Episode 16

Read the transcript below:

Stephanie Southwick:

Hello and thank you for tuning into the Beyond Hourly podcast, hosted by Omni Bridgeway, one of the world's most experienced disputes funders and judgment enforcement specialists. Our podcast focuses on advancements in legal services that drive economic value for law firms and the clients they serve. Episodes of this podcast can be found on our website, www.omnibridgeway.com, iTunes, Spotify, and other podcast networks. We welcome you to subscribe to the podcast and leave us reviews.

I'm your host, Stephanie Southwick. I'm an investment manager based in Omni Bridgeway's San Francisco office. Prior to joining Omni, I was the managing partner at a business and IP litigation boutique in Silicon Valley, and my role at Omni involves assessing litigation investment opportunities generally, and more specifically, in the trade secret space and working with VC backed companies.

Our guest today is Aravinda Seshadri founder of Venturous Counsel, a mission-driven law firm representing diverse led startups and VC firms. She joined Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe after graduating from Stanford Law School, and then spent eight years as a partner at Silicon Legal Strategy, serving as outside general counsel for startups and tech companies, and representing investors in venture financing.

Aravinda, welcome to the Beyond Hourly podcast. I'm really looking forward to chatting with you about diversity in Silicon Valley, what you're doing at Venturous Counsel and why you're doing it. So, thank you for joining us today.

Aravinda Seshadri:

Thank you so much for having me. I thought this was such a great idea. You're fantastic. Omni's fantastic. I'm just delighted to have a chance to spend some time with you and chat about my lovely firm that I'm so proud of.

Stephanie Southwick:

We are really excited to talk to you today about Venturous Counsel, and why you founded your own firm. But before we do that, we’d love to talk about your background a little bit. I think it's always interesting to hear how people arrived at where they are today. So, back up a bit and tell us how you got into the practice of law.

Aravinda Seshadri:

I'll go all the way back. I grew up in the Bay area actually, and then when I was in fifth grade, we moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, which was a significant culture shock. And then I ran as far away as I could to NYU for undergrad. But I came back to the Bay area for law school at Stanford.

While there, I summered at Orrick, as Stephanie mentioned, and I knew I wanted to work with startups, so, I went there. They had a great reputation, and they have a great reputation representing these great startups. But I realized it's kind of hard at a large firm to do a good job for small startups a lot of times, because there are these larger transactions that drive more value for the firm, like mergers and acquisitions or IPO transactions. And I would find myself involved in these really large, very lucrative transactions for the firm, but not really having a lot of time or resources or bandwidth to be able to do a good job for the small companies.

So, it would end up being a little bit not as timely or not as thoughtful of a response to those clients. And I had a colleague who felt very similarly, but there's got to be a better way.

So he started Silicon Legal Strategy with the premise of, "What if we just only focus on early stage companies and investors in that space? Could that work?" And I joined as maybe the fourth attorney there. And it absolutely can. They're like 50 people strong now and doing great, and I love them. I was there for eight years and as a partner for the last five years.

The reality is, I'd always cared about diversity and inclusion. I fundamentally believe that differences in representations are a function of difference in opportunity and resources, not in terms of scale. I just think that's true and it bears out every time we invest in expanding opportunity. We see, often, very clear increases in representation and proportionality. I always cared about that. I was the president of the Asian Pacific Islander Law Students Association at Stanford and Women of Color Action Network and all of that stuff.

And I probably didn't focus as much on it when I was a junior associate learning all of the ropes, but when I was a partner at Silicon Legal, I cared a lot about it. We really hit the pavement, trying to get as many diverse candidates as we could. And it is a very diverse firm, even now, especially in the corporate space.

Then I started thinking maybe it's time to give back to some of these founders, and I started putting on free workshops and trainings on concepts like how to understand dilution or what are key terms and term sheets, or what is equity versus debt financing. Just whatever questions people might have, that they may not be able to get as many answers to because they may not have the same networks and connections.

And in doing so, I realized that there was a problem that a lot of boutique firms have in terms of … we're relying primarily on word of mouth and referrals, but that means that it's locked within one network or a few networks. And if you're not within those networks and you're not in the know, then you don't know about or have access to that resource. I believe it's the best resource for small companies.

And so, it was upsetting to me that the people who most need this resource in a lot of ways don't have access to it. And it's definitely not malicious or intentional, or even despite the best of intentions. If you have a small boutique law firm with limited marketing spend and budget, you're just maybe not getting out there as much. Your name is not out there as much, and you also might prefer working with clients that are referred because they're more of a known quantity.

But the function of that, the end result of that, is that a lot of diverse led businesses and funds are either working with a really large firm that's not optimized to work with small startups, or sometimes they're working with somebody who does not really know what they're doing and is not giving them the best advice. Diverse led businesses have to face all these other issues. This is one thing I just don't think they should have to face.

