Edward Soto, Class of 2003
If you ask Ed Soto what he thought he wanted to be in high school, he shrugs and laughs, spreading his hands. Today, Soto, a 2003 graduate of Davies Career and Tech, lives in Germany and is the youngest person ever to hold a director-level position at Covestro, a global chemical company. And while Soto doesn’t exactly believe in fate, listening to him describe his journey from Pawtucket to Cologne, it’s hard not to notice the linear path his career has taken. Each opportunity Soto has taken advantage of, or been offered, has led to his next stop. In fact, maybe the biggest lesson from Soto is an attitude: optimism. Knowing how to say “yes.”
On a recent trip back to Rhode Island, Soto stopped by Davies to talk about his background, how he got to where he is today, and how his mentorship with Davies teacher (and then-SkillsUSA coach) Jerry Suggs helped him grow.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What do you do?
The company I work for is called Covestro. We’re a polymer producer, so chemical company, that belonged to Bayer. In 2015, we more-or-less spun off and became our own public company on the German stockmarket. We’re still majority owned by Bayer, a big, 150-year-old chemical company. My official title is head of corporate risk management and internal controls. I’m the global head of a team of 14-15 people around the world.
Okay. What does that mean?
Me and Suggs were just joking because he asked me what it is, exactly, that I do. I said, “It’s my job to translate the internal and external world. What are the risks that could impact our ability to meet our comapny goals? My role is to make sure we have one voice when we talk about risk and to make sure, when the board asks, we have one answer.”
I said to Suggs, “If it wasn’t for SkillsUSA, I wouldn’t be able to explain what I do, in that way, because what I do is complicated.” Suggs started laughing and said, “That’s the thirty second elevator story.” They teach you that in SkillsUSA. I forget that a lot of skills I have came from SkillsUSA. Public speaking, for example, I get really nice comments from people. God, I was a national officer for SkillsUSA at 17 years old, I had to speak to 20,000 people. Now talking to thirty people is nothing. It really does mature you.
I heard when you got the promotion to this title you were the youngest to be in that role. How old were you?
I was promoted at 30. I have ten years at the company, I started right out of college as a controlling trainee -- like a financial analyst. I hit ten years and then one month later, I was promoted. It’s a director level and it’s a great opportunity. The company is huge and to be at that level so early really shows that they trust me.
Does that mean you graduated when you were twenty?
Yes. My bachelor was in international business from Johnson & Wales University. I did my freshmen year of JWU while I was still a senior at Davies. I wasn’t here at Davies at all.
How much of a decision was it to be at college, not high school, for senior year?
It wasn’t the easiest but I didn’t think about it too much. It was a great opportunity and I just honestly wanted to be done. I graduated with my bachelor after three and a half years. So already one year ahead and then another half year, so, yes, I was 20 when I graduated college.
I’m extremely close to a group of people, like (current Davies Health Careers instructor and graduate) Lynn Thibeault. We’ve been best friends, with Stacie Venagro. We were known as the Three Musketeers. We liked to fool around but people knew we were serious about our stuff.
By leaving senior year, of course you lose a little socially, but it’s really a question of what’s your priority and if you can really make sure you invest the time to keep your friendships and relationships going. It’s really nice when every day you’re in the same building and same classes, but when you’re away, you have to really invest time to find out what’s going on. I also started building up relationships with people at college, some people lived on campus, and you can kind of feel stuck between two worlds.
Because you mention priorities… At what point did you start thinking you wanted to live abroad? Was that a circumstance of being at Bayer, or an earlier goal?
I grew up in Pawtucket, right across the street from Slater. At that time it was an “okay” neighborhood. Not bad, but not great. Like many kids, I had a patchwork family. My mom and dad separated when I was five and my dad is Puerto Rican. When they divorced my dad went back to Puerto Rico. So ever since I was five, every summer I would spend in San Juan, with my dad. So I was already used to being away. It was more natural for me.
Because Bayer was a German company, people used to always say the only way to get ahead would be to go to Germany. I thought, “I guess when it happens, it happens, we’ll see.” When the opportunity came, in March 2010, they said they had a need for me and asked if I’d be willing to do it for two or three years. They gave me a big packet. I read it and thought, “This could work; this would be really interesting.” I talked to my mom and she was like, “Are you kidding me?”
