5 Questions in 5 Minutes with Zahra Smith

April 27, 2022

You’ve amassed this really impressive career in more traditional realms of law from family offices to advising early-stage and Fortune 500 companies on IP issues to working for the government. What brings you to RPCK?

RPCK is a place where I can bring a lot of my skills into play as well as get closer to the impact investing space, which is a natural extension of my practice as well as something that I am passionate about and reflects who I am as a person. When I look at the types of clients RPCK is serving and the industries in which they practice, they all touch on areas that I have experience in. I have experience in litigation, real estate, M&A, venture capital, private equity, and now I get to parlay all these skills that I have developed in over a decade of practicing law to clients in the impact investing sector. You really do need to have grounding in traditional legal practice areas to offer them the best advice. And while big firms have this, it’s often really challenging for them to serve impact clients, whether it be because of cost or time or competing priorities.

RPCK has created something really unique. It combines the sophistication around financial transactions with a comprehensive and authentic understanding of impact investing. I have a very fulsome appreciation of the needs of companies, from garage to global and I’ve seen companies go from the inception stage all the way through to the IPO stage. I also have a very soft spot in my heart for entrepreneurs and those that are entrepreneurial-minded.

I also find it fascinating to look at this from the investor side, where investors can share that excitement for the company, but also do so in a way where the company remains accountable and provides a measure of return to the investor. That entire ecosystem is very interesting and is very rewarding for everyone involved.

Can you tell us a bit more about your background? You have such depth of experience in a number of areas, but in particular with family offices and emerging companies.

 Over the course of my career, I’ve come to have a very full understanding of how to communicate different types of client needs into the legal realm. I have worked in a variety of positions within government, education, in-house, for a law firm, and for a family office, so I’m very flexible and appreciate the needs of various stakeholders and various clients. Because of my background with family offices, I would say that I am in a unique position to speak to the way that family offices function and their reliance on outside firms. I also understand a lot of the concerns family offices have with regards to privacy and how they operate in a less transparent way than other funds and firms. I have an innate and deep appreciation for that, as well as how the goals of a family office translate into an investment thesis. I’m sure that I can bring that expertise to RPCK as they continue to grow their client base into that direction.

Prior to working in a general counsel role at Otter, specifically for a single family office, I directed the Intellectual Property Ventures Program at Case Western where I did a lot of general counsel work — advising companies on growth, strategy, IP protection, capital raising, employment issues — which was very broad, and touched on a variety of industries.

Tell us about your journey to impact investing?

I see my legal career as a progression – a sort of arc that has led me to impact investing. I started out as a general counsel — working with scrappy, emerging companies and helping them raise their first five-or six-figure investment. I then parlayed that into my work with Otter, where I was working with the same types of companies but with more sophisticated deal structures, more stakeholders, and varying levels of complexity in terms of business transactions. I decided to come to RPCK because I thought to myself, “How cool would it be for me to do everything I’ve been doing but do it in a way that serves and impacts the world?” I’ve never had such a great opportunity and I’m excited to use my tailored skills for this purpose.

What excites you most about your future with RPCK?

I’m the most excited to do meaningful work in the education, environmental, and social justice impact spaces. Regarding RPCK itself, I am incredibly excited to work with a team that is so dynamic and growing. I really appreciate the sense of dual-sided mentorship that is so prevalent at RPCK. For example, there are particular areas that I want to focus on within the impact space that would allow me to grow my legal experience and RPCK has already expressed that they are happy to help me with that. On the other side, I’m looking forward to using my experience to mentor younger lawyers who might be interested in areas I’ve become familiar with throughout the course of my career. I think that this type of two-sided mentorship is a wonderful way to practice law, particularly because in bigger law firms it can be all too easy to become siloed into one area. This sense of collaboration really drew me to RPCK, in addition to the fact that the firm has amazing clients, and it makes a real impact in the world.

As a black woman in law you bring first-hand experience and a perspective that will be welcomed by RPCK and by many of our clients who are interested in impact transactions with positive DEI outcomes. How does your own experience as a black woman practicing law inform your thinking about this next step in your career?

As a black woman, for most of my working career, I’ve looked around the room and realized that I am the only black woman. For example, when I was working at Case Western, I was one of two black attorneys who were teaching in the entire law school. Unfortunately, that’s sort of been part and parcel of my entire legal experience. So, it was incredibly important for me to seek out the opportunity to work within a team that not only prioritizes diversity but does so in a meaningful way. At RPCK, there is a drive to create a diverse team that is not just part of a numbers or a quota game, and this was very important to me as I took this next step in my career. And I’ve never had the experience of being able to integrate this part of who I am into the legal work and to the culture of a firm, so I’m excited about this opportunity.

View Zahra’s Bio

 

See also:

5 Questions in 5 Minutes with Sebastian Martinez-Villalba
5 Questions in 5 Minutes with Tom Scriven

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