“You never want to finish a race and think to yourself, ‘I should have run faster. I could have run faster, but I held back,’” says Michelle Dávila, senior associate general counsel and chief legal counsel in charge of the Americas at Franklin Templeton, a US-based, global asset management organization with offices in thirty countries and seventy years of investment experience. “You have to be a go-getter regardless of how you’re received. You just have to propel yourself into things that may not feel very comfortable for you.”
Dávila learned this lesson from her father, a Puerto Rican native who worked hard to support her family in the Bronx after he emigrated to the US. She watched him accept a job that, while paying less in the short term, would offer more opportunities for advancement in the long run. With a dearth of people who looked like her in high power positions, it was her father who showed the young Dávila early on what she could achieve.
Although she earned a spot at Harvard University, Dávila nearly declined to attend because the idea of an unmarried woman leaving the home was very foreign to her old-school family. “One person who kind of helped along the way was an admissions officer who was part Puerto Rican and Mexican,” Dávila recalls, adding that the woman’s common background made her a trustworthy ally to the family. “She made my mother comfortable about the idea of me going away to college. She explained to her the opportunities, and how doors would open for me and what a positive experience it would be so that she understood it and signed the papers for me to live on campus.”
The culture shock at Harvard was massive for Dávila. Though she is pleased to see that the school has made large strides in diversity since her time there, Dávila was one of the very few people of color on the campus during her studies. She refused to be discouraged and instead was inspired to seek new outlets like the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. “It was there that I met some very important mentors in my life, like Dr. Allen Counter,” Dávila says. “It was a place to have those tough conversations very comfortably with like-minded people of all different races, and to learn because the school was all about those things: discussion and learning and exploring.”
Dávila went on to attend Columbia University for law school and then cut her teeth at Brown & Wood (now Sidley Austin). Throughout her career, she has had a wide variety of experiences both in-house and in law firms before coming to Franklin Templeton.
The senior associate general counsel emphasizes the power of finding mentors and allies for young professionals, particularly from underrepresented backgrounds. “I’ve had some tremendous bosses and role models, sometimes among people that I didn’t expect. I ended up getting a lot of support and allyship from somebody who was white, Republican, and conservative but appreciated my work ethic,” Dávila reflects. “It’s those people who are willing to advocate for you and raise their hand for you and put you on assignments that really make the difference in your career.”
More than anything, Dávila believes that the way towards more Latinos in the executive suite is exposure. She points out that many Latinos are drawn to public service because they want to give back to their communities. While public service positions in law are an important vocation, she believes that occupying corporate roles gives young people examples of the heights to which they can aspire and effect change.
Dávila recalls a powerful moment when she crossed paths with a young business analyst who remembered her from a professional talk she gave at her high school in the Bronx. “When I gave that talk, I figured the students were just happy to get out of class but to see how it had an effect on her was truly humbling because I never had those role models, and certainly not in anyone who looked like me,” Dávila says. “If you see it, you can be it. You never know who your story will resonate with and whose future you can impact.”
At Franklin Templeton, Michelle Dávila feeds her passion for driving change within her environment. She is the executive cosponsor of HOLA, an employee resource group that seeks to facilitate both the professional and personal growth of its Latino employees and allies. The group also helps provide cultural understanding and awareness for employees who work with clients and partners in Latin America. It helps drive concrete and practical change when it comes to diversity and inclusion, particularly in hiring. “If we want to move the dial on the numbers, we’ve got to change how we recruit,” Dávila asserts. “We’ve been getting that on board and formalizing our efforts, which has been a really satisfying project in my career.”