In 1972, Vistage Chair Guillermo Hysaw accepted a job as district sales manager for General Motors. They assigned him a standard-issue starter territory, comprising Mississippi and portions of Tennessee, and armed him with a briefcase and a .357 Magnum — not standardissue for district sales managers. They wished him good luck.
“This was the ’70s, so Jim Crow was still in effect,” Hysaw says. “ The first dealer, I reached to shake his hand, and he just stood there.” The novice district manager was not deterred. “I sat him down inside the dealership and explained that there was a correlation between my black skin and the black on his financial statement. I said, ‘I don’t want to date your daughter. But that GM sign out front? I can take that sign down.’ ”
A few years later, the same dealer greeted Hysaw with a hug. “Under my guidance, he was winning GM-paid vacations. The whole district’s sales were better than they’d ever been. I won them all over by focusing on what I was there to do: understand scale and how it impacted their bottom line,” he recalls.
I was able to see I wasn’t there to change his beliefs. I was there to impact his bottom line.
Mississippi wasn’t the first place where Hysaw had to face down racism. In 1969, he participated in the Black 14 protest against Brigham Young University after the football team had compared University of Wyoming’s black players to “gorillas” and the “biblical Cain.”
Hysaw became the group’s unofficial spokesperson. “We didn’t set out to make a big statement,” Hysaw says. “When the administration put profits before their players, we came up with the idea of wearing black armbands to protest BYU bringing their beliefs and prejudice onto the playing field. That was it.”
Rather than support Wyoming’s black players, Wyoming Governor Stanley Hathaway backed coach Lloyd Eaton and fired them. The loss of talent tanked the top-ranked team and the Black 14 became pariahs. Hysaw was thrust into the spotlight. In the ensuing decades, HBO, CBS and ESPN featured him in documentaries on social change alongside icons such as Billie Jean King, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
In this way, Hysaw’s stand against racism was close in spirit to Jackie Robinson’s, as both men were “protesting” just by stepping onto the field — and later, for Hysaw, onto a dealer lot in Mississippi.
Hysaw worked his way up through the GM ranks as a sales manager, graduating from his Mississippi territory to Chicago, before accepting an executive sales position with Toyota. Here, he would again find himself making the case for inclusivity, by making the business case.
“In the early 2000s, Toyota realized they needed a more inclusive culture if they were going to attract top talent, especially millennial talent,” Hysaw says. Toyota selected Hysaw to spearhead its first diversity initiative for an unintuitive reason: He was an executive in sales, not HR. “Toyota wanted to tie their diversity initiative to a strategy that would help the business,” he explains.
As vice president of diversity and inclusion, Hysaw identified areas where the company was leaving money on the table by overlooking certain demographics. “For example, we attracted a lot of new customers by advertising that our Los Angeles dealerships spoke 36 languages.”
He also implemented numerous company-wide changes to create a more inclusive culture, such as opening non-denominational prayer rooms on campus and requiring multiple interviewers per candidate to eliminate bias. The influence of these programs was felt as far as their Japan headquarters. “Even as recently as a decade ago, there simply weren’t any Japanese female executives. That’s changed, thanks to the hiring practices we implemented in LA.”
Hysaw has kept his focus on the bottom line, though now on behalf of Vistage members. And he continues to make the case for inclusivity.
“I created a marketing matrix for Toyota that considers anthropological, ethnographic, demographic and psychographic data. I apply this to Vistage member businesses to help them understand their existing customers and identify who they’re overlooking,” he explains.
He’s also proud to claim a diverse CEO group. “My group isn’t just racially diverse. There’s gender diversity, religious diversity and, as important, revenue diversity.”
Hysaw says that Chairing is a calling that found him, and that he feels is the culmination of his life experience. “You can’t just choose to become a Chair. You have to be invited. Chairing a group demands that I give others the full range of my education and my experience. Not some of it — all of it.”
That means sharing his experiences of racism, from which he continues to draw strength. “I was thankful that dealer didn’t shake my hand. I was able to see I wasn’t there to change his beliefs. I was there to impact his bottom line.”