The last four years around the world have been transformational. For Danielle Ducre Rawls, lead product counsel for privacy and litigation at artificial intelligence (AI)-lending platform Upstart, one of those transformational moments was the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.
This moment ignited protests on policing reform efforts and caused social upheaval across the United States. Decades, if not centuries, of Band-Aid fixes for inequity, racism, and police brutality seemed to finally be too much for the broader nation to ignore.
Rawls remembers the moment too well. As a former South Minneapolis resident, she had visited the gas station across the street from where Floyd was killed no less than hundreds of times.
“I lived fifteen minutes from there,” she recalls. “As an African American, for the first time, people were captive—everyone was at home and so the brutality felt visceral—as we were all going through the collective experience of COVID and the collective trauma of watching this atrocity real time. In its aftermath, I was having discussions about race and equity with friends, neighbors, and colleagues that we’d never had before. I don’t think that I understood how badly I needed to have those conversations and know that I was understood, and that people cared about my experience. It was profound.”
In her previous role, Rawls was instrumental in building an internal group to tackle those hard conversations, and she’s continued that tradition at Upstart since arriving in September 2022. Rawls is a member of several employee resource groups (ERG) at the company, runs point on the veteran’s group, and is an active ally for LGTBQ+, Hispanic, and African American ERGs. Outside of Upstart, she is a true supporter of organizations that promote diversity in the legal profession, with such organizations as Leadership Council on Legal Diversity.
“I believe in facilitating a culture, in whatever organization that I am a part of, that promotes and understands the importance of providing marginalized and underrepresented groups a voice and really supporting them,” the lawyer explains. “From a corporate perspective, Upstart truly understands that there’s no way you can enter into new markets, promote your mission, build customer trust, and really grow your products as a good corporate citizen if you don’t understand the importance of DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion].”
Rawls came to Upstart precisely because of its broader mission to provide expanded access to credit. By utilizing AI and not simply relying on traditional criteria, like the credit score, Upstart is revolutionizing ways to predict creditworthiness and offer more communities expanded credit opportunities.
“I’m here because I have worked for large and small institutions and Upstart really believes in its mission: to enable effortless credit based on true risk. The goal is to add more people into the conversation that would ordinarily be left out. In short, we are trying to expand credit to more people, particularly those who would have trouble accessing it,” she says. “This feels like the significant demarcation point of my career, being somewhere where I not only get to do complicated and rewarding legal work, but also a place where I really believe in the larger mission. That feels so good and I’m not sure it’s something every lawyer gets a chance to do.”
The lawyer’s financial services record is second to none, including as a corporate litigator and corporate privacy officer at Ditech Financial, as well as senior regulatory counsel at Wells Fargo and Asurion prior to taking on her current role.
As a privacy attorney, the goal is to manage risk. As a litigator, the goal is to minimize risk or eliminate it. How is Rawls able to wear both hats concurrently? The lawyer says it’s imperative to view her job holistically. Given the breadth of experience as both a privacy attorney and litigator, she can calculate the necessary check and balances almost by instinct.
“I’m first and foremost trying to promote what’s good for the business and what’s good for our customers, while also working to manage risk and how it’s all connected,” Rawls says. “Because of my experience, I’m able to stand back and see the bigger picture.”
Rawls says that her dual role is becoming more the norm in the legal profession; more organizations are looking for utility role players capable of operating in multiple spaces with the bigger picture in mind.
Although she has only been with Upstart less than a year, Rawls is already making inroads as an ally for multiple ERGs. As a member of affinity groups that she directly identifies with like African American Employee Network and the Veterans ERG, the privacy lawyer often relays a quote from researcher and storyteller Brené Brown and remembers an interview where Brown was asked what advice she would give to those who worked and rallied for individuals in communities that were different than their own.
“Brown once said she’ll never truly be able to stand in the shoes of many of the people she works with,” Rawls explains. “The most important thing we can do to open the lines of communication is to listen and to believe someone, as well as the collective, when individuals or groups tell you what they are going through. Validate those voices. You may not understand or be able to imagine, but the first step is to really see people. There’s a lot of work that comes after that. The first thing is just to be there. That’s the first step to being a true ally.”
McGlinchey congratulates Danielle and the entire Upstart team on this well-deserved recognition. Danielle is a skillful lawyer who brings deep strategic insight and a team-oriented approach to challenging legal problems. She is a pleasure to work with, and we are proud to collaborate with her in finding innovative solutions for complex issues.