Ever since she was a child, Talita Erickson has had a passion for culture, diversity and the global experience. She grew up in Brazil, near the border of Argentina and Paraguay near Iguazu Falls, a national park that attracts tourists from around the world. This unique childhood piqued her curiosity—and woke the world traveler inside of her.
As she graduated high school, as is custom in Brazil, Erickson had to decide her life’s profession before entering college. She was only 17 years old and unsure what she wanted to do, but she knew she wanted to be able to direct—and, if necessary redirect—her career any way that might make sense to her. Following in her older brother’s footsteps, Erickson chose a career in law.
“A law degree is very flexible,” she says. “If you’re passionate about sports, you can be a sports attorney. Or in my case, if you love food, you can go to work in the food industry. A law degree gives you the flexibility to work in any industry you want.”
While working toward her J.D. in Brazil in 2000, Erickson had an opportunity to intern with HSBC Bank, assisting in the legal and compliance department. “In Brazil where there are a lot of issues around ethical behavior, I was working with people who were trying to help this company do the right thing in Brazil,” she explains. “I knew then, this is what I want to do, help companies get it right the first time.”
Although Erickson assumed she would finish law school and go to work in a law firm—as most new lawyers do—this internship introduced her to the world of in-house law, and set her on a career path that would include relocating to the U.S. and studying throughout Europe. It also would ultimately lead her to the GC seat of Barilla America, the U.S. arm of a major Italian food company.
Please tell me about your next steps after the HSBC internship?
I got an opportunity with Kraft Foods, which was looking for interns. I was working for Kraft in Brazil for almost three years. We had a small team, only seven people, so everyone had to do a little bit of everything.
In Brazil, you have to take long vacations by law. So, as lawyers, we have to be very flexible, and we needed to be able to cover the vacationing people. We had our areas of expertise. Mine was litigation management; I was managing a portfolio of thousands of lawsuits, and I did some work on contracts, and merges & acquisitions. But I had to know everything to cover for the others. It was a very good environment to start a career because you get a flavor for a lot of different things.
Then, in 2004, the GC for Kraft at the time, Marc Firestone—one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met—had this idea to make the legal department in the U.S. not only more diverse, but more international. So he started bringing in lawyers from all over the world. The chief counsel international recommended me for a position in the U.S. I interviewed with 11 people in one day—it was grueling—but I got the job.
The legal department in the U.S. was very large and highly specialized. When I came here, I was working only in corporate and securities. I did mainly securities work, supporting investor relations. Also, at that time, I went to law school again and got my LLM at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, and later got an MBA from University of Chicago Booth School of Business. My assignment was supposed last two years, then it was extended to three, then five, and by then I met my husband and got married.
How did you end up at Barilla?
I had a good career at Kraft. Around the time I left in 2010, the company had just acquired Cadbury and was going through a lot of transformation.
When I was right out of law school, my main concern was finding a job. Then, after a while, you say “I want a career” and you look for that. But at some point, you want to find that place where you belong—a place where values and corporate culture match your values and beliefs. I realized I wasn’t a good match at that time with Kraft, so I gave notice. Even though I wasn’t going anywhere else, I didn’t see myself long term in that organization.
Then I got a scholarship to study law and economics in Europe, so I took a year-and-a-half to do that. I spent some time in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.
When I came back home in 2012, I set my LinkedIn to notify me of any legal jobs in the Chicago area asking for Brazilian-Portuguese. Two weeks later, I got the alert for Barilla. They were asking for Brazilian-Portuguese because they were expanding into Brazil. The position was at headquarters in Chicago, which is for the whole Americas region.
When I saw this position, I thought it was perfect. The interview process was fairly long, but I loved the company and people I met. It’s a family-owned business and Italian—and culturally-speaking, Italians and Brazilians are similar. So I was able to see myself long-term with Barilla. It’s a company that is concerned about its legacy and about being good for you, the planet and the community.
At Barilla, we don’t pursue profit above everything; profit is the result of a job well done. This is the guidance we get from the owners. It’s a privilege to work in an environment like that. I can help a business that is trying to have a positive impact in the world. This is much more than a job for me. I love the culture here; it’s a great place.
