This Toyota executive wants the carmaker to be known not just for what it makes but also for what it does.
Latondra Newton is embracing Southern California culture—that is, within reason.
The Toyota executive just moved to the Torrance headquarters of Toyota Motor North America, Inc., after a stint in New York. “I’ve worked all over, geographically and functionally,” says the Indiana native, now looking for a home in the L.A. beach communities. “The pace is different here. Maybe I’ll learn to relax a little bit more—which wouldn’t hurt me, because I am someone who is always racing from one thing to the next.”
Newton has done just about everything but rotate tires in her 22-year career at Toyota. The new chief corporate social responsibility officer—in charge of Toyota’s diversity and philanthropy initiatives—used to be the auto company’s chief diversity officer and, before that, the assistant general manager of human resources, the assistant general manager of corporate affairs, and even an equipment purchaser.
She’s charted her own path, she says, not so much out of ambition but out of a sense of corporate responsibility of her own. “If there’s a pattern in my career, it’s that when I recognized a problem I wanted to help the company solve, the company has always been responsive.” One of those problems, she found, was the need to make people realize that the Japanese company was intent on giving back to the American economy—and life. “People know us for what we make,” she says, “but not enough for how we add value back into society.”
Diversity Woman spoke to Newton about how she stumbled into Toyota by way of a horse farm, how the manufacturing industry has been both ahead of and behind the diversity curve, and how a multinational automobile manufacturer can serve at the same time it sells.
DW: How did you get interested in manufacturing?
Latondra Newton: When I was younger, I always thought I would be a pediatrician—mostly because I loved math and science. Then, between my junior and senior years in high school, I got a scholarship from AIM, Academically Interested Minorities. So I got the opportunity to go to the University of Michigan and spend a summer studying at Kettering University [a science and engineering school in Flint, Michigan] with young people from all over the country. After six weeks that summer, I was intrigued—the options under the umbrella of manufacturing were much broader than I imagined.
Then, I got a corporate scholarship to return to Kettering for college, sponsored by GM. Even though the school was engineering focused, I didn’t think I’d be an engineer. But I thought it was a great foundational education. It taught me critical thinking. My first job was a purchasing position, which required me to work with engineers. It was a nice transition from an engineering-focused education.
DW: How did you land at Toyota?
LN: I had just finished my senior thesis, and I took a little driving trip to Kentucky. I had a friend on a horse farm and thought I’d play around there. One day when we were driving, we went by the Toyota plant and I said, “Toyota has a plant here?” I couldn’t believe that I had studied the Toyota production system in my thesis but didn’t know they had such a manufacturing presence in the U.S.
I went back to Indiana, and literally as I came in the door, a headhunter was calling, asking me to interview with Toyota. Seemed like fate.
DW: Is working in the manufacturing industry part of your family history?
LN: My family comes from Louisiana, from the segregated South, and they migrated away from that—escaped it, really—to come north, to Indiana, to make a better life for my siblings and me. Manufacturing made that possible for them. That was the sector that would hire them with equal wages. I didn’t realize this until I was an adult, but I have so much respect and pride for the manufacturing industry, because of how it’s woven into the fabric of America.
DW: People don’t always think of manufacturing as progressive these days. Are they wrong, or does manufacturing need to change?
LN: Women are still highly underrepresented in manufacturing, and it’s a personal passion of mine to increase their presence.
I’m on the board of the Manufacturing Institute and chair an initiative called STEP Ahead Initiative, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Production. We really exist to improve the recognition of, and attractiveness of, manufacturing for women. Some of the research shows that women are much less likely to recommend the manufacturing industry to their kids, especially daughters, than men are.
DW: Why do you think that is?
LN: My gut feeling is that’s perhaps because the industry has such a strong perception of what it takes to lead it or run it—the archetype of the male leader. And while finance and other industries have been more progressive at diversifying—decades ago they were forced to be more inclusive to stay competitive—manufacturing didn’t have that same pressure. So we’re just behind.
DW: What “problem” at Toyota that you noticed are you most proud of tackling?
LN: When I was first in purchasing, we bought everything from Japan. It didn’t take us long to realize the importance of localizations, such as machine makers. Since I was the buyer of manufacturing equipment, I spent a lot of time building a supplier base here and contributing to the economy of America. It occurred to me, though, that we had this huge economic footprint in the U.S., but perhaps our policy makers didn’t understand and just saw us as a Japanese company. We wanted to be a part of telling the story of the impact we are making in the U.S. So I asked if I could start a government affairs function for manufacturing.
DW: So which doing-good missions are you most proud of at Toyota?
LN: How we share our know-how with other people. We have an organization called the Collaborative Research and Safety Center, and its mission is to collaborate with colleges and universities on cutting-edge safety research—to help us be on top of what the safety needs of the future might be. We can design vehicles with that in mind and design infrastructures to keep pedestrians safe.
The Toyota production system is something we own, so we are also sharing our knowledge of PPS [practical problem solving] nonprofits or other businesses that are at risk of losing production to other countries. We’ve helped hospitals take more time on helping patients and less on administrative processes. We’ve also helped nonprofits that wanted to help build homes. We partnered with St. Bernard Project [on Louisiana disaster aid] and helped them dramatically reduce time to build homes, without losing quality. We are as proud of these things as we are our products.
DW: What have you read lately that inspired you?
LN: I read everything—fiction, nonfiction—but the things I go back to again and again are books about the enneagram, a character-typing philosophy tool that I find invaluable in my career. A good one to start with is The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. It’s a way of describing the character or essence of the individual. It helps you to know yourself very well—what inspires you—and also to understand people. I teach enneagram at Toyota and on demand—I am just that passionate about it. You can use it to build better team dynamics, and better mutual respect in the workforce, by people knowing who they are and what motivates them. DW
Katrina Brown Hunt, based in San Diego, has written for Fortune Small Business and Smart Money.