Dawn Valdivia wasn’t born in Mexico, but she has a deep connection to her family’s country of origin. She grew up in a family that owned Mexican restaurants and began working in the business when she was just twelve years old. Because her parents were part of the first wave of assimilation-focused immigrants, she studied Spanish on her own, speaking and studying with the restaurant kitchen staff, who were like family to her.
But like many in the Latino community, Valdivia was forced to confront an identity crisis: feeling like an outsider wherever she went. She felt like “the brown kid” with cousins who had blond hair. While working at the Center for American Free Trade in Mexico, she was routinely referred to as “not a Mexican” despite her family’s roots in Guanajuato.
Now serving as assistant general counsel (aerospace) as well as chief employment counsel for Latin America and Mexico at Honeywell, Valdivia has found a way to embrace who she is and maintain close ties to a heritage that she cares about deeply. “Dawn’s authenticity and caring spirit makes her a standout in the legal community,” says Timothy Nelson, a partner at Fragomen, “and this transcends into the work she does every day and in the partnership we have created.”
Valdivia’s core work and expertise lies in bridging the distance between borders, but her most challenging effort to date has been helping Honeywell address a pandemic that knew no border.
A Nontraditional Path
While Valdivia’s law career may look fairly traditional, her journey to it was not. As a college student, she was on a path to becoming a religious studies professor. “I just loved school and enjoyed the questioning that accompanied so many of the issues,” she says. Valdivia also realized that by taking just a few more classes, she could double major in Spanish. That choice would impact the rest of her career.
Valdivia would come face-to-face with her future in her honors program. “There was a lawyer who had returned to school, and I just found him incredibly articulate and always thinking about things from a different perspective,” she remembers. “We developed a friendship, and that wound up putting me on the path to taking the LSAT.”
During law school, Valdivia went to Mexico to work on post-NAFTA free trade work as part of an exchange program, and her Spanish training was finally put to the test. While the locals called her an American, she noticed something about her surroundings. “None of the experiences felt completely foreign to me,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the same feeling I would have had if I went to China.”
Valdivia says her command of Spanish has not only helped her land two separate jobs, but also allowed her to gain significant cross-border expertise. No amount of experience, however, could have prepared her for the year 2020.
Responding with Compassion
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Valdivia’s wide purview meant having to monitor and continually evolve protocols for a number of different countries. “I would wake up in the morning, and Peru had just instituted a stay-at-home order,” she recalls. “The next day it would be Panama. The next day somewhere else. Every day, a different country was shutting down.”
Early on in the pandemic, Honeywell lost two of its Latin American employees to COVID. Valdivia was struck by her company’s response. “We had a real healthcare crisis in our border cities because the public hospitals didn’t have the bandwidth to treat people,” she explains. “Honeywell did the most amazing thing. They decided they were going to make sure that every one of our employees were going to get access to private hospitals. If they or a family member was sick, they called us and we got them the care they needed.”
Valdivia says two people were airlifted to better hospitals and survived. “I get goose bumps just thinking about it,” she says. “We were literally saving lives, and it’s one of the most impactful things I’ve ever had the opportunity to be part of. We didn’t want to lose another single employee, and we haven’t.”
Honeywell was also able to quickly stand up N95 mask production facilities to provide face coverings for employees and others.
The COVID-19 pandemic had an even more personal effect on Valdivia’s life, however: she lost her father to the virus in 2020. “Days are still hard,” she says. “I think about him every day, and maybe that’s why seeing Honeywell taking our workers’ health so seriously impacted me so much.”
Valdivia has long devoted her pro bono efforts to cases that will benefit the Hispanic community, including (prior to her arrival at Honeywell) an international kidnapping case where the lawyer was able to help reunite a child and father. Since growing up in a family whose livelihood was the very food of her culture, Valdivia has gone from interviewing migrant workers on broccoli farms to acquiring the cross-cultural legal expertise that has allowed her to be successful in global business. It’s safe to say that she’s no longer struggling to find her place in the world as a Mexican American.