About a year ago, I founded this firm Venturous Counsel. It's a mission driven law firm, and the premise is really just to provide a means to ensure that diverse led companies and funds have the right legal resource that they need. So a lot of, I guess you would say, the pro bono work that I do, is just telling people that I'm not the person that they would want representing them. I'm not the right fit, but I've been doing this work for like 15 years now, so now I know a lot of the people who are better options for them and I can kind of match make a little bit just as part of the firm's mission.

Obviously, I also represent companies that plan to get investment that are usually in the tech space. And I've been through it on the investor side and company side so many times that I'm able to really carefully guide them in a very efficient and less mentally consuming, less time consuming way to efficiently achieve their goals. In that way, I'm hoping to make sure more of these companies are successful.

Stephanie Southwick:

Okay, so many questions for you. First one, what is it about early stage companies and startups that's attractive to you, or has always been attractive to you?

Aravinda Seshadri:

I didn't even really know that much about them until I came to the Bay Area for law school, but there's something about starting something new and just being really excited about it and also being really flexible at the same time. Sometimes, it's overboard. I have companies that pivot every other month, but a lot of times it's really just, really smart people that care a lot about something.

They could have a cushy, high paying job at one of the big tech companies in the area, but they're deciding to risk their savings and their sanity a little bit, and go on their own and build something new. Usually, it's because they're like, "I want to see this in the world." And that's just something that's really revitalizing to be a part of, and it feels so rewarding to have a helping hand.

Stephanie Southwick:

Awesome. I agree. I think we can share with our audience here that we worked together and that I represented several of your clients on the litigation.

Aravinda Seshadri:

Yeah, you were my go-to on a lot of commercial litigation. I was like, "Stephanie's got my back, guys.”

Stephanie Southwick:

Your clients in those cases where my favorite. It's so exciting to be part of their world and to just feel their energy and their mission. You're right. It's driven by passion. It's a really exciting world to be part of, even as the lawyer.

When you talk about diversity and diversity led businesses and funds, what do you mean by that?

Aravinda Seshadri:

It's so funny because everybody slices it different. My goal really is to find companies that have some diversity within their founding or A team. And that can be literally a woman because there's so much disparity between the amount of women that get funded and men, even though the desire to do these sorts of things is this the same, or maybe more sometimes. And it could be a person of color, it could be LGBTQ.

I don't try and make it too narrow and confined. What's actually equally or maybe more important is that the company itself has a commitment to prioritizing diversity within its organization, in terms of hiring and even vendor selection. What I've seen over time is that, if that's not there from the get-go, it's very hard to bring in later, even if the company sees that it's necessary.

You might be able to see that in terms of some of the big tech companies that have faced issues with a toxic culture, because it's really easy to care more about other things and not have a value statement and not have a mission statement. But the companies that do well and persist and are good places to work are ones that actually take the time and invest in that.

I have definitely encountered diverse-led businesses and funds where that's not my priority right now. I'm just trying to make it in the streets. And I tell them, "Okay, I understand." Let me give you some other suggestions because that's not going to fit the mission of my firm, which is to try my best to help these businesses succeed so that, as tech becomes more and more powerful, it's kind of terrifying if it looks just like only one person and it's servicing the world. There's so much literature and studies on how it's harder to maintain a diverse workplace and environment, but those companies do better. They win. And so it takes more work, but you get more out of it and it's better for the world, I think. That's me waxing philosophical.

Stephanie Southwick:

I'm just going to go ahead and throw in there, that we at Omni are also interested in funding cases where the litigation team is diverse, led by women, led by a minority. We agree that you get better results that way.

Are you still doing those workshops you were talking about?

Aravinda Seshadri:

I haven't done, per se, those workshops, but I've been involved in a lot of talks on mistakes founders make, or there's a platform for women in tech called Alpha. So I've done office hours, ask me anything type thing there. I'm still trying to get the word out, but definitely, once I started this law firm, I didn't think I had a lot of time on my hands. And then I was like, "Oh, I did apparently have more time on my hands before."

Stephanie Southwick:

Well, that's a good thing, right? That's good news.

Aravinda Seshadri:

Yeah. And just setting things up and making sure things are running right, and making sure my clients are getting the best. That's taking a lot of time, but it's all going well. I anticipate scaling that up. Honestly, I've already reached out and made connections with a lot of diversity organizations within the tech and VC community, and I'm going to roll out activities and talks and workshops soon.

Stephanie Southwick:

Do you feel like there's a movement there? Do you see other firms or funds or businesses really focusing on diversity? And is that something that you're seeing out in the world in Silicon Valley or something you'd like to see more of?

Aravinda Seshadri:

I think we're in a very interesting time right now, because there is exponentially increasing awareness of the fact that different people, based on how they look, have very different experiences within the America that we all live in. I do think there's more focus on it. It's also kind of trendy sometimes, which can be annoying for people who've been working on this for years and years, even more so than me, I'm sure.

