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Drivers of Innovation: Personal Connections Can Lead to Success

Juan Calderon, a quality engineer manager with UL Solutions, speaks about his path to engineering, what he loves about Honduran culture and how to help Hispanic students get interested in STEM careers.

Close-up photo of Juan Calderon in blue short sleeved shirt.

September 29, 2022

As UL Solutions celebrates National Hispanic American Heritage Month, we talked to Juan Calderon about his Honduran background, his path to becoming an engineer and the importance of teaching younger generations about their Hispanic culture. Calderon has worked at UL Solutions since 2000 and is currently a quality engineer manager in the company’s Software and Advisory group.

Can you please tell us about your family background?

I was born in Honduras in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, and I’m the youngest of three children. When I was 11, my mom and I immigrated to the United States looking for better opportunities. At the time, we did not fully grasp the enormity of this decision.

We moved to Long Island, New York, which was obviously a huge change for all of us. Fortunately, I had been going to a bilingual school in Honduras. That made the transition a little easier, as I understood English and could communicate with people. I picked up more of the language quickly, and that fluency was an advantage for me.

How did you become interested in engineering?

My mom was a single mother, but I have many aunts and uncles who were around frequently. I always saw my uncles taking things apart to repair them. They fixed a lot of electronics, TVs, radios and microwaves, that sort of thing. I always wondered how they knew what they were doing.

As a kid, it felt like a mad scientist thing, even wizardly, to me. It was amazing that they knew how to do these repairs, what the parts were and could put everything back together again.

That’s where my interest in engineering, specifically electrical engineering, started.

What brought you to UL Solutions?

I went to SUNY Farmingdale [Farmingdale State College, part of the State University of New York] after high school. I enrolled in the engineering program, which actually took me five years to complete as it is a challenging program.

UL Solutions is only about 5 miles away from the university, so the company frequently recruits on campus. In my final year of school, I was hired for an internship that was like a mentorship program.

I laugh now because I wrote “United Laboratories” on my application instead of “Underwriters,” but they hired me anyway. After graduation, they reviewed my work and hired me for a permanent position. Twenty-two years later, I’ve been in various roles and am still happily working here.

What are your favorite things about your role/working for UL Solutions?

I love that I’ve been able to dictate what I’d like to become and how I’d like to grow in each role I’ve had here. I’ve genuinely been able to guide my career. I’m fortunate that I’ve needed to develop new processes and ideas in my roles. I’ve learned new roles that have had nothing to do with my previous experience. I like the change, as it keeps me from getting bored.

I’m often trusted with a blank canvas to figure things out and help get things done. I feel my voice carries some weight at UL Solutions, which is very important to me. I like being part of the decision-making process, and I’ve become a subject matter expert over my career here. I’ve earned people’s respect on specific topics because they know my knowledge comes from experience. Having my colleagues’ respect is more important to me than money or managing people or processes.

What are you most proud of about your Honduran heritage?

I’m very proud of the resilience of Hispanic people. As a Hispanic immigrant, I feel proud to see people come here the way my family did. They arrive with nothing but a suitcase, just what they can carry, half with “encomiendas,” a quarter cloth, and the rest hope and dreams. And they succeed, becoming doctors and lawyers. I became an engineer after immigrating here in the same way. It’s a great achievement to have done that, to succeed.

I love the liveliness and colorfulness of Hispanic culture, regardless of our various backgrounds. We’re zestful, colorful people, and you can see that with our food. When my wife went to her first family gathering with me, she thought everyone was fighting. But we’re just loud, talking louder than those around us so that we’re heard. We’re very animated and love to dance and go to parties.

I still love Honduran food, too. Thankfully, it’s very easy to find restaurants with different cuisines near me. I love baleadas especially and have this at least once a month. They’re similar to a flour tortilla but more spongy than a regular tortilla. They’re filled with refried beans and cheese, or sometimes with eggs and avocado. I think I might just get one for lunch!

Why do you think National Hispanic American Heritage Month is important?

Younger generations need to have heroes and idols that reflect their culture that they can admire. They need to see people and think, “If they made it, so can I.” This month is a good time to shine a light on these people and the culture. It’s a time to show the importance of a culture, and culture is so vital for Hispanic people. It is everything.

I think it’s good to be proud of who you are and what made you. Assimilating into American culture should not mean hiding who we are. As people move around, they often lose that connection to their culture.

For example, my wife is Jewish American, and you can see my Mayan roots a mile away. While I have what is called a mestizo complexion, our kids are very fair with blonde hair and blue-green eyes. People don’t see them as Hispanic, so it’s not necessarily a culture they connect with themselves.

I have idols I’d like my kids to learn more about. Some very successful Hispanic people in the mainstream today still embrace their culture, too. I admire Pedro Pascal, Guillermo del Toro and Juan Carlos Cantu, who are all quite successful in the film and television industries. They remain proud of their Hispanic background and have not changed their names to sound more American.

How can UL Solutions help encourage more Hispanic and Latino students to engage in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers?

I think we do this by showing them Hispanic role models. They need to see Hispanic people who have succeeded in these fields. We need to talk to them throughout high school and college to show them it is possible to make it. They need people who understand what it is like to be in their place and have succeeded in STEM fields.

I used to talk to one of the cleaners at my office, a young guy who was emptying trash bins. He has since moved on, but I told him I used to do the same job at that age and went on to become an engineer. I talked to him about what I do at work so that he understood he has a lot of options. Part of the reason I joined the company’s Hispanic Business Resource Group (BRG) is to help mentor younger employees joining the company.

Unfortunately, for some, becoming an American means losing your Hispanic culture. I think it partially comes from some of the racism that people dealt with throughout history and still experience. It may feel safer or better to identify as American rather than Hispanic.

Hispanic culture is such a melting pot of cultures in itself. I love the colorfulness of each one and want people to be proud of their roots.