When Hyundai employees Martha Mejia and Samantha Recchia heard about the Big Idea Generator (BIG) contest at work, they were excited to share their innovative ideas about how Hyundai could improve the lives of its customers and employees. Martha and Samantha each had an idea that centered around student loan debt, which significantly impacts 46 million Americans—particularly millennials. With the help of Gilbert Castillo, Senior Group Manager for Alternative Vehicle & Advanced Vehicle Strategy at Hyundai, they were able to form a team, and develop a business pitch that would engage more customers and focus on their relationships with local dealerships.

Together Martha and Samantha worked to create a program, Student Assurance, that will help Hyundai customers pay down their student loans by contributing up to $900 to their student loan debt when they purchase or lease a vehicle. Gradifi by E*TRADE is administering this industry-first program and connected with the team to hear about their experiences at Hyundai, how winning the Big Idea Generator contest will help ease the burden of student loans for customers, and what they hope for in the future—both for the company and their consumers.

Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you came up with your idea?

SR: I am Samantha and I have worked in Public Relations for Hyundai for the last two years. Martha and I actually got paired together for BIG because we had submitted separate ideas, but each centered around student loan debt, and from there we were able to build a team under the advisement of our executive sponsor, Ron Haughey, VP of Finance at Hyundai. We know that student loan debt is something that so many people struggle with, so for us this seemed like a really great way to give back to our greater community and generate greater engagement for Hyundai.

MM: I’m Martha and I have worked as a Product Quality Analyst for Hyundai for the last four years, and I really related to the idea because I myself have student debt. I know it is a struggle for many entering the workforce, getting their life started, and not wanting to put themselves in more debt for large purchases.

What was the process like for BIG?

SR: The contest was open to associates of all levels at Hyundai and the ideas had to be a way to better help the company’s customers or employees. There were over 100 submissions, a committee reviewed them, and they were able to narrow it down to the top five ideas.

GC: We worked with one of the professors from University of California, Irvine’s business program and he showed the finalists how to create a business proposal in preparation for the Shark Tank-like presentation they would have to give to the executive team. He made sure they hit on key points like business metrics, what they were trying to achieve, and what return on investment they were hoping for.

MM: With our business plan complete, we pitched our idea to the entire executive panel and we got immediate positive feedback especially because this would be an industry-first idea surrounding student loans. We knew the contribution piece would show customers that we really have their backs and we are looking to alleviate some of the stress and struggle when it comes to student loans.

How did it feel to win BIG?

SR: It was so exciting to be one of the winners of BIG. The company ended up selecting all five of the final ideas because they felt they were all great and innovative. We were part of a company-wide email and they included the video of us giving our “Shark Tank” presentation. It has been a huge learning opportunity and getting to do something like this so early in my career has been pretty incredible.

What has the feedback been on the Student Assurance idea?

GC: We heard from a lot of people that the program just makes a lot of sense, it’s easy to grasp. It was like a light bulb went off and people really started to think “Yes, young people have a lot of debt. What can we do?” Employees even asked if they could utilize the offer themselves because student debt is such a big problem that impacts so many people.

SR: We think a lot of people are excited because there are a lot of incentives in the automotive industry that have to do with college graduates, but student loan contributions are a new idea and we hope this makes more people return to Hyundai because of our innovation and mission.

What motivated Hyundai to develop a program like BIG?

GC: Hyundai has always been interested in getting employee feedback and ideas but it has been on a smaller scale, like suggestion boxes. When we set out on this initiative we wanted to make it more structured and give associates an opportunity to try something outside of their normal day-to-day job. We made sure there was a training aspect to the program, so along with the monetary reward for having your idea selected, the winners would be able to see their project through from start to finish. The program has been successful beyond our initial objectives. We have continued with this in subsequent years, found more ways to get employees involved in which projects win and have seen an increase in submission of ideas. We have a new funnel of innovative ideas and we have a workforce that is grateful for these opportunities.

How did this whole process make you feel about Hyundai?

SR: There were some points where we wondered if we would be taken seriously because we are younger and haven’t been with the company as long as some others, but with the help of our executive sponsor, Gilbert and trusting our idea, we only felt listened to and respected. The BIG contest really showed us how our culture here tries to encourage everyone to speak up and try new things. Our associates have embraced these opportunities, and like us, work with others that you wouldn’t normally interact with in your current work scope.

How will you all define the success of the program once it rolls out this year?

MM: We are really hoping for more engagement from the community. We know how hard it can be to think about buying a car, especially now that the student loan debt amount is $1.5 trillion, but we want the contribution from Student Assurance to be just one piece of the process. We are trying to reach broader age demographics, those that are younger than our average car buyer, and we know that is what our dealerships are striving for too.

Hyundai selected Gradifi to power the student loan contributions for the Student Assurance program. While this is a departure from Gradifi’s traditional business model of facilitating employer contributions, the team at Gradifi is thrilled to work with a brand that is committed to such an innovative way of bringing student loan relief to its customers.


Statements regarding company benefits programs are true to the best of Gradifi’s knowledge at the time of publishing. Information subject to change at any time.

E*TRADE Financial Corporate Services, Inc. and Hyundai are separate and unaffiliated companies.

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