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In 2020, Rina Montalvo’s life as she knew it completely changed. Not only had she emerged from a surgery she thought could potentially upend her professional and athletic life, but the entire world was going through a pandemic.
Montalvo first began to notice signs that something was off physically when she was training for the New York City Marathon. “I had just assumed that my headaches and neck pain were from the intense training and running on pavement, but it got to the point where it was concerning,” Montalvo remembers.
She sought medical attention, where at first her symptoms were attributed to stress, but she soon discovered that wasn’t the case at all. “I found out I had a chiari malformation, which is a condition in which brain tissue extends into the spinal canal, present at birth,” she explains.
Several doctors told Montalvo that this condition, coupled with multiple surgeries to correct it, would mean she could never run again—or worse. And as a university-level sprinter and daughter of an Olympic runner, Montalvo couldn’t imagine her life without the sport. Her ability to maintain a demanding career was also in question. Then, Montalvo’s brother died by suicide, a shattering family crisis. “I began to think ‘OK that’s it, I’m done,’” she says.
“I interviewed ten different doctors and neurologists who all said the same thing,” she says. But the last neurosurgeon she interviewed provided a shred of hope. “This doctor told me that not only were the other neurosurgeons looking at my case wrong, but also that I would only need one surgery to correct it.” So, she went through with the single procedure, although there were no guarantees.
At the time, Montalvo was working for News Corp, where she served as director of global mobility, immigration, taxation, and relocation. Montalvo had worked with News Corp for nearly a decade in both the United States and Germany in various HR roles prior to the surgery, but when she awoke from the procedure in the throes of COVID-19, she knew that a full recovery would require taking a break.
“At the time, I really thought that after the surgery I would be disabled and that my career would be over,” she says. “I thought that my time in high-level roles was over, but that’s absolutely not the case.” In fact, Montalvo believes that she’s now more successful than she’s ever been in terms of her life, her health, and her career.
Following her recovery, Montalvo landed a remarkable role with X, formerly known as Twitter. “When I came into Twitter 1.0, I came into as head of talent, mobility, and immigration space, which is what I have done for years,” she explains. “But this role has expanded throughout the year and a half that I’ve been here, and now I’m working as the director of HR operations.”
Now, Montalvo believes that everything she has learned, both professionally and personally, has molded her into the perfect fit for this position. “From my initial HR roles at General Motors to News Corp to my lecturing positions at NYU, Harvard, and Yale, all of those experiences gave me the tools to be my best in my role as an HR operations director,” she says.
She also believes that the surgery taught her a lot about how to approach her personal growth and development. Before landing the job at X, Montalvo took the time to complete two executive management programs at both Harvard and Yale, where she spent time reconciling how she was going to reenter the professional world.
“I think I changed as a human being during that time. I think I really took to heart the fact that we never really know what someone is going through,” she says. “While I was doing these programs, I was somewhat isolated—I was all by myself recovering from surgery, healing from my brother’s suicide, and coming to terms with what my life was going to look like.”
Thanks to her faith, Montalvo is a practicing Buddhist and member of the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Organization. “But, during that time, my attitude and approach to work and life completely changed,” says Montalvo, who realized that her hardships gave her a mission—a purpose. By overcoming all obstacles, she could inspire others to do the same.
“With that change, the right people and the right opportunities, such as my role at X, came to me,” she says. “I was even able to slowly build up to running again.”
Montalvo’s partners have also taken notice of her resilience and leadership skills. “Throughout every step of her career, Rina has gone above and beyond to help and advocate for the employees she supports. She’s a real asset to our industry, and her drive to always be learning and growing is something I admire,” says Richard Burke, president and CEO of Envoy Global. “The team at X is lucky to have a force like Rina leading their immigration program.”
As she looks back and reflects on the span of her career and the personal trials she encountered along the way, Montalvo also leans on her cultural background as another source of strength and inspiration.
“I think it’s so important for me to be out there as a global citizen because it not only reflects on how far I’ve come but it also can be an inspiration to others. I was born in Puerto Rico, I pursued an education in the United States, I lived in Germany, I speak four different languages, now at the top of my career, and I am proud to be Latina,” she says. “I never really saw people like me in high-level positions, and it’s so important for me now to step up and be vocal about my culture. I want to give people like me the drive to pursue the same things for themselves.”
Montalvo dedicates her story to her late mother, Beatriz Montalvo, who was born on December 17, 1948, and died on September 8, 2023.