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In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month this May, we’ll be bringing you stories from people throughout our community, showcasing their many passions and paths to success. We begin our series with an alumna whose experience at Kellogg set her on a path toward a fulfilling career at the forefront of tech and innovation. 

Throughout her wide-ranging career — spanning roles at energy companies, global tech firms, multinational engineering companies and small entrepreneurial tech startups — Sonita Lontoh ’06 MBA has followed to one constant throughline: to find those places where innovation can make a profound difference to society. 

“I’m a big advocate to enable technology for humanity,” says Lontoh, who recently retired as chief marketing officer of HP’s new personalization, 3D printing and digital manufacturing division. Today, she serves on the boards of Sunrun, the largest consumer solar and battery as-a-service company in the United States, and True Blue, a mission-driven global workforce solutions company that in the past three years has connected more than two million people to work.  

Additionally, Lontoh also serves as an advisor to Sway Ventures, a Silicon Valley VC firm focusing on the sustainable transformations of foundational industries. She was recently named one of the San Francisco Business Times’ “Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business” in 2023. 

“I feel like the activities in my career that I have had the privilege to be involved in are really showcases of how technology contributes to making an impact,” says Lontoh, a graduate of the Two-Year MBA Program. We recently sat down with her to trace her career journey and understand how Kellogg prepared her for the C-suite and boardrooms. 

Finding her guiding principles

Lontoh shared that it was during her time at Kellogg that she developed her own guiding principles. The first was that she realized she loved the intersection of new technology innovation, and that usually means starting new businesses or business models. The second was that she wanted to work in an area that had an “additionality factor,” or that something extra that makes real impact on people’s lives.  

That led her to Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest utility, which was undergoing a big transformation to become more “green.” The experience there taught her how big energy companies could leverage new technology and innovation to improve efficiencies, serve customers better, and integrate more renewables. That experience led her to various venture-backed startups in Silicon Valley focusing on industrial IoT, and then to global engineering firm Siemens to help them start their new smart digital energy businesses.  

Eventually, Lontoh became known for her expertise in either helping new disruptive companies scale, or in helping large companies transform the way they do business through technology, innovation, and the creation of new businesses. She was later tapped by HP to join as the CMO of their new personalization, 3D printing and digital manufacturing business as HP seeked to leverage technology and innovation for new growth . 

Rising to the challenge in a moment of crisis

While Lontoh has had the opportunities to be involved with many significant projects throughout her career, one experience stood out for her in particular. It was during her time at HP. When the COVID pandemic began, there were supply chain disruptions around the world, and at that time, hospitals globally were running out of mission-critical items, such as face masks, face shields, ventilator and respirator parts, nasal swabs and others.  

Lontoh shared that she was so proud that the teams at HP, together with their customers and partners in 30+ countries, quickly mobilized and used 3D printing technology and distributed manufacturing to produce those high-need items.  

She contemplated that for the longest time, people in 3D printing had said that this new technology would enable the new paradigm of distributed manufacturing where people could make what they needed locally. She felt this experience was very special, in that not only it proved the technology could enable this new paradigm, but the technology was also contributing positively to saving people’s lives. 

Diversity of thought is good for business

When the conversation turns to her business school experience, Lontoh shared that Kellogg taught her the importance of appreciating diversity of thought. She shared that during her time, her classmates came from all over the world and from different industries and backgrounds. During class discussions, she realized that when you have a room full of people with different perspectives, the conversations become much more robust. These healthy debates usually lead to a much more informed decision, which is better for business. 

Throughout her career, especially in innovation, that mindset has been essential for identifying a new paradigm that incumbents oftentimes cannot see. Today she sits on two public boards, and in boardrooms, diversity of thought is very important to enable the boards to have the foresight to see around corners in helping companies navigate new challenges and opportunities for long-term value creation.  

Develop the leadership skills of those around you

Speaking about her leadership principles, Lontoh shared that Kellogg taught her how important it is to develop others around you as leaders — and by leaders, she doesn’t only mean the next executive, but really anyone who has the courage and ability to step up to a challenge and lead. She shared that as you grow in your career, and as you intentionally help develop the leadership skills of the people around you, your team’s performance goes up and that contributes positively to the business outcomes. 

She also believes that you can spark some interesting and unexpected ideas that way. A lot of people think a “big epiphany” has to come from a large brainstorming session. But she shared that when you develop your people to have a leadership mentality, great ideas can often come from their day-to-day activities of trying to solve a customer’s problem, for instance 

In closing, she shared some wisdom for students today considering Kellogg for business school. “You’ll learn excellence in all the hard skills, of course — in finance, strategy marketing, general management, and other disciplines,” Lontoh said.“But what really differentiated Kellogg for me was how the school focuses on enabling a leader who is empathetic and inclusive. That’s really how I got to my guiding principles. If you want to be a business leader who is not only successful but, dare I say, enlightened or impactful, the Kellogg MBA might be the right choice for you.” 

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