A Pioneering Spirit: Ana Hinojosa Breaks New Ground for Women in Customs
It’s a Friday in February and Ana Hinojosa, the deputy assistant commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of International Affairs, is introducing a speaker at a women’s leadership forum luncheon at CBP’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The event, one of a series hosted by Hinojosa, is part of an initiative started last August by CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske to promote women at the agency.
“The speakers are women who share best practices on how they’ve charted a path forward and reached back to help others,” said Hinojosa, a candidate for the World Customs Organization’s, WCO, director of compliance and facilitation, who is a natural at inspiring women herself.
Starting her career in 1987, as an import specialist trainee at the U.S. Customs Service, one of CBP’s legacy agencies, Hinojosa rose through the agency’s ranks. She held a number of management positions, eventually becoming an area port director overseeing operations at two of the largest, U.S. international airports in Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth. She then became CBP’s first female director of field operations in El Paso, Texas on the Southwest border, responsible for 10 of the country’s land border crossings and three airports.
Paving the Way
A pioneer in a male-oriented profession, Hinojosa paved the way for American women in the customs field. “She broke the mold,” said LaFonda Sutton-Burke, director of non-intrusive inspection for CBP’s Cargo, Conveyance and Security division, based in Washington, D.C. “Back then, only a few women stood alongside their male counterparts in law enforcement, especially on the Southern border where the danger associated with the position creates a machismo-type mentality.”
In Hinojosa’s case, the achievement was even more unusual. She was managing more than 1,000 employees including a predominantly male law enforcement staff. “There weren’t a lot of females at the time in that capacity,” said Sutton-Burke. “And to make it even more of a challenge, she did it while she raised children and took care of her family.”
Because the agency was primarily led by men, the challenges were even harder. “To be able to merit the positions, it seemed like I needed to prove not just that I was equal, but better,” said Hinojosa. “It was extremely difficult, but I was fortunate to have had a number of people who were part of my support group. My mother-in-law helped me babysit, my husband was supportive of my travel and long hours at work, and my children were understanding when I stepped away from dinners or missed events with them,” she said. “Not to say that men don’t have the same kind of challenges and don’t have to make the same types of sacrifices, but I think the expectations of society as a whole are different for women.”
According to colleagues, what stands out most about Hinojosa is her passion. “The first time I really got to know the power behind Ana was when we were in the inaugural Customs Leadership Institute class together in 1999,” said Susan Mitchell, CBP’s port director at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. “It struck me then and every time I’ve worked with her since that she has an incredible passion for the mission. She brings this passion and her knowledge of trade to all that she does and she isn’t afraid of anything,” said Mitchell. “She has succeeded in a male dominated world because of that fearlessness--that sense that she’s not going to let gender or preconceived notions hold her back in any way. If anything, Ana is going to try even harder to shatter the stereotypes, to exceed expectations.”
For example, Mitchell noted that Hinojosa did not start her career as a law enforcement officer. “She did not grow up in this organization in a uniformed position, but that didn’t stop her,” said Mitchell. “She went to training. She learned how to handle a weapon, and she understood everything that goes behind putting on that uniform. That’s not an easy transition for people to make,” said Mitchell. “It’s more than just physically learning how to shoot a weapon. It’s the mindset that comes with being in uniform.”
But what Mitchell finds most impressive about Hinojosa is her willingness to help other women advance in their careers. “Ana has a broader perspective and felt there were not enough women in senior leadership positions within the agency,” said Mitchell. “She thought it was important that our organization had diverse views and different input. That’s really why she has been a champion in mentoring. She wants to get women at the table to include their points of view.”
An Inspiring Mentor
A case in point is when Hinojosa reached out to another colleague who was participating in CBP’s Leadership Institute course a few years ago. “Ana approached me to see if I would be interested in doing a temporary duty assignment at the port of El Paso. She wanted me to lead the Fines, Penalties, and Forfeiture Office for a couple of months,” said Augustine Moore, who is now the director of field operations at CBP’s Baltimore Field Office.
Hinojosa wasn’t assigned as Moore’s mentor. She just selected her out of the 43 students in the class. “She gave me an opportunity to test my skills and apply what I had learned,” said Moore. “She offered to coach me and she did.”
But Hinojosa did much more than that. Moore had never lived on the Southwest border before. El Paso was an entirely new environment for the newly recruited manager who was from the Midwest. “She didn’t let me just go to work and back to the hotel. She would call me up and say, ‘Come on. Let’s go to dinner. We’re helping the community with a Habitat for Humanity project. Come and help us out,’” said Moore.
“She built a CBP family. She was very good at that, and she did it in a way that was twofold. It helped build a teamwork environment for the CBP employees and it also benefited the community,” said Moore. “The community got to know CBP firsthand. Not just who we were and what we do, but actually engage with us in fundraising events that would benefit the community around us”
At work, Moore was inspired by Hinojosa too. “She would have weekly meetings to keep the momentum going, to share successes, and to share challenges. And she would also ask us for feedback and our opinions,” said Moore. “I walked away from this experience learning that to be really successful at anything, you must have a number of people on your team who are willing to find ways to achieve success in what you do.”
Commitment to Women
As president of the nonprofit advocacy organization, Executive Women in Government, Ana Hinojosa, right, greets attendees at a recent special event hosted by the German Marshall Fund, a public policy and grant-making institution, in Washington, D.C.
Hinojosa, who was recognized by the U.S. Customs Service’s Laredo Field Office in 2000 as its first “Woman of the Year,” has shown her commitment to women in other ways. Last summer, she led a U.S. delegation that presented at the West Africa Cooperative Security Initiative Women’s Leadership Training in Accra, Ghana. The training, which was designed to increase the counternarcotic capabilities of women in law enforcement, was attended by representatives from nine West African nations. “We were trying to help them succeed better at the work that they do,” said Hinojosa. “So that the customs and border protection organizations within these countries will excel and be as efficient as possible.”
In 2014, Hinojosa also was elected president of Executive Women in Government, a nonprofit advocacy organization that prepares, promotes, supports, and mentors women for senior leadership positions in the federal government. “I’ve made it a point to ensure that our board is reflective of our membership—that we have diverse ideas, age groups, agency representation, and cultural backgrounds because that’s what makes us richer as an organization and that’s how we can attract more members,” said Hinojosa.
Some note that these same ideals could be very helpful to the WCO. “Ana’s ability to incorporate different styles and her willingness to listen to other people’s perspectives would be meaningful for the WCO,” said CBP’s Moore. “She is very successful in bringing diverse groups together and ensuring that their goals are accomplished.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of our nation's borders at and between the official ports of entry. CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws.