When you consider all the places gategroup’s general counsel Alejandra Almonte has called home, it seems appropriate that she would end up working for a major player in the transportation industry, handling legal matters for the company from Brazil all the way up to Canada.
Born in Nicaragua, Almonte and her family left for the US after the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, when Almonte was only four years old. Her father was an executive for Exxon at the time, and her grandfather had been an official in the Somoza government, connections that made the family a target as the revolutionary junta quickly grabbed power.
After crossing the border into Costa Rica, the family settled in New Orleans, where an uncle of Almonte’s lived. The brash, steamy city introduced Almonte to the diverse character of the United States in a big way. At the same time, the scores of other Central American immigrants who had settled there ensured that her cultural identity would remain strong.
“I remember dressing up for Purisima [the Nicaraguan celebration of the Virgin Mary],” she says. “Gallo pinto and nacatamales [typical Nicaraguan fare] were staples in our home.”
Almonte left New Orleans for New York to attend college at Columbia University. She found the great-works liberal-arts education and the urban setting exhilarating.
“Columbia is a microcosm of New York City, very diverse” she says. “As a Latin American immigrant, coming from an all-girls Catholic school to the explosion of ideas that is New York and Columbia shaped my approach to my job—and my view on life.”
Almonte’s next stop was Boston to attend Harvard Law School. She didn’t find the same diversity of thought she had treasured at Columbia, but she learned to think like a lawyer from some of the most preeminent minds in jurisprudence. Elizabeth Warren, Senior Senator from Massachusetts, was her contracts teacher.
“She took the Socratic method and mastered it,” Almonte says. “Having been on deck receiving her questions on contracts certainly built a spine.”
Almonte’s bicultural experience and the freedom of thought encouraged at Columbia helped her to see the world in multiple dimensions. The spine and discipline she developed at Harvard were the final puzzle pieces for Almonte to prepare for her career.
“As a Latin American immigrant, coming from an all-girls Catholic school to the explosion of ideas that is New York and Columbia shaped my approach to my job—and my view on life.”
After honing her skills as a litigation associate at two firms in Washington, DC, Almonte joined gategroup in 2010. In 2011, she was appointed division general counsel for North American and Latin American operations. She says that her role can best be summed up as risk mitigation—but that doesn’t translate into a reflexive veto on initiatives.
“I don’t want to be the type of lawyer whose first thought is to answer ‘no’ just because a challenge creates a risk,” she says. “I’m doing a disservice if I say ‘no’ all the time. I partner with my business leaders to help them achieve their business objectives in a way that preserves the value they’re trying to generate while mitigating the most critical risk inherent in all businesses, deals, and transactions.”
As attorney for matters in the US, Canada, and seven Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru), Almonte’s head can spin as she toggles between the different legal systems.
The United States is a common-law jurisdiction; the system hinges on judicial interpretations of the law. Meanwhile, the Latin American countries with which gategroup works are under a civil-law system, in which the statutes themselves are the focus of consideration.
Perhaps the most common difference between North America and Latin America that Almonte deals with has to do with employment laws; employees in Latin America (and Canada as well) are granted significantly more legal protection than in the United States.
“It’s not easy, which is great,” Almonte says of the differences, “but I have to calibrate my advice to each context.”
A typical day for Almonte might begin with her advising staff on labor matters, segue into a meeting on the possible appeal of a tax assessment, move on to a meeting with the company’s president on a litigation settlement, and then end with a conference call with the company’s head of Latin America on a strategic business partnership. The plurality of tasks gratifies Almonte’s taste for shifting contexts, a taste developed in the course of her travels.
Number of Employees
A presence in 32 countries across six continents
Approximately 3 billion euro (2014)
gategroup is the leading independent global provider of products, services, and solutions related to an airline passenger’s onboard experience.
“What I love most about the job is the partnership with the business and the breadth of the issues that I manage every day,” she says. “Part of that is because of the geographic scope, but also the different areas of law the business brings us into.”
Almonte also prizes the company’s innovative culture. As gategroup seeks to maintain growth in a transportation industry constricted by consolidations, it has launched what it calls the “grab-and-go initiative,” selling its packaged food to non-airline customers.
Whatever direction the company will go, Almonte’s enthusiasm gives the distinct feeling that this roaming Nicaraguan has found a home at gategroup.