Shea Owens – CUP Catalyst Spotlight

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

I am a corporate attorney with experience in complex multi-jurisdictional transactions, contractual negotiations, regulatory compliance (including with the U.S. securities laws, anti-bribery requirements and export control regulations), and corporate governance. I completed fellowships in Brazil, Kenya and Switzerland before graduating from law school, so I initially focused on building an intellectually engaging practice that would involve hop-scotching across the globe and learning about varying industries. Working in Cleary Gottlieb’s Latin American Practice Group (and then in Allen & Overy’s international capital markets groups in New York and Hong Kong) allowed me to represent foreign governments, sophisticated financial institutions and diverse multinationals. But I’ve enjoyed practicing at Ernst & Young LLP for the past eight years because this position allows me to engage a broad range of regulatory and contractual challenges that change from day-to day (and it has been wonderful to work for a business with community outreach values that align with my own).

What is the biggest challenge of your work?

One of the biggest challenges is that most of my negotiations are with my employer’s clients. They obviously have quite a bit of leverage, so I have to be far more strategic and persuasive in managing my internal clients’ risks and securing the best deal possible for them. Another challenge is that the regulatory landscape (for example, involving U.S. government-imposed sanctions that may involve potential clients, subcontractors or vendors) is constantly evolving. Fortunately, having to stay on top of things keeps things interesting.

What is your proudest achievement?

I’m not a “born and bred” New Yorker, and neither of my parents went to Ivy League schools. The road from the bottom of the Shenandoah Valley to where I am now was a long, tedious one. I would have never accomplished many of my academic and professional successes without the assistance of extraordinary sponsors (including several middle school teachers, Pat Irvin, the Honorable Raymond A. Jackson, Rhonda Joy McLean and Sharon Bowen) throughout this journey. So I am most proud of having built a rewarding career that enables me to “pay it forward” by mentoring young people of color and empowering other diverse attorneys.

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?

The list is long, but Michelle Obama is at the very top. She embodies the excellence, accomplishment, humility, dignity, well-roundedness and generosity to which I most aspire. Most parents raise their kids to swing for the fences and stay true to their values, and that is exactly what Mrs. Obama has consistently done --- set her sights on the top undergraduate institutions, the top law schools, one of the most challenging professions, a top law firm in a major city, addressing challenging national issues, and creating a balanced home life with the Leader of the Free World & their well-raised daughters. As importantly, she seems to use each success as a platform for helping others. It’s difficult to think of a better role model for my personal and professional lives.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I see myself serving as the senior legal advisor to a multinational entity that I respect and that betters the communities in which it operates. And it goes without saying that I will definitely continue to support strong non-profits and diverse mentees.

What would be your advice to young people who want their careers and lives to have an impact?

Chart your own path based on your own intellectual interests and passions, be honest with yourself about your priorities, and periodically confirm that you’re engaging in activities that you find meaningful. Identify people (using LinkedIn, your alumni networks and the Boards of Directors of non-profits with whom you volunteer) who have achieved the successes to which you aspire, and ask them how they did it. Let go of your ego and take on challenges that will yield the skills, experience and knowledge that will take your career to the next level. Remain (or become) well-rounded--- actively volunteer, explore the arts and travel. Prioritize (and never lose sight of) your long-term objectives. And embrace change, since it often opens the door to significant opportunities.

Did you have a mentor or do you mentor someone else?

Fortunately, I have had mentors and sponsors throughout life. I actively mentor high school, college and law students in the NYC area, and I’ve always found those interactions to be tremendously rewarding. There are so many amazing programs--- Legal Outreach, PALS Program, Summer Search, the Thurgood Marshall Scholars Program--- that make it easy for NYC professionals to engage young people. These friendships have taught me quite a bit about the challenges faced by minority teens growing up in New York City, and I’m constantly inspired by their curiosity, determination and ambition.