After my first year of college at JWU, I went to their campus in Denver. I moved and finished out there. And then I had an internship, as part of International Business degree you need a proper internship, it’s like your capstone event. At the time, I worked for American Eagle Outfitters as a store keyholder, like a manager. I told them I needed to quit because I needed to find a proper business internship and they said they could send me to American Eagle Outfitters in Pittsburgh. So I worked in finance for them for the summer for a couple months. That’s how Pittsburgh came into play. I liked Pittsburgh. Then I got the job at Bayer in Pittsburgh, whose main headquarters are there. They have a big sign when you fly in and when you drive. I remember when I was there I saw a sign for the company, went online and applied, got an interview and got the job.
How did you make the transition from your retail job to working in corporate at Bayer?
They challenged me about working in retail. They asked, “Why does this experience count versus someone who’s worked at a major corporation?”
I said, “Do you want me to give you an honest answer?” I said, “I’m the only one here who actually had responsibility.” I was in charge of training and hiring people at seventeen years old. When I was in college, I had a two million dollar store. I did all recruiting and managed the floor. I said, “That’s called responsibility.” That’s not making coffee for someone in some company. I was out there, at a young age, with responsibility. I think it took them aback, but in the end they must have decided that it made sense, because I got the job.
I then got my MBA while I was working full-time. Bayer paid for that. I did it three times a week, taking classes until ten o’clock at night, but it was well worth it. I always believe in the end that hard work really pays off. You have to be patient. You can’t expect to get an MBA and then a promotion right away. To get ahead you have to at least be at the level other people are. I think I graduated with my MBA when I was 23 then moved to Germany when I was 24.
Is being patient still the advice that you would give someone just beginning their career today? People can feel a lot of pressure to jump to the next opportunity.
Lately the company seems to like to throw me in front of younger people because I’m still pretty young. What I usually tell them is to be solution oriented, not problem oriented. Stop talking about problems, start thinking about solutions. Inherently what happens, when you do that, is that you become more optimistic.
As feedback, I get a lot that I’m always looking at the good. I say, “How do you want to live? Do you want to look at all the bad?” It’s frustrating when bad things happen, but you have to quickly switch out of that mindset.
For me, my success was a mix of patience, hard work, and it really was some luck. What if I hadn’t said to my boss that I would be willing to move one day? What if I’d had a partner at the time and I said no, I couldn’t move. Would they have asked me again? I don’t fully believe in fate because if I was a poor worker, they wouldn’t have asked me to go.
What else did you do in high school? You participated in SkillsUSA.
I won a medal, silver, I believe, but I honestly don’t remember even the contest I participated in because I was more involved in the officer level. Suggs pushed me to think about this, to become an officer. It would be an opportunity meet new people, potentially travel. I became the state officer president for Rhode Island, and then I became a national officer. I ran a campaign and became a region one vice president. The first secondary national officer in the history of Rhode Island. That was all Suggs.
What made SkillsUSA so intriguing to you, that you pursued it at that level?
I’ve always been a fan of these things where people come together and do competitions. I always wanted to be a class president. I thought that would be cool because I knew that when you’re class president you’re also in charge of doing reunions; you’re the one the school turns to when they want opinions of the class. I love the idea of representing people. Which is sort of weird because now when I look at my job, risk management, that’s what I’m doing. It’s quite a bit of speaking for people.
So SkillsUSA lit a huge spark for me. They’re also the reason I had a full scholarship to Johnson & Wales. Getting started so early was an advantage. Now, at Covestro, there’s people who are a couple years younger than me… But I’ve been there already ten years, so I’m five or six levels above them. It has to do with starting early and a bit of luck.
What’s your advice for high schoolers today?
Get involved in things that let you travel, whether it’s an athletic team or a technical association…any of these things that have ways for you to interact with people outside your school. SkillsUSA for example.
For me, Davies was a good place to go. It’s a good neighborhood. I remember driving on the bus up here and seeing the houses and thinking, “I want one of those houses.” It sounds stupid, like from a movie, but I’m not lying. We went from CVS in Pawtucket up through here, up a big hill, and there’s beautiful homes. It was just a good place to go to school and I had a good class. The teachers were great and really caring, not superficial.
I had Suggs and met him right away. I don’t remember school without him. My mother knows him and loves him because she knows without him, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. It all links together: without the scholarship, I wouldn’t have allowed me to go to Denver, it wouldn’t have allowed me to go to school early, wouldn’t have brought me to American Eagle, wouldn’t have brought me to Pittsburgh.
I think you have to try to find things that take you outside your neighborhood. Volunteer. I’d push people to get involved in academic fraternities, if they go to college. Because you’ll meet people who will push you and inspire you. You need to do things that will keep you moving in the right direction. It’s not easy but if you can go to school out of state, go to school out of state. Even go to Massachusetts. It triggers something in your brain that there are other things out there. Maybe you’ll go and hate it, but you can always come home.