We continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.
Michelle Fang, Chief Legal Officer at Turo, a peer-to-peer car sharing platform, recently spoke with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about working for a start-up, the value of communication, and never giving up on your dreams.
Rose Ors: What life moments have defined you?
Michelle Fang: My family’s travails when I was in high school and how I handled it was a defining period for me. It was difficult and sad to see my father go through losing his job and his health. It was equally difficult and sad to see my parents’ divorce. Although somewhat unmoored, I did not let this series of circumstances — which led to a drastic change in my family’s economic situation — change my plans for the future. I would continue to excel at school. I would go to college and then to graduate school.
I remember going to my high school counselor, a person I admired and respected, to talk about my situation. He advised me to drop out of high school, take the GED, and attend community college. Although I knew he was only trying to help me, his advice felt like a kick in the stomach. But my response was unequivocal: “Yes, my family is in crisis right now and I’m having a really hard time with that, but my expectations for myself and my life haven’t changed.”
Five years later, I graduated from UCLA summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. I also decided in my junior year of college that I wanted to go to law school, and I was accepted to Berkeley Law School.
Rose Ors: What did this experience teach you?
Michelle Fang: It taught me a number of lessons. But the two that perhaps were the most profound are to never take anything for granted and to never give up on your dreams. These are lessons that have served me well.
Rose Ors: Why did you join a start-up?
Michelle Fang: The idea of being part of a team that is creating something from the ground floor has always been something I’ve wanted to do. I assumed that at a start-up it is all hands-on deck, where smart ideas can come from anywhere, and there are no silos. I wanted to be the general counsel at this point in a company’s life; to not only build a legal department but build a thriving company where I had a seat at the executive table.
While I enjoyed being the general counsel of StubHub, when I learned about the opportunity with Turo — it was called RelayRides when I joined — I was intrigued. When I met Andre Haddad, Turo’s CEO, I was all in. He is incredibly smart, charismatic, and inspiring. He is one of those people that has a special spark but in a quiet, humble, gentle way.
He gave me the confidence to say “yes” and in four years with the company I have not looked back or second-guessed my decision. I feel like a part of the business, not just head of legal — and that has been very fulfilling, rewarding, and exciting.
Rose Ors: What do you find most personally rewarding about your work?
Michelle Fang: There are a number of things that are extremely rewarding. I love that as part of the executive team I help execute the company’s strategy. Being part of the growth of the company and seeing it mature is a great feeling.
I also love the unique opportunity to work with, and mentor — officially or unofficially — a group of super-smart people whose job at Turo is their first job after college or after graduate school. It is very fulfilling for me to help them navigate their career development and offer them growth opportunities whenever possible.
I’ll share one story that makes me proud. I had become very impressed with a young woman who joined us as part of an acquisition we had done. She was relatively new to the workforce but from the start showed a lot of initiative and follow-through. She was also superb with people. I thought she would be terrific in a government affairs role. So, when the company needed a grass roots lead, I asked her to consider it. She had no prior experience in government affairs, so she was a bit hesitant. Luckily, she agreed and has been outstanding, even garnering a number of awards.
Rose Ors: What inspires you?
Michelle Fang: Artists and scientists inspire me. They each contribute so much to society. I stand back in awe at what they create and discover. My husband is a filmmaker, and I am constantly struck by his talent, and by his ability to take an idea and transform it into something real and shareable. Luckily, both my children seem to have inherited his creative genes — I have none.
Rose Ors: Is there a scientist you especially admire?
Michelle Fang: Dr. Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist and artificial intelligence expert. She is also a serial entrepreneur who has built a number of successful businesses, including co-founding Socos Labs, an independent think tank focused on the future of human potential.
I heard her speak recently and was riveted by her stories, especially around the importance of diversity and inclusion. Dr. Ming is transgender, and she shared how much better she was treated when she was a top male scientist running a department than when she was a top female scientist running a department. I find her inspiring as a scientist and as a human being.
Rose Ors: What person, living or dead, would you be thrilled to have over for dinner?
Michelle Fang: I would definitely invite Maya Angelou. When I was 10 years old, I read her autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and her strength, even during some harrowing and agonizing times, spoke to me. My dad, knowing how much I loved her, took me to hear her speak twice. Both times I was mesmerized by her voice, her stories, and her wisdom. Ms. Angelou used her God-given talents to impact people’s lives and inspire them to greatness.
Rose Ors: What would you want to ask her?
Michelle Fang: I just want to be in her presence; to break bread with her. I am confident the evening would unfold beautifully if I let her take the lead.
Rose Ors: What advice would you give a newly appointed Chief Legal Counsel?
Michelle Fang: The first and most important piece of advice is to spend far more time listening than speaking. If the role is with a new company I would double down on this advice.
You have to learn the business and that happens not just by reading all the necessary company reports, but by asking a lot of questions of a lot of different people. Learning the business is a critical factor in garnering the trust of the board of directors and the executive team. It is also the only way to add value to the company beyond your legal acumen.
I also think it is very important to learn the preferred communication style and format of each member of the executive team. For example, I am an extrovert and my style of communication is open and expressive. I happen to be on an executive team where I am the only woman in a group of all introverted men.
Very early on I asked myself, “How can I communicate with my colleagues so that my message will be heard and received the best?” That required me to listen intently not just to what each of them said, but how they said it. It was a learning process that resulted in helping me communicate with my colleagues not only authentically but effectively.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.