The Cowen Partners Origin Series profiles executives from across the globe who are changing the face of business. Read along to hear their stories.
Rafael Perez didn’t set out to be a CHRO. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Perez planned to become a doctor, like his father.
“I was always fascinated by human beings,” Perez said. “What makes them tick? What makes human beings happy and healthy? How do they interact with each other?”
After starting classes at Cornell University, Perez knew the biology major wasn’t for him. Friends at school pointed him in a new direction: Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where he ultimately earned his bachelor’s degree by taking courses in organizational behavior, economics, statistics, and management.
That change would later lead Perez to executive roles at companies like American Express. But as an undergrad, abandoning the medical path caused some disappointment at home. Perez’s family was more aware of medicine as a viable career than they were of opportunities in the corporate world. In particular, Perez’s plan to pursue human resources didn’t inspire confidence with his mother, herself a frontline HR manager.
“I think she was viewing it as something that was very transactional, something very limiting,” Perez said. “She and I would have these really interesting conversations, where I would see all the possibilities: Here’s the impact you can make on an organization, on the people, and so forth.”
Perez may have entered his mother’s field, but from a vantage point that allowed him to see it far more strategically. Where his mother only had an associate’s degree from a local college, Perez had the benefit of an Ivy League education that helped him access a vast network, abundant opportunities, and exposure to diverse viewpoints early in his career.
Perez has taken that elite education and run with it. After Cornell, Perez completed Lockheed Martin’s HR Leadership Development Program, with rotations in union relations, compensation management, and talent acquisition. In the more than 20 years since, he rose through the ranks at Nestle Waters and American Express, ultimately landing C-suite roles at the marketing software company Analytic Partners and then Consumer Reports, the product testing nonprofit.
Along the way, Perez has encountered other leaders who bolstered his strategic view of the HR profession. One now-retired HR leader in particular left an impression on Perez for his ability to contribute to discussions around finance, business strategy, and business risks.
“That was pivotal for me, in terms of just seeing how much of a difference it makes for an HR leader to not only talk HR — to really be a student of business,” Perez said. “It just makes a world of difference in terms of credibility, in terms of rapport with all those that are sitting around you.”
Perez himself remains a student of people leadership, over 25 years into his career. In 2022, he returned to school for a master’s degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University, a decision that he attributed to “intellectual curiosity more than anything.”
Looking ahead, Perez is exploring the dynamic between a traditional role and outside endeavors. Since 2019, he’s been offering human capital consulting services to under-resourced organizations, mostly small nonprofits — doing technical HR work that his graduate work helped to inform.
“From time to time, I will roll up my sleeves and do some of that work directly,” Perez said. “It’s been a lot of fun to be able to do that.”
The Origin Series by Cowen Partners fosters the union of emerging leaders with purpose-driven executives and peers who share similar aspirations. By leveraging our comprehensive tools, expertise, and network, we enable you to shape your leadership trajectory towards generating a substantial influence on your organization and the community.
Cowen Partners is the nation’s executive search firm, enabling companies to harness the power of human capital to fuel their success. Cowen Partners gives our clients access to the top 1% of human capital to create opportunities that accelerate their growth and market share. With Cowen Partners, clients can grow at scale, create value, and drive results with world class talent. Our clients are both small and large, publicly traded, pre-IPO, private, and non-profit organizations. Clients are typically $50 million to multi-billion dollar revenue Fortune 1000 companies or have assets over one billion. Successful placements span the entire C-Suite and include VP and director level leadership roles. With our proven processes and guaranteed results, we have successfully placed hundreds of candidates in industries including technology, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, financial services, and private equity.