From Mayagüez to Mesirow

Emma Rodriguez-Ayala on becoming a general counsel by age 31, what she looks for in a team, and leading the legal and compliance functions for a $14 billion investment advisory business

Emma Rodriquez-Ayala,  General Counsel and Managing Director, Mesirow Advanced Strategies, Inc.
Emma Rodriquez-Ayala,
General Counsel and Managing Director, Mesirow Advanced Strategies, Inc. Photo: Michael Weston

Emma Rodriguez-Ayala says she owes her career to a rooster. When she was a child, her family had a pet rooster named Gallo, and a neighbor who often complained about the bird’s early morning calls. One day, they couldn’t find Gallo and noticed feathers on the neighbor’s fence. When they confronted him, he taunted them by describing the delicious rooster soup he’d made the night before. A devastated Rodriguez-Ayala’s father said he could sue the man if he were a lawyer, but otherwise, there wasn’t much they could do. A spark within her was ignited.

After high school, Rodriguez-Ayala left her hometown of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, to attend Saint Louis University, where she majored in international business and criminal justice. She went on to earn a JD from University of Chicago Law School and took a job at Sidley Austin after graduation.

“I had the opportunity to work with a lot of different groups and attorneys at the firm and discovered that I really enjoyed the investment funds industry. It was the perfect blend of innovative and cutting-edge business and law,” she says.

In 2010, after four years with the firm, Rodriguez-Ayala wanted to work more directly with clients on their business needs, so she and her Sidley Austen colleague Colleen Sullivan founded Rodriguez-Ayala Sullivan (now known as Sullivan Wolf Kailus). “We wanted to provide investment-management firms with highly qualified outside counsel who could work every day with them as if they were in-house counsel,” she says.

Mesirow Advanced Strategies, which was one of Rodriguez-Ayala’s clients at Sidley, continued on as one of her biggest clients. In 2012, she made the decision to go in-house by joining the company. “[Mesirow] only had two in-house attorneys at the time. I had been handling an increasing amount of work for them, including serving in an advisory role for their operating committee, so it made more and more sense to join them exclusively,” she says.

In 2013, at the age of 31, she was named general counsel and managing director of Mesirow Advanced Strategies, a subsidiary of Mesirow Financial. One of her priorities was to build a team that could handle the increasingly complex regulatory regime of hedge funds. “I had many strategic projects to accomplish, but you can’t successfully execute those without a strong team,” she says.

The legal department she built now has five attorneys, including her, and six non-legal professionals, including an accountant. “Several years ago, no legal group would have had an accountant on the team, but so much of our reporting involves numbers that I brought someone over from Mesirow’s accounting department to work exclusively with the lawyers,” she says. “A lot of investment management companies have since done the same.”

Rodriguez-Ayala looks for some very specific qualities in her new hires, in addition to professional experience. “The most important thing is attitude. I want somebody who wants to learn. Somebody who has 10 years of compliance experience, but is stuck in their ways, won’t do well here. Everyone on the team has a specific focus but each also has to be able to manage whatever work comes their way. The world we operate in is not black and white; it is gray. The people we hire need to be comfortable with that.

“We put prospects through behavioral interviews. You can only ascertain so much in an interview, so we also run a lot of background checks,” she says. “We talk to the people they worked with at their previous firms, their clients, other hedge fund managers, regulators, etcetera. The investment management world is pretty small, so reputations are important.”

Once she hires a new team member, Rodriguez-Ayala strives to make them feel welcome and build mutual respect. “The worst thing a company can do is make employees feel like they have to be someone else at work. I think one of the keys to a positive and productive work environment is to find out what your employees need. That may mean adjusting their schedules or allowing them to work remotely to take care of children or ailing parents, or letting them spend time working with another group that interests them so they can explore future career options. As long as people are getting their work done and it is high quality, I don’t care how they structure our relationship,” she explains.

“People are different. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ kind of world. Even though Mesirow has a formal diversity program, I prefer to focus on inclusion. No matter what your issue is, we will help you deal with it,” Rodriguez-Ayala says. “That approach has helped us attract some very good people—they hear about the way we treat people and they want to work here.”

Rodriguez-Ayala also took an inclusive approach to the updating of Mesirow’s fund structure. “Mesirow has been around for 25 years. We know so much more now about how to properly structure funds than we did then. So, I asked key people in the company, ‘If you had to build a fund structure now, how would you do it?’ I received lots of great suggestions, and by involving everyone and asking for their input, I got automatic buy-in and support from the whole team.”

The work has already produced an impressive return. “Ninety-five percent of our clients are US tax-exempt institutional investors. There are particular fund structures for that type of investor that are much simpler than what we’d been using. We’re two years into this project and have saved approximately $1.5 million a year,” she says.

“Sometimes I wonder how I got here,” Rodriguez-Ayala admits. She may owe her career choice to her pet rooster, but her boldness and capacity to build the right team have made her successful. “I’m not a traditional job candidate. I’m a loud and opinionated 33-year-old Puerto Rican woman successfully leading the legal and compliance function of a $14 billion investment advisory business. Employers didn’t focus on my ‘different-ness’; they focused on my professional abilities and attitude. I want to do the same for my employees and teammates.”