Charlita Cardwell – CUP Leadership Board Spotlight- Mar. 2012

What is your occupation and how did you come to work in this field?

I am a corporate attorney.  As a child, I had visions of being a lawyer and got on the path to do so early. Though, as a young child, I envisioned myself as a litigator, my interest in business and economics compelled a career as a corporate attorney. This enables me to both practice law and be a strategic business advisor.

Currently, I am Vice President and Senior Counsel in the General Counsel’s Office of American Express. In this role, I am responsible for providing strategic, transactional and general legal advice to American Express OPEN, the Amex division dedicated to making small businesses and their owners more successful. During my tenure with OPEN, I have been a key player in launching innovative new products, structuring, negotiating and implementing strategic alliances and partnerships as well as broadening OPEN’s business strategy to address its clients’ increasingly broad and complex needs.  Additionally, I have prepared Senior Executives to testify before regulatory and legislative bodies about small business credit and the needs of small businesses amid a rapidly changing regulatory and political environment.

Before joining American Express, I was Assistant General Counsel, Corporate Transactions responsible for Mergers and Acquisitions for Compass Group USA, Inc., a highly-acquisitive holding company. I began my career in private practice with the law firms Dewey & LeBoeuf and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

 What is the biggest challenge of your work?

The biggest challenge of my work is navigating, managing and addressing the interests of the various constituencies that my work impacts - the General Counsel's Office, business clients, customers, regulators, and shareholders.

What is your proudest achievement?

As I look back, I am quite proud of, with God's help, having the resilience and strength to overcome the tragedy of witnessing the events of 9/11, my apartment being destroyed and losing my worldly possessions in those events.

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?

My parents, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and Nelson Mandela. 

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I will be doing something creative, innovative and intellectually stimulating in business.  I can see myself as the General Counsel of a Fortune 500 Company or as an international investor executing my own deals.

What would be your advice to young people who want their careers and lives to have an impact? You must put in the work and prepare yourself; passion alone is no substitute. Also, relationships matter and the earlier you start developing them, the better. As you move throughout your career think of it in at least 3 phases: (1) skill acquisition, (2) skill refinement and (3) industry, sector or subject matter specialization. Regardless of the phase in which you find yourself, always focus on building relationships and mentoring younger professionals.