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.
Wanji Walcott, senior vice president and general counsel at PayPal, spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about what inspires her, what advice she would give to a newly appointed general counsel, and why she would want to be a motivational speaker.
Rose Ors: What is a memory that brings you joy?
Wanji Walcott: It’s a recent memory, but this Mother’s Day I took my mother on a tour of where we lived during the 17 years we were in Massachusetts. The day-long trip took us to three towns and four homes, my nursery school and my grammar school.
As we drove from place to place, my mother talked to me about her and my father’s early experience coming to the United States from Guyana, something we hadn’t talked much about before. She talked about their hopes and dreams for me and told me how I was always advocating for myself with them and advocating for my friends with their parents. So much so that my father would often say, “You’re going to be a lawyer one day.”
It’s sort of fun now to think about all of those moments and remembering my dad saying that — we didn’t have any lawyers in our family and I didn’t even know exactly what that meant, but I thought “Well, my dad thinks I could be a lawyer. I better figure out what that means.” So here we are. It was a special trip.
Rose Ors: What did this trip bring up for you?
Wanji Walcott: The fact that I’m a first generation American whose parents came to the United States availing themselves of all the opportunities that come with a chance to be educated here and creating a better life for themselves and for me.
On the trip my mother spoke often about her and my father’s gratitude to this country for affording them the opportunity to grow and prosper as individuals and as a family. My father had come to the U.S. alone to attend college and lived with a family he deeply respected. I learned on this trip just how much he had modeled how we lived on them. Their children had attended private school and so my father had wanted me to attend private school and I did. On a funnier note, I also learned that our habit of always drinking milk at dinner came from this family’s habit of drinking milk at dinner. For my father, this family represented the American dream.
Rose Ors: What have been the most significant moments in your career?
Wanji Walcott: I went in-house straight from law school, joining the legal department of Lockheed Martin IMS Corp., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin. I had the good fortune to work with Robert Downing, the General Counsel of our subsidiary.
I had been in the department for two years when, in a year-end review, he says, “You know, you have what it takes to be the General Counsel of Lockheed.” I was incredulous and thanked him for believing that one day I could fill his shoes. Then he said, “Wanji, I mean the whole of Lockheed Martin.” Once I was able to fully understand what he had said to me, I allowed myself a bit of freedom to dream and imagine that it was possible. Then I began to believe him. I thought, “You know what? If Bob Downing thinks I can do this, I’m going to go for it.” That was a very significant moment for me.
It has always been so important to me that my daughters have a passion for giving back through philanthropy and activities that foster diversity. I’m proud that each of them has taken the initiative to do good in the world.
The second significant moment in my career happened when I worked at American Express. The company launched a business unit focused on emergent and mobile payments. I raised my hand and made the case why I should be the lawyer supporting the unit. I got the job and worked closely with the unit’s President, Dan Schulman, now the CEO of PayPal. It was not an easy journey, but we did a lot of good things there together, so that was certainly a significant move towards becoming a business lawyer. I’d like to think we were successful, because I don’t know that I would be here at Paypal with Dan if it had not gone well.
The third significant career moment was being named General Counsel at PayPal.
Rose Ors: What inspires you?
Wanji Walcott: My two daughters inspire me — they certainly make me want to be the best that I can be. My husband and I have encouraged them to be confident and courageous women and, at 16 and 23, they indeed are.
It has always been so important to me that my daughters have a passion for giving back through philanthropy and activities that foster diversity. I’m proud that each of them has taken the initiative to do good in the world. My oldest has taken part in an organized program to drive people to vote. My youngest, together with a friend, relaunched her school’s Black Student Union from the 1970s. She actually made a presentation to the school’s Board of Trustees to make it happen.
Rose Ors: In another life, what would be a career you would find exciting to pursue?
Wanji Walcott: I would be a motivational speaker. I have a passion for helping other people be the best that they can be. I often find myself giving advice to a myriad of different people — in my professional and personal life — about career paths. I love doing it and only wish I had the time to do it more often. So, when I have the opportunity to share advice with a group of people as part of a keynote speech or panel, I’m thrilled.
I’m thrilled because it’s always my hope that, in sharing my lessons-learned, I inspire another person to aim for something he or she may not have thought possible. I understand the power of sharing these insights, just as I find inspiration in other’s learnings
Rose Ors: What advice would you give a newly appointed General Counsel?
Wanji Walcott: My advice is to learn every aspect of the business, including the numbers.
The role of the General Counsel requires an in-depth understanding of the business in the broadest sense, not just the law. I would advise him or her to focus on developing key relationships with, of course, the board and key company leaders. But, additionally, she must develop relationships with those individuals inside and outside the company who will get the critical work done and done right. This requires that she think broadly about this all-important area. In my opinion, casting a wide net aimed at assembling a diverse team is what’s required to build a winning team.
Lastly, I would also advise a new General Counsel to treat each member of her team in a way that encourages their growth. You always want to provide honest feedback, but the feedback, even when critical, must always be constructive. To remember that you got where you are because others helped you get here, and then deciding how you want to pay that forward, is a wonderful place to start.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.