Kenya Pierre, vice president, general counsel (GC) and corporate secretary at wood products manufacturer ARAUCO North America, fell into the law amid many twists and turns in her professional and academic experience.
The first came in college when she majored in chemistry with the intention of going to medical school; but after not getting into her preferred schools, she took the opportunity of her first pivot to join Teach for America because of her passion for education.
Teaching in the Los Angeles area at the David Starr Jordan High School and the less-than-ideal experience with the administration that year inspired her blooming interest in the law. “I was teased by administration for having the kids do homework,” she describes. “And was told I care too much about these kids.”
Her original intention was to attend law school to learn to be an effective advocate for education; but in law school, she learned she could combine her bachelor’s degree in chemistry with law degrees in patent law. “I chose patent law really because I knew I could get a job without much competition,” she explains. With entry at University of Cincinnati Law School, Pierre was one of seven students who was qualified for patent law. She began specializing in this area with the intention of practicing at Procter & Gamble (P&G).
Building Perseverance and Confidence through Difficult Experiences
Pierre credits her experience at P&G as the foundation for advancing to GC because “the company’s philosophy was to teach a patent attorney to do everything, creating a law firm inside the company that specialized in patent law within the legal organization.” She was fortunate to have a great first manager at P&G and says her professional experience there was sheltered from the nuances of corporate politics.
After leaving P&G, she joined another in-house department and persevered after facing difficult situations where job success and expectations were consistently moving targets. Pierre chose to dig deep and build resilience, committing to grow and making the best of the experiences, regardless. “I had to make a decision that I was going to resist overt hostile actions that threatened my advancement and be who I am anyway,” she explains. “I know I am skilled and intelligent. I am confident. I was willing to learn and grow more and not let somebody stop me from doing that.” Her faith in her abilities definitely was the bedrock of her resilience to persevere, which led to success in the next step of her career.
Her next employer enabled Pierre to expand into other key areas of the law that are important for GCs to know. She found a fantastic ally and mentor who was interested in her development as a well-rounded attorney and gave her exposure to litigation and compliance. In moments of doubt over whether she should apply for a role in an area of the law in which she had little experience, her mentor suggested that she go for it even if she didn’t know much about it, adding “it is not like what we are doing is rocket science.”
How to Become a True Partner of the Business as an Advisor
Pierre built her legal expertise in patent law at P&G, which provided roadmaps for career development. Called “skill blocks”, they taught her how to draft supplier and purchasing agreements and also showed her aspects of litigation, negotiation, and licensing. To learn other areas of the law, she would volunteer to help if a colleague needed assistance. In one role, Pierre even started taking food law certification courses to deepen her experience in her employer’s industry.
To learn the business language, she paid attention to what her clients were saying, attending business meetings that did not necessarily involve a legal matter or require her presence as a legal expert. She also immersed herself in the business. For example, in her current position as GC, she is involved in manufacturing and goes to the manufacturing mills to learn how things are made. At these sites, she builds relationships with those there so that she can understand what they do and address their needs efficiently when necessary. In her prior role, Pierre wrote patents for the operations, but she built relationships as true partners of the business and deepened her knowledge of the products by seeing how people were making them.
Pierre truly takes a broader view of her partnership with business beyond legal, and she knows that it is the right way to approach any GC role because it is the same argument that is made with diversity. “I bring a viewpoint that maybe somebody else could not appreciate because their experience is different from mine,” Pierre says. “I am at the executive table bringing a legal perspective, and the CFO, as an example, is bringing a financial perspective.
“I may have some experience in finance from a top level but because I am not doing it day-to-day, the CFO has a different view,” she adds. “All of those skillsets make a really good general counsel.”