Angela Zepeda made history in late 2019, when she accepted Hyundai Motor Co. Global COO Jose Muñoz’s offer to become chief marketing officer for Hyundai Motor America.
Zepeda became the first woman to join Hyundai’s C-suite. A year and a half later, she’s no longer the lone female near the top of Hyundai’s North American operations — reflecting the automaker’s ongoing push for more diversity in its work force.
"As other women have come into the C-suite, we’ve leaned on each other to bring a new voice to the table, a more well-rounded perspective," says Zepeda, who was named one of Automotive News’ 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry in 2020.
Zepeda says that as a young woman, she aspired to work in fashion design. But it’s not a surprise that her path led to a career in the auto industry instead. She grew up in Orange County, Calif., a hub of American car culture and the U.S. auto business. Her dad loved cars — driving, racing and tinkering with them. And Zepeda’s first job after getting a degree in communications and advertising was answering phones at Foote, Cone & Belding’s Orange County office and then working as a junior account executive on the Mazda account there.
"It was a lucky happenstance that I started my ad career in automotive," she says.
Zepeda continued working on auto advertising accounts — including Mazda, Chrysler, Infiniti and Lexus — at many of Southern California’s leading ad agencies, eventually rising to be CMO and managing director at Campbell Ewald’s Los Angeles office.
While working at Campbell Ewald, she says, she realized she was ready for another challenge.
"I remember telling my boss that I wanted to go back to school to get my MBA. It felt like all my clients had multiple degrees, and I wanted to be at their level."
She completed the executive MBA program at the University of Southern California in two years. "It was a transformative moment in my career. It changed everything," she says. "It gave me such confidence."
After a stint running a small ad agency — "where I found what I didn’t want" — Zepeda moved back to a larger agency, Innocean USA. She was heading Hyundai’s ad account, as senior vice president and managing director, when she got the call from Muñoz to move to the client side of the business.
Now, with experience on the inside, she sees the differences from working in a vendor role.
"There’s so much individual recognition at an ad agency; when you have a great idea, or help pull an account forward, that individual recognition can come fast," she says. "At an OEM, the process for accelerating your career might take longer. I made a big leap in my late 30s, early 40s to a senior level position in the agency world; I’m not sure that’s often the case in the auto business."
But part of the path to success, she says, is being ready when opportunities arise. "I was always hungry and always raised my hand," she says.
On the flip side, a career at an automaker can offer "a place to call home. I don’t think I ever felt that at an ad agency," she says. "If you lose an account at an agency, people lose their jobs. In contrast, OEMs are so big, with so many different jobs to do — you can grow and have many different opportunities at the same company over a long career."
Although she says no single female boss or mentor ever "took me under her wing," Zepeda has a network of women whom she has worked with during her years in the auto business. She says those ties are critical.
"Those close relationships you’re able to build with other women — that doesn’t always happen with men," she says. "They provide that support and encouragement that women are so good at."
Her advice for young women interested in joining the auto industry: "Take the leap, and trust that you’ll be able to call it home."
"It’s a huge, transformational time in the auto business," she says, "and women can bring a new perspective to the table in terms of what the future of the industry will look like."