From a very early age, Cristina de Dona had a strong sense of justice. She attributes that quality to her family. “My grandfather was a judge, and what he did was very important to me when I considered what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was clear to me from the start that I should be a lawyer,” de Dona says with a laugh.
Pursuing a career in law satisfied both de Dona’s sense of justice and her desire to help others. “As a lawyer, you can help people in many different ways—for example, sharing knowledge or giving people the opportunity to achieve the things that they want to achieve,” she says.
After completing her undergraduate degree in international law in her home country of Italy, de Dona moved to Germany to pursue her PhD in international law. Rounding off her international educational experience, de Dona completed an EMBA at London Business School.
Her multicultural experience didn’t end with her education; de Dona’s professional career is just as diverse. She began her legal career journey at Interpol, the international crime-fighting organization based out of Lyon, France. Following that, de Dona worked for the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute.
“I have always worked on a multinational team. Diversity in terms of industries, practices, roles, and people is the cornerstone of my vision for life and the recipe that has enabled me to achieve successful results in both my work and personal experience,” de Dona says.
In 2004, de Dona hit a turning point in her career when she met Michele Ferrero, whose company was looking for a special lawyer. “Working with a genius like Michele Ferrero is not common, and I got the chance to work for him and a very complex company. This work experience provided an important opportunity to grow both professionally and personally,” de Dona says.
Ferrero served as a great influence in de Dona’s life, and she looks back at her time with him as incredibly special and formative. “Mr. Michele was not only a visionary and genius entrepreneur; he was a giver. He was widely regarded as a benevolent employer who granted his employees generous benefits, and he had a wonderful way of making you feel like the most important person in the world,” de Dona says of Ferrero.
In addition to his warm personality and generous tendencies, Ferrero’s work ethic left an impression on de Dona, serving as a benchmark for how she would approach strategy in her future roles.
“I remember his professional and ethical discipline specifically. Every morning from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., I would meet with him in Monte Carlo. We focused on testing and helping design new products, understanding consumer behaviors, and adapting legal strategies to the different products and markets. These were life lessons that I will never forget,” de Dona says.
Her current role, also with a world-famous chocolatier, is not too far off from her role at Ferrero. She now serves as chief counsel, international, for Hershey’s. She was drawn to Hershey’s because of its strong leadership team, including Hershey’s globally minded president and CEO; its family-based values and origins; its philanthropic arm; and its international presence.
“At Hershey’s, I am responsible for supporting all countries internationally except for the United States. In this position, it is more than just being a lawyer and dealing with contracts. There is the responsibility to support the legal staff, to build relationships that can leverage business or contacts for the company,” de Dona explains.
“Being very clear in all communications and picking up the phone to talk to each other is sometimes the best way to ensure there is no breakdown in communication.”
Challenges often arise in the course of de Dona’s work, as might be expected when dealing with legal matters across different countries and cultures as well as working with outside counsel. Thanks to her broad range of international experience and assistance from Venable, a business-savvy firm that is equipped to advise and consult in these types of legal matters, de Dona meets these challenges with agility and ingenuity.
Alexei Cowett, a partner at Venable who works closely with Hershey’s on domestic and cross-border corporate transactions, notes how she rises to the challenge. “Cristina is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the food space and has an incredible ‘can do’ attitude. Her extensive global experience and business and legal acumen set her apart from others. She excels at helping Hershey’s create more ‘moments of goodness,’” he says.
“Managing outside counsel is difficult when you are managing issues across various jurisdictions,” de Dona notes. “No one counsel can generally assist you with every country, or indeed every possible legal issue, so a knowledge and record of the counsel’s strong points is critical. This way, you can reach out to the most appropriate counsel depending on the issue presented and the potential jurisdiction. In essence, you are responsible for triaging the problem and finding the most cost- and time-efficient resolution.
“Managing cross-cultural issues also means understanding the culture that the firm operates in,” de Dona continues. “There are language barriers and cultural differences, so making sure you understand these is important. Being very clear in all communications and picking up the phone to talk to each other is sometimes the best way to ensure there is no breakdown in communication.”
The Pull of the Ocean
In addition to fulfilling her childhood dream of practicing law, Cristina loves to maintain another childhood passion of hers: surfing. “I started surfing at the age of eleven. I used to go on holiday with my family in Sardinia, and my friends taught me how to surf there,” she says. “The ocean has always attracted me because of its unpredictability and simultaneous calming nature. It sparks something really spiritual inside me.”