Latinas in Aviation Soaring to Great Heights

Latinas in Aviation Soaring to Great Heights

By Christine Bolaños.

When people think about the aviation industry, they tend to visualize flight attendants and aircraft pilots. But the industry is more diverse and dynamic than it appears.

It depends on innovative, intelligent, and diverse minds to ensure safe and efficient business operations that continue to grow and evolve along with technology. It takes numerous teams to ensure airlines and airports can bring forth their best versions and at the helm are leaders in a variety of departments. Among these leaders are four Latinas who have brought positive change and innovation to the industry. Jackie Rios at American Airlines, Oriana Branon (Camacho) at Alaska Airlines, Linda Valdez Thompson at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and Vania Montero Wit at United Airlines have set the stage for the next generation of Latina leaders in aviation.

Oriana Branon is passionate about building things from scratch and making the most of her skills and talent for the betterment of society. That is why making a career pivot from B2B technology into the aviation industry was one of her best decisions.

As Director of Community and Public Relations for Alaska Airlines in the Bay Area, she leads the company’s strategy in giving back to the region and works closely with 70 local nonprofits that fit into the priority areas of youth and education, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability. Alaska Airlines provided more than $1 million in charitable resources in the past year alone.

She also drives the company’s communications planning and execution with the goal of increasing and deepening Alaska Airline’s positive brand recognition and preference as the airline of choice in the Bay Area.

“It’s working to ensure there are open pathways for underrepresented communities, both in education and career opportunities,” Branon says. “On top of that, environmental sustainability is a key focal point for the company. We want to make sure the communities we operate in continue to thrive.”

Since joining the company about 18 months ago, media coverage of the company has increased more than 300 percent. She is part of a three-person team that has a startup mindset.

“We’re building from the ground up to ensure that the Bay Area knows who we are. We’re traditionally very well known in the Pacific Northwest, but the Bay Area is a new region to us as we grow our presence,” Branon shares.

Among other accomplishments, she was recognized by PR Week as a Top 40 under 40 PR professional in 2018.

“In this role, I’m communicating to different audiences on behalf of the company, but I’m also giving back and it’s just so rewarding the contributions that Alaska Airlines is making on behalf of the three different priority areas is actually making a difference,” Branon shares.

As a proud Mexican-American who has overcome discrimination, realizing she had to work twice as hard to prove her value; and as mother to biracial daughters, she is committed to opening education and career pathways to underrepresented communities and ensuring everyone has a seat at the table.

She has passed on this service mindset and pride in heritage on to her children. This outlook has enabled her to serve on the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley Board of Directors, where she helps create educational and career opportunities for students pursuing future STEM careers; on the Public Relations Society of American Silicon Valley Board of Directors, where she advises PR professionals on how to build successful careers; and, leads the Latino Employees Resource Group at her company, where she helps Latino employees connect with one another, develop mentors and grow their careers.

“This jump to Alaska has really shown me that when you have the passion, the skillset, and desire to succeed, stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new can really pay off,” Branon adds.

Oriana Branon (Camacho), Director of Community and Public Relations, Alaska Airlines, Bay Area.

Jackie Rios, Managing Director of Customer Care, Chicago O’Hare – American Airlines. (Left).

Jackie Rios dreamed of traveling the world from a young age. When her older brother, who worked for American Airlines, encouraged her to apply for a job within the company she jumped on the chance. If she landed the job, Rios would enjoy flexible hours, great benefits, and the possibility of travel.

To her delight, Rios got the job and has remained with American Airlines since 1995. In 2018, she traveled to Dubai, the largest and most populous city in United Arab Emirates, as part of a Human Resources summit. “I knew that once I joined the company that two days are never the same,” Rios shares. “I wanted to explore the world and by joining the industry I knew I would have those opportunities.”

She began her career as an agent in ticket lift at Chicago O’Hare International Airport and became a Customer Service Manager before transitioning to Human Resources, which is referred to as the People side of the business. She supported various organizations, including Chicago, Flight and Flight Service, the Integrated Operations Center and most recent, the International Division, where her scope of care included more than 6,000 American Airlines team members in 64 countries.

International and domestic employees have come to respect and admire Rios for her dedication and commitment to her work.

The Mexican-American believes her tight-knit family upbringing influenced her professionalism.

“My mom was a working mom and she inspired me to aim high and encouraged me to be very courageous. I was brought up with the sense that working hard and taking risks will help you achieve your goals,” she says of her parents.

But the Chicago native quickly learned that to stand out in corporate America she had to take even bolder risks and showcase her value under any professional circumstance.

“That was a personal challenge that I had to overcome,” Rios shares. “I did that by believing in myself, observing other women leaders, pushing myself to take on the more difficult projects and seeking out a mentor to help me work on it.” Rios’ current scope of care expands to about 600 team members responsible for taking care of an estimated 30,000 customers that come through Chicago O’Hare for over 300 mainline flights every day.

She is particularly proud of her team’s successful implementation of new HR database Success Factors in 59 countries for over 6,000 team members. On a personal note, she is honored to have been named one of LATINA Style Inc.’s Top 12 Corporate Latina Executives of the Year.

