When asked about his philosophy, “The importance of failing and growing to love it,” George Pauta, associate general counsel and head of labor, employment & litigation at Sweetgreen admits that he has failed many times early in his career and that growing to love it came much later.
One of Pauta’s failures, or at least that’s how he perceived it at the time, occurred when he graduated from law school. After maintaining high honors throughout college, graduating from a top twenty law school, and passing the New York State Bar Exam, Pauta couldn’t land a job.
“It reflected my upbringing and the lack of resources and professionals around me. Even though I was in law school already, I only knew how to succeed in academia, which was self-taught. I didn’t have the mentors to teach me how to be successful as an actual lawyer,” Pauta reflects.
As a first-generation American, Pauta grew up in a single-parent household in Long Island, New York, without many examples of success to look up to. So, for the early part of his life, Pauta set the bar low and dreamt small, but his older brother changed all of that.
“He was the first person who believed in me. It’s so cliché, but the power of someone believing in you is transformative,” explains Pauta. “If he said I could do something, I would give him a million excuses for why I couldn’t. No matter what excuse I threw at him, he would always say, ‘So what? You’ll figure it out.’ I could never convince him that I couldn’t.”
After graduating from Western New England University where he played baseball, the support from his brother encouraged him to attend law school at Boston University. But then, when he graduated law school and found himself back at his summer job of moving furniture and doing some temp legal work, he again used his brother’s two words: “So what?” to deflect any of his self-doubts.
Seven months post-graduation, Pauta landed his first job at a private practice doing what he thought he’d spend his career doing. But, in 2016, he was recruited to his first in-house role at a financial services firm, and in 2020, Pauta had the opportunity to go in-house at Sweetgreen, a not-so-typical fast-food chain that is headquartered in LA.
Already a fan of the company’s product, its mission, and its story, it made perfect sense. Not only for Pauta but his wife, a California native, and their growing family. Nevertheless, after making it down to the final two candidates, he didn’t get the job.
“The path of every successful person is checkered with failure. If you want to impress someone, you can tell stories that focus solely on your successes but that won’t resonate,” Pauta says. “If you want people to really connect to your story, you must also share your failures. And when I think of the younger generation trying to navigate their paths, they need to hear your whole story, especially the failures.”
It wasn’t the first, nor the last, time that Pauta fell short of his goals. “There are moments of doubt and questions of worthiness that accompany every failure. You have to push through those moments and instead, take stock in all that you have achieved that helped put you in the position to have an opportunity to fail in the first place,” he says.
So, despite the unfortunate news, Pauta sent an email to his would-be boss to express his gratitude. Then, he moved forward by focusing his attention on another goal he’d already set in motion to enhance his chances of moving to California: passing the California State Bar Exam, the lowest passing bar exam in the country and one which he’d failed once before.
But, about two weeks into his studying, Pauta got a call from Sweetgreen. The other candidate had declined their offer, and now the job was his. “Many of my friends and colleagues were like, ‘Great. You don’t need to retake the California Bar.’ But I’m not one to quit halfway through a goal, I still took it.”
After everything, it all worked out. Pauta took the position as the associate general counsel of labor, employment, and litigation at Sweetgreen, where he gets to be a part of its work in reimagining “fast food” so customers can have real food made to order that is fast, friendly, and fresh.
Not long after that, Pauta got the news that he had passed the California State Bar Exam.
Now, Pauta seeks opportunities to mentor kids and first-generation law students from low-income environments, including through programs at Sweetgreen and Boston University. “It’s a big thing for me because I identify with many of them,” he says.
“The biggest impact mentors have had on me, starting with my brother and throughout my career, was that they saw more for me than I saw for myself,” he adds. So now, not only does Pauta get to be that person for his mentees, but he also gets to bring them all the knowledge he has learned through his mistakes, so they don’t have to.
As Sweetgreen reimagines American fast food from a convenient option into one that can also be healthy, fast, fresh, and friendly, the company is laser-focused on consistency and scaling across the seventeen markets in which it operates.
Pauta is a critical part of the legal effort behind this goal. Since joining Sweetgreen, he has built the company’s employment law function from the ground up. In doing so, he’s placed a special focus on building out repeatable and sustainable processes for long-term growth to create a better experience for its teams.
His push to pivot the company’s compliance work from manual to automated by leveraging technology solutions fit for the dynamic food landscape is just one example. “This can be a tricky endeavor,” Pauta says, “but when you have great cross-functional partners who all care about the company’s compliance measures (especially how these measures impact our team members), that makes my job quite impactful and satisfying.”