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Building the self-flying future

For Leon Villegas SM ’08, MBA ’08, a journey of lifelong learning brought him from Mexico to building autonomous air taxis, with a key stop at MIT.
Portrait photo of Leon Villegas with a yellow Wisk Aero aircraft in the background
Caption:
Leon Villegas SM ’08, MBA ’08 leads the production system for Wisk Aero’s autonomous electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, including the new Generation 6.
Credits:
Photo courtesy of Wisk Aero.
Nine-person executive team of Wisk Aero posing with Generation 6 aircraft
Caption:
Leon Villegas (left) stands with the Wisk Aero executive team at the launch of their Generation 6 aircraft.
Credits:
Photo courtesy of Wisk Aero.

Leon Villegas SM ’08, MBA ’08, a graduate of the MIT Leaders for Global Operations program, works on the cutting edge of autonomous aviation. At Wisk Aero, an advanced air mobility company dedicated to delivering safe, everyday flight for everyone, Villegas is responsible for the production of aircraft for a new market just coming into existence. As production system vice president, he is leading a team to design, deploy, and execute the production system of a new all-electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL), the Generation 6, announced Oct. 3. The Generation 6 aircraft’s dual propulsion propellers power a true “air taxi” experience for four passengers and luggage. Villegas’ work building these aircraft is aimed at addressing the world’s growing urban mobility challenge. 

When Villegas was offered the position at Wisk — with The Boeing Company as its major investor — he knew it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Having worked in aerospace, I know that the standard development cycle in this industry is long — it takes about 10-15 years to develop a new product. At Wisk, we are innovating to accelerate that timeline” says Villegas.

“Leon leads from the front. He is actively engaged with his entire organization and is very inclusive while also driving to expedient execution,” says Gary Gysin, CEO at Wisk.

Born and raised in the small capital city of Veracruz state in Mexico, Villegas was exposed to a background of academia and education at a young age. Villegas was always encouraged to seek dreams as big as he could imagine. His family encouraged extracurricular activities, and classes focused on computer science and English.

After Villegas completed his bachelor’s degree at Tec de Monterrey, a private university in Mexico, he landed his first job at Frito-Lay Mexico in Monterrey. There, he built relationships with managers and executives, including his direct manager who, Villegas says, “had an MBA from MIT Sloan. After talking with him about his experience, I did some extra research and found the MIT LFM program (now known as LGO). I said to myself: ‘I want to go there someday.’” 

Villegas continued to build his operations career after his time at Frito-Lay, gaining experience at the Volkswagen factory in Puebla, and then back to Monterrey to Qualtia Alimentos/Sara Lee Mexico. These combined experiences encouraged him to apply to MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations program. 

Villegas knew applying to MIT LGO was a long shot, but he decided to go for it. Then one day, he shares, “Don Rosenfield, the director of LGO, called my home phone. I was still at work, and my wife picked up, and she didn’t speak English very well, and Don didn’t speak Spanish. But somehow they communicated, and when I got home, my wife told me, ‘You need to call Don, he has good news!’” says Villegas of his acceptance at MIT.

After arriving in Cambridge and joining LGO, Villegas learned how to communicate and guide engineering and manufacturing teams, and to be a bridge between them and business/finance teams and general management. “Leon has been an excellent member of the executive team and his leadership skills are a guide for others on the team,” says Gysin, who adds that “the engagement scores for his organization are the best in the company.” 

Villegas described his experience at LGO’s summer “boot camp” semester at the start of the program, and having to complete a large amount of reading and deliverables, as a pivotal moment in his learning. Villegas soon found out that the amount of work given to students is impossible for one student to complete on their own.

“You must learn to trust your team members and divide the workload to complete the assignments. Honestly, learning to trust your team is probably one the most valuable lessons I got from the MIT LGO experience,” says Villegas. He adds, “Why? Because once you work at a company, you are only as good as your team. And once you become a leader of an organization, you cannot afford to become a roadblock for your team. Nowadays, when I get a chance to lead and build a team, I make sure I hire the best possible person I can find in their respective field of knowledge.”

As an international student, though, Villegas’ experience was quite different from that of domestic students. Villegas and his wife had to sacrifice their life back home to emigrate to the United States to pursue this opportunity.

“At the time I got accepted into MIT, I had also received a promotion at work. It was like there were two doors open at the same time, and each door led to a different future. We could have stayed on the path we were already on, with an immediate reward. But in our hearts, we knew that MIT was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Villegas.

After graduation, Villegas started working at Boeing, a leading global aerospace company. During that time, Villegas contributed to Boeing’s launch of its largest automated manufacturing lines, the wing assembly line for Boeing’s 777X airplane. 

According to Josh Binder SM ‘04, MBA ‘04, vice president and general manager at Boeing and also an LGO graduate, “that factory startup represented an enormous investment in our industrial capability, and Leon led the manufacturing team tasked with bringing the line to life. His leadership made that project successful, and the first wings he helped build are still flying around the world today.” Binder describes Villegas’ leadership as building on the “classic LGO skill set.” “He kept the cross-functional organization connected and inspired through the engineering, development, and implementation of the automated factory,” says Binder. 

Villegas’ beginnings have allowed him to remain grounded and grateful for the opportunities that presented themselves after completing his time at MIT. “[Companies like] Boeing and Wisk design and manufacture some of the most complex products that mankind has ever made, and when you are part of it, it feels normal,” says Villegas. As a result, he often reminds his team at Wisk of the unique opportunity they have to innovate the future of urban mobility for all of humankind. 

“Think how many people dream of working here. Embrace it and do your best,” says Villegas.  

Attending the MIT LGO program was a life-changing experience for Villegas and his family. They emigrated to a new country, the United States, which is now home to his kids. His goal is to continue and teach his children to be complete and compassionate human beings, who will do their best to make the world a better place. 

“When you look back and see where you came from, you understand the magnitude of the experience,” concludes Villegas, “it makes you feel fortunate, humble, and responsible for making a difference.”

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