Katie Fernandez’s emphasis on teamwork doesn’t just go back to her childhood, it predates her entry into the world. The vice president and associate general counsel (AGC) at Chobani hasn’t ever been a lone operator: she’s had a twin sister by her side since before she can remember, and the two successful executives have pushed and supported each other for their entire personal and professional lives. The sisters currently live just a few blocks from each other in Brooklyn.
“I really think it had a significant impact on who I am and how I lead,” Fernandez says of her twin. “I know that you really can’t accomplish as much by yourself as much as you can with the support of others. And coming from a close family, I learned how every decision that you make impacts more than just yourself.”
That conscious leadership and team focus make the attorney a perfect fit at Chobani, where she has spent the last six years. The company’s mission of making nutritious and high-quality food available for more people, its commitment to providing refugees with employment opportunities, and its fundamental grounding in making the world a better place are perfectly aligned with its mission-driven AGC.
Fernandez says Chobani’s mission is her North Star, and as she continues to take on new responsibilities like supporting the company’s impact team (the team responsible for the company’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals), the complexities of those challenges are made a little easier by the fact that Fernandez knows that doing the right thing is always top of mind for her team and her company.
The lawyer’s passion for her employer extends beyond just her six years in-house. Chobani was one of the first companies that helped Fernandez feel like she hadn’t made a huge career mistake when she took her first legal job as a litigator at a big New York City law firm.
Managing From the Inside
“I graduated from law school in 2009 during one of the biggest economic downturns in history. My firm represented banks in residential mortgage-backed securities cases, which is about as depressing as it sounds,” she remembers with a laugh. “I was the first person in my family to go to law school. I paid my way and took out obscene amounts of money in loans, which left me feeling somewhat trapped—and this just wasn’t what I had envisioned my career would look like.”
Fernandez caught a brief respite from the bank work, doing just enough outside counsel work for Chobani to know that the company was something special. The experience pushed her to seek out more food clients and may have saved her career in law, she says.
When Chobani ran an ad campaign that called out its biggest competitors, litigation followed, and Fernandez knew it might be the perfect time to go in-house. She reached out to Chobani and said she’d love to handle the case, from inside the company. That was six years ago, and the attorney hasn’t looked back.
Nutritious Foods for All
Fernandez says her daily work is anchored by a broader belief at Chobani: good food is a right, not a privilege. “Our mission is to democratize good food and to not make it untouchable for those who aren’t wealthy,” the AGC explains. “Accessibility and affordability without sacrificing quality are essential for us, and that really motivates me.”
A colleague of Fernandez attests to her embodiment of this passion. “Katie is an exceptional lawyer dedicated to supporting Chobani’s vision to make nutritious food accessible to all and fighting for integrity in the food industry,” says Jamie Levitt, managing partner at Morrison & Foerster LLP. “She leads by example, thoughtfully guiding her teams through complex legal and business issues with impeccable judgment and a steady hand.”
Food has always been an important part of Fernandez’s life. Her Cuban father was the family cook, and she says the important connection between culture, food, and community is vital in helping address issues like food deserts and other areas where finding healthy food is far harder than it should be.
In her legal role, that means helping enable Chobani to be as forward-thinking as it can be in finding new ways to enable its mission. “Chobani is quite entrepreneurial, and I think we attract people who have that spirit, myself included,” Fernandez says. “It’s not necessarily what you’d expect from a lawyer; typically, we like rules and defined terms and things to fit in a box. But that just doesn’t work here, and it makes my job far more interesting and fun.”
Fernandez has been instrumental in supporting activist, philanthropist, and Chobani Founder Hamdi Ulukaya as he continues his efforts to aid refugees in any way that he and his company can. Fernandez says she has worked on countless charitable projects at Chobani, including Chobani’s partnership with nonprofit (and Ulukaya-founded) Tent Partnership for Refugees, a network of over two hundred member companies committed to integrating refugees in their host communities.
Last year, the AGC proudly led Chobani’s partnership with Tent’s new consumer-facing initiative, UNSTUCK: through that partnership, the Chobani x UNSTUCK mango and cream Greek yogurt—made with fruit from suppliers committed to hiring refugees—was launched. Fernandez is excited to be working with Chobani and Tent on an additional UNSTUCK offering later this year.
“We’re dreaming really big here about what we might be able to accomplish,” Fernandez says. “We want to find tangible ways of helping people, and for refugees that means committing to ways that help them find legal, decent work.”
The AGC is also helping Chobani hold itself accountable for its ESG goals. While its products are nutritious, the company wants to make sure that they are made sustainably.
Fernandez says it’s a time-consuming process but a worthy investment, because the company wants to truly lead in the space and avoid what might be seen as a growing trend of “green-washing,” conveying the false impression that products are more environmentally sound than they actually are. Chobani’s committed to making a positive environmental impact, but the team knows that’s not something that happens overnight.
Fortunately for Chobani, time seems to be on its side when it comes to the commitment from its AGC. Fernandez says she has found her dream job, a mission that matters, and a culture that’s committed to doing the right thing.