of GE’s Hispanic Forum, as well as Ricardo Acevedo, Plant Leader of GE Aviation’s additive technology site in Auburn, Alabama. “I thought, oh, there’s no way that would’ve been me,” he says. “They are just such amazing leaders in our company, and it is humbling to be placed in a group with them.”

As part of the YHCA program, Palafox participated in a 5-day leadership training course alongside 40 other young Hispanic leaders. It left him feeling invigorated. “They’re doing great things to promote diversity in their companies,” he says.

Palafox is laser-focused on building diverse talent in GE’s ranks. “To me it’s a sign that the company cares about investing in the future generations of engineers and in diversity,” he says.

He’s also focused on building talent at home. “Outside of work I spend time with my three kids and my wife,” he says. “We’re spending a lot of time with my two boys, who are 4 and 5, and my little girl, who’s 3, doing a lot of Lego building. I think that’s going to be our thing, you know? That’s the way I’ll get them to become engineers and learn how to work in teams.”

Starting them early: Palafox is teaching his three children engineering and teamwork skills, starting with Legos.

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