American Airlines’ Latin Diversity Network Employee Business Resource Group was also recognized for its exceptional leadership and vision. Rios served as the group’s first president and continues involved, including through mission trips to Latin America.

“We all think of flight attendants and pilots when we think of the aviation industry, but there is so much more to it, including in government affairs, the legal department, our sales department and finance,” Rios shares. “There’s opportunity here regardless of your background and area of interest.”

Linda Valdez Thompson recalls the excitement she felt the first time she flew on a plane. She realized flying could help her explore places she read about as a young girl.

That fascination with flight drew her to a career in the aviation industry. Since 2001, she has served as Executive Vice President of Administration and Diversity at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. The role makes her one of the highest-ranking Latinas in the industry.

“What drew me in about airport first and foremost, is its commitment to connect our region to the rest of the world,” she says. “There are many different businesses and operational components to running an airport that create a work experience that is very challenging and rewarding. No two days are alike.”

Valdez Thompson provides strategic leadership for Human Resources, Procurement and Materials Management, Risk Management, Business Diversity and Development and Corporate Communications & Marketing. Beyond the technical aspect of her job, she is also a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

“Diversity and Inclusion is core to my beliefs that every single person is valuable and has talent and therefore should (be) acknowledged and affirmed for their uniqueness and invited to belong to our community,” Valdez Thompson says.

She established a leadership council, various employees resource groups including Hispanic Outreach by Leaders in Action (HOLA), networks and mentoring programs. She has personally mentored and coached more than 150 women, many of whom are Latina.

“These are all programs that support our talented employees to grow to their potential and contribute to our mutual success,” she says.

Valdez Thompson oversees the airport’s award-winning business diversity program which creates economic opportunity for small, minority, and women-owned businesses in North Texas. More than 30 percent of the airport’s annual spending goes to these businesses.

Her professional values have helped her contribute to making the DFW Airport one of the best in the globe.

“My greatest accomplishment has been to contribute to making DFW Airport one of the biggest and best airports in the world by attracting and engaging amazing talent both in our employees and suppliers,” says Valdez Thompson.

Her professional values are rooted in her Latino values of family, faith, hard work, resourcefulness and enjoying life.

“Over the years much of my community services has been to support issues that are important to the airport and to me as well,” she shares.

This has led her to serve on various educational boards including Parents Step Ahead and the Tarrant County Community College Foundation, on business-focused boards like North Texas Commission and Visit Fort Worth, and Hispanic-100, which serves as a catalyst for increasing participation of Latinas in employment, procurement and social issues.

“My advice for any young Latina is to become as technically competent as you can possibly be and then never stop learning,” she shares. “Your competence will open doors and after that it’s about being a great problem solver and opportunity maker.”

Growing up in Chicago, Vania Montero Wit was always fascinated by the stories she heard of her grandfather’s legacy in Bolivia as a lawyer of integrity serving his community. Her intrigue in her grandfather’s profession culminated in her decision to follow in his footsteps and pursue law in the United States.

Today she serves as Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at United Airlines where she oversees a team of 30 lawyers and other legal professionals. Her team is responsible for managing litigation and legal compliance globally in the areas of intellectual property, antitrust and competition, commercial, employment, labor, and benefits.

Her staff works closely with business stakeholders to provide counsel and direction in all these areas. The proud mother of two sons is also responsible for legal operations.

“I’m going on 20 years later this month in an industry that’s very exciting. One thing that stands out prominently is this wonderful merger between Continental and United that began in 2010,” Wit says. “We really had to roll up our sleeves in the areas of labor and employment and bring together two cultures and two workforces and figure out how to do that in a way that created fair processes or policies that were the best of the best in a newly merged company.”

Her Latina roots taught her the importance of human connections in any area of life, including business, which has helped her stand out.

“I’ve just always been fascinated with other people’s stories and what makes them who they are,” Wit says. “As I have worked here at United and become the person and attorney I am, my background and who I am is something I bring into the conversation. I want people to get to know me a little better and to understand them better.”

Earlier in her career she came across fellow professionals who doubted her legal abilities because she came from a different background.

Instead of letting that doubt bring her down, Wit used it as motivation to work harder and smarter so that she never entered a room unprepared for what may come.

“It’s OK if you’re nervous but don’t let that overtake the overall feeling or how you portray yourself,” she advises emerging Latina professionals in the legal and aviation industry.

Her Latinidad has also made her an advocate for immigrant and women’s rights. She is a member of the American Bar Association and Hispanic National Bar Association. Wit serves on the Leadership Board of the National Immigrant Justice Center and recently helped a Salvadoran woman fleeing violence in her home country gain asylum in the United States.

She is a founding member of the Western Suburban Giving Circle of the Chicago Foundation for Women which awards grants to worthy organizations.

Wit is a 2017 recipient of Latino Magazine’s Brava Award for her mentorship efforts.

“I love mentoring younger attorneys and sharing my experiencing with others who perhaps faced similar challenges as I have in the past,” she says.