Shawn White unveils her secret recipe for serving as the general counsel of the Smith Family Circle as well as her dedication to marrying her financial acumen and dedication to her role as a servant leader.
CCBJ: What led you to join The Smith Family Circle?
Everyone who knows me, knows if I have a night off, I am at a museum, a concert, a play, a movie premiere, or a film or music festival. I am a passionate fan of the arts plus it is my nature to want to help people. In this role, I support creatives, and use my skills and experience to tackle financial, business, and legal risks allowing them to focus on their art and their philanthropy in ways that make the world better.
I began my career on Wall Street and continued working in finance and investments as a global corporate transactional lawyer in New York after law school. But, along with that work, I have always supported the arts, nonprofits, philanthropists, and donors. I’ve served as General Counsel to The Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Broad Foundations. Prior to that, I worked as VP - Corporate Counsel at Prudential Financial, and concurrently supported the Prudential Foundation as Chief Legal Officer. As another example, while working as head of global contracting at ICANN – the public benefit corporation that maintains the global internet infrastructure – I worked on expanding the infrastructure in underserved regions including Africa, where we launched a Nairobi office. My career has been marked by a myriad of times when I have gravitated to opportunities to work with those families, corporations, organizations, and people who are charitable and creative – especially, those intent on building legacies of giving, service, and artistic expression. All along, I have been afforded a balance between cutting-edge deals and service to others and this has laid the foundation for working with high-net-worth families, helping them grow, and protect wealth while helping them support charitable causes. My work combines my passion and purpose with the skills I’ve acquired through experience and education.
Managing and advising investments, business, and personal matters for the family, aligns perfectly with my expertise in family offices, investments, finance, the arts, nonprofits, and philanthropy.
In many ways, you could say family is the reason that I joined and the reason I returned to LA, my hometown.
While I considered working as a General Counsel for the Smith’s, a close-knit, multi-generational family who embodied the word, I was considering my own family, as my father’s health was declining. Working with this family brought deep comfort to me during the period that turned out to be the last two years of my father’s life.
The opportunity to marry critical parts of myself with my business and financial acumen keeps me energized and inspired every day. Supporting vastly different creative personalities and being encircled by this family at work is tons of fun. I mean, my work supports the Fresh Prince and Lena James from the show A Different World, two television characters that profoundly influenced on me as a young Black woman. Come on, how amazing is that in terms of a full-circle moment.
Please tell us about your leadership style and who or what has influenced it?
Early in my career, I worked as an entry-level financial analyst, on one of my companies’ investment teams in the oil and gas industry. There I observed a leader who empowered others and after whom I modeled my own leadership style.
This leader was the managing director to whom all the teams reported and a true diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) champion. Upon reflection, I worked for the ultimate DEI champion before DEI even took on the preeminence that it has today. He was ahead of his time.
He was concerned that I was not being evaluated or treated fairly as the only junior woman and Black person. He thought I was not being treated in the same way as the rest of the all-white, all-male junior team. He took it upon himself to talk to his senior leaders about implicit bias and to mentor me.
He opened the doors which allowed me to bring my talents and gifts to the team. He showed me the importance of caring about people, being curious, observant, compassionate, and equitable. He stood up against implicit bias and microaggressions on my behalf and the entire organization was better because of his leadership.
Most importantly, he encouraged me to continue in finance despite negative experiences at a very formative time in my career. It takes only one person to make a profound difference in the life of someone else. Encouragement goes a long way.
Every day, I pay it forward with a similar leadership style and a deep interest in getting to know everyone on my team, the teams I support, and their respective needs in the same way that he knew and advocated for me. Then, I work to shape a career and client experience that values who they are, what they contribute, and how best to collaborate with them. I enjoy getting to know people and I want them to enjoy the work. When I served as a General Counsel to a community bank in New Jersey, our retail branch manager would play a boom box for 10 minutes before opening every day to get everyone up, moving, and laughing. Typically, it would turn into a Soul Train line that would have made Don Cornelius proud. I tried to make it downstairs to the branch for the dance party with the tellers and security guards as many mornings as I could. She was a great leader who knew her team and figured out a creative way to boost morale.
It is important to remember that all around you are people who love your organization and have great ideas and views on your company's success. Unfortunately, bias and microaggressions can sometimes work to silence them.
The lesson that I take from my experience is that great leaders look for imbalances and use their power to correct them and empower others.
As leaders, we must be observant and tackle inequities head-on. This is what I strive to do every day.
What qualities do you look for when you're hiring new people for your team?
I strongly believe that happy people do their best work. As a result, I look for curiosity, collegiality, compassion, comprehension, intellect, patience, respect for others, and an ability to handle conflict calmly, clearly, and with an open mind.
Also, I value life experiences and resilience. While higher education gives a solid foundation, the best employee may not have the fanciest degrees or prior titles, especially for people of color. I look for life skills learned outside of the classroom. Life experience, and having overcome adversity, often shapes a great employee. Someone who has figured out how to thrive in difficult environments and tackled adversity is equipped to tackle problems head on and innovate creative solutions.
I am a fan of case studies that allow me to see how people handle their work and life experiences. Along with resilience, I I look for themes that tell me what they value to ensure we have or can design a role they can tackle enthusiastically.
