Conway Ekpo – Fellow Spotlight

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

I currently serve as in-house counsel at Bank of America Merrill Lynch where I provide legal advice to Merrill Lynch’s Global Wealth and Investment Management business. I made the transition to in-house counsel after practicing financial services law for nearly a decade as an associate in a few different international law firms. I started my legal career as a patent attorney, practicing intellectual property law for the tech industry, but then the 2008 recession happened and the first large law firm that I worked for straight out of law school dissolved overnight. It was over 100 years old at the time and had a team of over 1,000 lawyers. I was left with a lot of questions about how the financial industry could have such an indelible impact on my job specifically and on the world economy in general, and from that point forward I satisfied my curiosity by focusing my practice on financial services law.

Before my legal career, I worked as an architectural engineer but found that, although I was good at math, the most enjoyable part of my job came from researching the legal provisions in my engineering company’s business contracts and arguing over those provisions with our competitors (which took being a nerd to a whole new level). After doing this enough times, my bosses would often tell me “kid, you need to go to law school.” So I did.

What is the biggest challenge of your work?

The biggest challenge of my current position is trying to learn the business and keep up with all of the rules and regulations that impact it. Bank of America Merrill Lynch is massive, and the financial services industry is constantly changing so I have my work cut out for me.

What is your proudest achievement?

I grew up surrounded by poverty as the oldest of 6 children in a single-mother household where we knew all too well what it meant to have to go without. Accordingly, my proudest achievement is having finally arrived at a point in my life where my wife and I have the ability to provide the requisite love, spiritual guidance, emotional intelligence, academic encouragement and financial support to our 1-year old daughter, Langston.

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?

Historically, I have admired leaders, thinkers and doers like Malcolm X, who, by my view, is the perfect embodiment of all three traits. He dared to take a stand against injustice during a time period in American history when doing so could have – and ultimately did – cost him his life, and he wasn’t afraid to admit when he got it wrong about the methods he had used to achieve equality which largely, and by his concession, incorrectly, excluded Whites and others from helping the Black community to achieve that end goal. I also admire leaders, thinkers and doers like President Barack Obama, who has effectively served as the Jackie Robinson of the U.S. Presidency. Most recently, I came to admire these traits in actor/activist Jesse Williams, who delivered a powerful speech at the 2016 BET Awards on racial inequality in America. Williams’ speech particularly stands out to me because I feel that whatever spirit inhabited Williams during his speech was also visited upon me earlier in that same week during a speech that I gave at the New York City Bar Association about the racial inequality facing minority associates in America’s law firms (a segment of my speech where I compare minority law firm associates to starving goldfish is available HERE).

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

General Counsel of a hedge fund perhaps? 10 years from now I’d like to think that I will have figured out a way to leave the 9 to 5 world behind for something more entrepreneurial in nature, but barring that I would hope to have progressed in my in-house counsel role to the point of being an irreplaceable team member within whatever organization I happen to be a part of.

Did you have a mentor or do you mentor someone else? How has that experience changed you?

Seeking out mentors, as well as providing mentorship, is in my DNA. I have an entire village of mentors to whom I am eternally grateful. Although there are too many to name here, I will highlight one in particular who I feel embodies the essence of CUP and that person is Nate Saint-Victor. To know Nate is to know CUP and its ability to connect, empower and mobilize urban professionals. His mentorship was directly responsible for directing my path toward becoming a CUP Fellow. In the spirit of paying it forward, a significant percentage of my time is spent on a daily basis mentoring others, especially minority youth in the educational pipeline. I firmly believe that to whom much is given, much is required, and I’m glad to see that CUP shares that same value.

What do you hope to gain from your CUP Fellows Program experience to help you make a significant and positive impact in your community?

CUP’s expertise is in taking people who are already leaders within their respective communities and equipping them with the tools to become even greater leaders. Accordingly, I hope to gain access to new skills and professional relationships that I otherwise would not have had access to.