But at the same time, I'm so glad, I'm almost terrified, because I feel hopeful that people are, really in a short period of time, coming to a really extreme awareness of the disparities, in terms of opportunity, and that everything can be explained by that. You can literally only look at that and explain the differences between how people are living, their relative quality of life in their jobs, what they're paid and all of these things.

I think it's becoming more of a hot topic and I'm actually really gratified. I've actually seen funds pop up that are like, "We only fund women." Or, "We're focusing exclusively on people of color or Black founded companies."

Stephanie Southwick:

I'd just like to add here for listeners who may be interested in exploring litigation funding that at Omni, we want to fund cases led by diverse litigation teams, particularly when lead counsel is a woman or a person of color. And we want to fund cases for diverse led companies.

Aravinda Seshadri:

I think that's great, actually. When I started my firm, a lot of attorneys who are, let's be honest, pretty risk averse, they were like, "Are you crazy? You're going to say no to people who don't have diversity or don't prioritize it in the organization? As somebody who's starting a firm, how do you justify saying no to money coming in that's going to support your company."

Stephanie Southwick:

I had that same thought. 

Aravinda Seshadri:

For reals. I was worried about it, but I felt good about it and I felt that it was the right thing to do. When I started doing this work, what I found is that it drew people to me, people would think, "Oh, I know a lot of lawyers, but you know, she's a woman of color, and I know another woman of color that's like focusing on representing those people."

So, it was kind of like there was more of a fit, in terms of the clients, and it popped out a bit more, I think, in people's minds in terms of who's going to be in a good position to really represent, and having lived the experience in some ways, those founders and who cares about those issues. And so, will be aware of them on behalf of the client.

And I really, I've never loved my clients more. I feel so aligned with them and I feel so good about the work I'm doing. I just give advice that I think is right. All my focus is on making sure that they succeed. And so, it just takes a lot of crap out of the equation. Like, I'm not trying to beat my chest and brag about how amazing I am, and I don't have to do that because that's not the point. The point is to make sure that the company succeeds and that more of these companies succeed.

In VC, there's this focus on, "Let's find the arbitrage. Let's find the situation where the system is not working efficiently and let's get the benefit out of it." And diverse founders are absolutely one of those situations. So, I can see, it's like a bargain in a way. You could even call it exploitative. I don't think it is because it's giving them the opportunity, but they may not have the same people clamoring at their door as a more typical startup with all the pedigrees from all of the big universities. They operate and they get things done. And those are the people that succeed. I'm excited to see that movement.

Stephanie Southwick:

What do you think that founders of diverse-led companies and diverse-led funds should be looking for in their outside general counsel?

Aravinda Seshadri:

That's such a good question. It's something I really had to crystallize while I was setting up the firm because I had to figure out what I was offering. I come down to one of the most important factors is actually something that's a little intangible, which is, "Do I trust this person? Do I feel like this person has my back? Do I feel like they'll give me honest advice and practical advice, and not like CYA lawyerly, mostly useless advice, right? They'll tell me the real talk, they'll use all of their market knowledge from being exposed to a microcosm of all of these deals and these situations and these people, will they give me good advice?"

That is different for every person, but I think it does help to have somebody who understands the challenges of being underrepresented in your field and cares about your success more than just as a paycheck. And I also tell people. I'll get people who reach out to me all the time. They'll say, "Well, I have counsel I feel fine with now, but..."

I'm like, "No, dude. If you feel good about your legal counsel, that is rare. That does not always happen. If you feel like they're a good value, they prioritize you, they give you good strategic advice, that is precious and I don't want you to cheat on them. I want you to stick with them and see how it goes."

Usually, though, people are coming to me because they don't feel that with their legal counsel. You can get by. And definitely, companies have done fine with that relationship. But in a situation where you're underrepresented and you kind of have a lot of decks stacked against you, I feel it's beneficial to have any advantage you can have.

I have seen what a boon it is to a company where they really trust their legal counsel and feel like they're efficient and they're not overcharging. And there's just a sense of trust. And it means that this whole portion of the founder's brain that has been freaking out about legal stuff, and not knowing about it and not wanting to learn about it because honestly, what a waste of time for a founder to do that when there are people who are specialized in that. They're just quietly freaking out and not doing much useful.

When you find that really good partner who you trust and who has your best interests in mind, you can just free up that whole portion of your brain and commit that to further improving your business and your product and your team and everything. And those people who are able to do that, find those trusted allies and advocates, and free up their brain to do all of the work and not be distracted by all the stuff that you really don't have the expertise to handle, or you're probably even scared about the wrong things, you know what I mean? But freeing up that portion just really allows companies to achieve full potential, at the risk of sounding super cheesy. If you find that match, you protect that. That's a valuable relationship.