How would you describe the culture of your organization?
At SFC, as the name would suggest, we are a true family. Our culture strives to ensure everyone feels valued and respected for who they are, for their unique skills and talents, and for their contributions to the team and the world. Among the core values that we focus on are a pursuit of excellence, an unflinching commitment to personal growth and self-development, and a guiding spirit that every action we take is grounded in respect, kindness, collaboration, generosity, and curiosity.
Curiosity and collaboration are valued so much that this role allows me to build my capabilities in entertainment law while leveraging my prior corporate expertise. Also, it allows me to share my nonprofit, investment, corporate, and finance knowledge to uplift others.
What’s the best career advice you've ever received
To be authentic. There is no one else like you. Your authentic self is invaluable and needed in the world. This advice came from my mother, who died from cancer in 2021. She was beloved lifelong educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a DEI champion, and a force for good in everything she touched. Her voice in my head is still pushing, encouraging, and cheering for me. In her twenties, there were so many choices that women couldn't make without a man or without encountering substantial difficulty – from opening a bank account to buying a home. She wanted me to benefit from the freedom women had fought so hard to obtain and encouraged me to make bold choices.
My mother's love and strength gave me the power to seek adventures, to take risks, and be comfortable being the only woman and often the only Black person in many spaces. I studied abroad in the Basque region of Northern Spain during my junior year of high school, moved to New York City for college, joined the global practice of an Am Law 100 firm and later the mergers and acquisitions group of a Fortune 100 company, where I negotiated transactions worldwide because of the love and strength that I received.
My mother also encouraged me to speak truth to power. Because of her, I stand up for myself and others, I am fearless in confronting adversity, and I never let anyone silence my voice, especially because I am afraid of losing a job.
To me, being authentic means that there is no title or money for which you should sacrifice your character or values. At times in my career, I have adopted existing norms to allow my substantive knowledge and abilities to be the focal point of my interactions and to grow my knowledge base. This allowed me to obtain skills and experiences that have afforded me more freedom as my career has advanced.
Now, I’m not saying I haven’t made tradeoffs around things like what I wear, and even though I would prefer to wear sweatpants to work as a lawyer in private practice, I wore a suit. Another example is that I wore pantyhose back in the day in finance as was the norm, despite how awful they were, especially in the summer. But I have never sacrificed my values or my beliefs including my pursuit of a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive world.
My mother and grandmother always said that all money isn't good money and that we should save early and often to create a path to personal freedom. She also said that “you do what you have to until you can eventually do what you want to do,” and she wanted me to reach that moment as early as possible.
With my mother’s advice, I've worked to afford myself a level of financial freedom.. This is one reason working in family investment offices and teaching financial literacy within my family and community is so important. Maya Angelou said, "Develop enough courage so that you can stand up for yourself and then stand up for somebody else." Financial freedom helps us be bold changemakers in paving the way for others.
It's interesting that as I reflect on this advice and the evolution of my career, the reality is that when I took a risk and stood up for what I believed in, I’ve found that I was not alone. I have found likeminded individuals and cultivated a career that is authentic to who I am as a person - the direct benefit of never being afraid to speak my truth. Overall, I have had more champions than antagonist. It has been an amazing career thus far and I am excited to go to work each day.
What changes would you like to see within the legal profession?
Hmmm, how much time do we have?
Our country is in a crisis, and we are one of the professions tasked with helping to guide our democracy to a better place. How can we do that if our profession is in crisis – especially concerning diversity, equity, inclusivity, health, and wellness - which I believe are interrelated. The institutionalized and systemic racism of our country's history burdens all of us. Almost no one goes to work as their whole selves. We must understand that DEI isn't just buzzwords or for the underrepresented; it is a plea for all of us to find space to be ourselves.
The legal profession must spearhead real change in our laws and policies. Still, we must also look within to ensure that diverse perspectives are represented as we push for changes, especially in the criminal justice system.
How do we move the needle on DEI in the profession while improving the health and well-being of lawyers in ways that help our nation? There are six shorthand takeaways for law firms and law departments that, for me, are critical steps. In many instances, corporate law departments are advancing more rapidly than their law firm counterparts and there are lessons that can be learned from that success. The steps are:
- Assess shortcomings and get help from external professionals since we all have blind spots.
- Set metrics for progress because it is human nature that we only move what we measure.
- You should begin at the beginning with critical attention to eliminating bias in hiring, creating internships, and other pipeline programs.
- Address employee retention and promotion without falling under the spell of the revolving door of your metrics – which can seem as if the needle is moving on DEI but instead reflect new diverse employees replacing others and overall dissatisfaction and departures.
- Make money matter by creating incentives that reward leaders for success and hold them accountable. Use your resources to offer enrichment opportunities to bridge the gaps created by our nation’s past to achieve equity, and
- Be bold and willing to overhaul processes and dismantle internal norms.
Let me conclude by saying, diversity adds to everything we do. Diverse perspectives matter. The world is becoming increasingly interconnected, and we must value diversity, equity, and inclusivity if the U.S. is to remain a dominant player on the world stage.
If you are reading this and share my views, contact me and follow me at shawnrwhite on LinkedIn and Instagram for more ways that we can move the DEI needle together.
All views expressed are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.
Published April 27, 2023.