You went straight in-house after law school, and you’ve stayed there. Why?
I feel like I add value when I can be involved early on and try to prevent issues as opposed to fixing issues. Law firms have a very important role to play, but I didn’t think I would be happy parachuting into an issue, trying to solve it and sometimes not even learning how things turn out. In fact, I make a point now to follow up with some of the law firm lawyers who work on my projects to let them know how things turned out.
How has your role evolved over the years?
Barilla is trying to become a more international company. Almost half of our revenue is still from our Italian business, but the company has been diversifying internationally since the 1990s. The market today is growing around the world.
My role has evolved with these business challenges. We’re doing more work in launching new products and developing innovations. I’m much busier today than I was five years ago.
I understand you were Barilla’s chief diversity officer for a few years. Tell me about that.
In late 2013, I was asked to be the company’s first chief diversity officer (CDO). It was a global position and I could do it from here. I was seven months pregnant and nervous about taking on the responsibility. But my HR person is very skilled and supportive. She said, “I know you have a lot going on and maybe a lot of uncertainty around how your life will be. You may be afraid of taking a challenge when you don’t know what you don’t know. If you want the assignment, it’s yours. We’ll manage it, and we’ll figure it out. And if you don’t want it later, we’ll fix that too. It won’t be a career killer. You’re fine.”
I wanted it. It was a crazy time, but I served as CDO from 2013 to 2106. During that time, I was still the GC for Americas, but also leading a group of 10 employees from all over the world, as well as three, external advisers in implementing global diversity inclusion for the company.
We established systems to measure how our employees feel about diversity and inclusion. We do annual surveys and very extensive assessments. We implemented training in which all of our 8,000 employees worldwide were trained between 2013 and 2016 on diversity and inclusion awareness. As with a lot of culture transformation and initiatives, we spent a lot of time with the company’s leadership. We make sure we’re influencing the right people, to be open minded and lead in the specific functions in this area of making the company more diverse and the work environment more inclusive.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
When I first started, the global GC for the company in Italy gave me a framework of how I should approach my work. He told me to think about two axes—one is “strategic” and one is “urgent.” Then put them in four boxes: strategic and urgent, strategic but not urgent, not strategic but urgent, and not strategic and not urgent. Any box with strategic, I should do it myself and maybe engage outside counsel to help but I have to be involved. If it’s not strategic, I just shouldn’t get involved.
So I would say, my biggest challenge is right now I have a lot in the strategic-urgent box, and I’ve been finding some creative ways to work with outside counsel to make sure I can support the business the way the business needs me to.
Business is booming, and because of that we have a lot of strategic and urgent issues.
What is a goal you have for your department in the next 12 months?
Last year, in Italy, Barilla implemented a compliance program under our global GC. He’s our chief compliance officer too. Now they will start rolling this out to the different markets. So I need to figure out how to formalize. We do have all the elements of compliance, but it’s not formalized or organized, and I need to do that this year. That’s my biggest priority.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
I love the people side of it. Being an in-house lawyer, I get to work with people in all types of fields. I’m supporting supply chain, plant workers, HR, marketing and advertising. I work with a lot of good people. I feel I can help them. Being able to engage in a way that is positive and helpful is the best part of my job.
Please tell me a little about your life away from the office. If you’re comfortable, please tell me about your family.
My family in the US is small, just my husband, our son and our dog! My husband and I were brought together by our love of travel, and we hope we can help him grow up as a curious and adventurous traveler. He is only three and has already been to Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil multiple times, as I still have my extended family there.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC in a large company someday?
The biggest advice was the one I got from the GC of Kraft. He told me that the best thing I could do is develop very strong business skills. He said, you can be great lawyer, and draft a beautiful contract, but if the business doesn’t understand that, it doesn’t matter.
I also did an MBA part time because I want to be able to understand and communicate with the business. It also helps me allocate resources properly. I know what the priorities are. I know what will have the greater impact on the business. I don’t need to ask someone to prioritize that for me.
If someone want to go in-house, learn about the business and how to communicate with businesspeople.