Stephanie Southwick:

Absolutely. So, we recently spoke together at the National Venture Capital Association. We did a webinar on litigation funding for VCs and their portfolio companies. And during that webinar, you shared with the audience some of your thoughts on litigation funding for your clients, in particular. I'm wondering if you can just touch on some of those areas, and you told a good story, too. So, you can share some of those thoughts and that story as well.

Aravinda Seshadri:

Absolutely. I will be honest that I did not know much about litigation funding until Stephanie. You started at Omni. I was largely unaware. I think my exposure to it was in The Good Fight, or something like that on TV. Some TV lawyer drama, which was not factual at all, I think.

Stephanie Southwick:

Which is not unusual for your world, right? Because you come to realize that a lot of people in your space do not know about litigation funding.

Aravinda Seshadri:

Yeah. I was ignorant, but it was like I was in good company. I definitely remember, once we had talked about, and you explained the dynamics and the pros and cons, it felt like a David and Goliath equalizer. It spoke to me in that way. And I was reminded of a situation where one of my clients had been in serious acquisition talks with a big tech company, and they'd given more and more confidential and proprietary information. It's under an NDA, but you know those are notoriously difficult to enforce. You have to prove that was the information that was used, that was misused or whatever. So, they gave more and more information. Finally, the tech company cut off negotiations and soon started their own very competitive, very similar product.

Stephanie Southwick:

Very typical story here in Silicon Valley.

Aravinda Seshadri:

Yeah, it's super unfortunate because we were just like, "Well, you don't have the money to sue these people, and your investors, they're not in the business of investing in litigation. They're in the business of investing in companies. That's what they understand, and that's what they'll do. You don't have money and you don't have a way to get money to fight this. So you just kind of have to take it."

I don't even know. Right? Like NDAs are hard to enforce. Who knows if we would have proven, but it would have felt good to have tried. In the model, that litigation funding, that at least Omni Bridgeway presents, it doesn't cost the company anything other than, obviously litigation is somewhat of a distraction. But honestly, that would have been welcome compared to like the demoralization of just sitting there with an unjust outcome and not being able to do anything about it. So, I wish I had known. I wish I had known that this existed at that time to at least to consider it. And if we did it, even if we didn't win, we wouldn't have been out of pocket on that. And we would have felt like we tried.

Stephanie Southwick:

That's one of my big messages to start up and VCs that may have portfolio companies with these issues. Do the analysis.

Aravinda Seshadri:

Just look into it.

Stephanie Southwick:

Look into it. Yeah, exactly. Explore it. And so, if you decide not to go fight for your intellectual property rights or whatever it may be, that's an affirmative, informed decision. Not just...

Aravinda Seshadri:

Oh, well. Yeah, exactly.

Stephanie Southwick:

All right. Well, if our audience wants to contact you, how do they do that?

Aravinda Seshadri:

Email is the best. I'm at aravinda, A-R-A-V-I-N-D-A @ venturouscounsel.com, V-E-N-T-U-R-O-U-S, Counsel, C-O-U-N-S-E-L, .com. Or you can just look up venturouscouncil.com online. I will also put in a very quick plug that the business has grown enough in one year that I'm ready to hire my first full-time associate.

Stephanie Southwick:

Congratulations.

Aravinda Seshadri:

Yeah. Thank you. So, if you're a junior associate with experience working with startups and investors in the startup space, and maybe you're sick of your big firm job or otherwise just looking for a change or a different opportunity, please reach out. I'd like to spread the net as wide as possible, again, and find somebody who shares this passion and can help me make more diverse companies successful.

Stephanie Southwick:

Well, we wish you the best of luck with Venturous Counsel, and I have no doubt that you will succeed. I've worked with you, so I know how amazing you are, and going back to the earlier conversation, how much you care about your clients. And I don't think we can say that for all lawyers. So, it's been a real pleasure having you today, Aravinda. Thank you, again, for appearing on Omni Bridgeway's Beyond Hourly Podcast and sharing your knowledge.

Aravinda Seshadri:

Thank you so much for having me. And I can say the same about you, Stephanie. You're just one of those people that brings passion and care and excitement to whatever you do. And so, I'm delighted. I'm delighted we're still in touch and that I'm able to chat on your podcast and figure out ways we can work together, too.

Stephanie Southwick:

Absolutely. So, as I mentioned at the outset, episodes of the Beyond Hourly Podcast can be found on our website, www.Omnibridgeway.com, iTunes, Spotify, and other podcast networks. We'll be back soon with another episode. Until then, I'd like to thank our audience for listening in and invite you to subscribe to the podcast and leave us reviews.

Please feel free to follow up with me, Stephanie Southwick, at [email protected], for any feedback, ideas or insights you have on topics we should cover on the podcast. Thank you and be well.