Susannah Stroud Wright, Chief Legal Officer, Credit Karma

A strong compliance background with Elon Musk’s Tesla and Solar City prepared Susannah Stroud Wright for her first CLO role at Credit Karma.

Becoming general counsel was actually not anything I ever planned. What led me here was a series of jumping on opportunities and being willing to take a few risks along the way.

After law school, I clerked for a judge, then I was at a law firm for a couple of years, and then I went to the District Attorney’s office. I always wanted to be a trial lawyer, and I really loved the criminal side of law. I thought I would be a prosecutor for the rest of my career.

But then, in 2008, my husband founded a software startup, and the condition of the investment was to relocate to Silicon Valley from Atlanta. We had to move at 30 days’ notice, which meant I had no opportunity to even register to take the California bar, much less study and pass it!

So we moved, and I got a position at Gibson Dunn. They did not have a strong presence in white-collar criminal defence and internal investigations in the Bay Area, and so I was very focused on that as well as a number of general litigation matters. I ended up really loving that experience, especially what I was doing on the white-collar and the internal investigations side. Over time, about half my job became advising clients on the effectiveness of their compliance programs and even helping them establish compliance programs.

One day, I received a call from a recruiter asking if I’d be interested in creating the compliance department at this new solar energy startup that was backed by Elon Musk. I absolutely loved it. l was at Solar City for three or four years and then, when the acquisition by Tesla happened, I was asked to take over and lead and create a formal compliance department for Tesla.

I don’t think I would have made a move if there was not that level of innovation and excitement here.

In the spring of 2017, once again a recruiter contacted me, this time about compliance for Credit Karma. I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to make a move from Tesla but then, out of the blue, Kenneth Lin, Credit Karma’s CEO, asked if I would be interested in making a move to become their chief legal officer. I decided to take yet another leap of faith and do something that I had not done before.

On one side, as anyone coming into a new role will say, there’s an intense learning curve in getting to know the company. How does it operate? What are the specific challenges they face? What are all those different ways people do things? How are things structured that might be different from what you’re used to? And on top of all that, because it was my first time coming in to lead an established legal and compliance team, I had to get to know the team and what people were focused on and how I could best help.

Those are all challenges in any in-house role, but fintech is a highly regulated space, and we are in a hypergrowth period at the company. I was very fortunate to have worked with two companies previously that were both extraordinarily innovative and doing something very disruptive, and which were also going through hypergrowth phases. That was actually fairly familiar and it’s something I find very exciting – I don’t think I would have made a move if there was not that level of innovation and excitement here. I encourage myself and my entire team really to embrace the change, embrace the idea that we’re doing things people have not done before, and recognize that this presents really interesting challenges and once-in-a lifetime opportunities for attorneys and compliance professionals who are figuring out how do we do these things in a legal and compliant way.

The first thing that I have focused on has been really ensuring that we all, as a team, have an innovative mindset. A lot of folks in legal and compliance departments get a bad name as the ‘department of no’, where you’re trying to stop things or shut things down. What I’ve been very much encouraging my team to do when someone comes to you very excited about an idea, instead of having a knee jerk reaction of: ‘Oh we need to put the brakes on’, is to think: ‘How can I be a really great partner? This is an interesting idea, let me look into it, how can we make this happen in a legal and compliant way? What can we do to embrace that change, to walk with our business partners and help manoeuvre around potential landmines or blocks, so that we’re really in it together?’ Rather than setting up an environment where business partners feel that they have to push against legal and compliance or try to avoid us because we’re going to get in the way.

I see a lot of my role as being one of educating, be it our members, our regulators, our external business partners and others, about what it is we’re doing. Most of the consumer protection regulations in existence line up very perfectly with what we’re trying to do, and so that makes it fairly easy from that standpoint – we are trying to help people make sense of something that has traditionally been really complicated and confusing, and give people transparency and clarity in making financial decisions.

It’s important to not be afraid to ask what may seem like stupid questions.

As far as looking at the current regulatory regime, oftentimes many of these laws were put into existence decades ago, well before anyone even thought about fintech, and before any of these things were even possible. How do we make sure that we are abiding by the spirit of the law? There’s much that is in a gray area, and that is actually really fun and interesting to think about – how do we set things up to make sure that we’re doing the right thing now and in the future?

Companies need people who understand the business inside and out, and the industry. They need people who understand how many of these complicated regulatory regimes intersect, and who can help navigate where laws are under development, or where there’s not a lot of consistency and clarity. People who can sit back and take a holistic view and help guide their executives and board on the ethical way to go, the safe way to go, and also make sure that we’re providing plenty of opportunities for the company to innovate, be creative and try things that are new.

I would say the other side of it is seeing your entire legal and compliance department as a business unit in itself, and thinking about how you can make sure that you’re building the right team, that you have ways of evaluating what the team is doing and how much value you are providing to your business partners. How you function with legal operations is another big area, and having that business sense and applying it to the entire legal and compliance function is critically important.

I think if I could go back and tell myself anything as I took on this role, it would be to trust myself even more and realize that everyone, especially in the tech space, is learning a lot as they go. There’s not a hard and fast playbook, and there’s not going to be a lot of tried and true lessons that they can plug and play. It’s important to not be afraid to ask what may seem like stupid questions. Really get in and be willing to roll up your sleeves and – especially if you’re working in the tech space – dig in and understand the technology. Don’t assume that anyone has already looked into something and don’t necessarily take something at face value. There may be a way of doing something that people have not thought of yet, or a different approach in how you design your products that could completely get rid of any potential legal risk. Just really focus on that creativity. That would be my advice – just be comfortable with the fact that no one has one this before and so it’s fine if you don’t necessarily know all the answers off the bat.