By the time Minneapolis-area native Jason Brown was in high school, he already knew he wanted to be a lawyer. During a civics class his sophomore year, Brown participated in a mock trial, in which he served as lead defense counsel. From preparing for trial and creating presentations to participating in deep strategic thinking and gaining skills that could serve to help those in need, Brown fell in love with the work and the idea he could actually make a living doing it.
Around that same time, Brown’s mother introduced him to an old childhood friend of hers who was a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. After the professor gave the 16-year-old a personal tour of the Howard campus, Brown fell in love again—this time with one of the country’s prestigious colleges.
Brown’s destiny was set. After high school, he attended Howard University—where he excelled as a student—and immediately upon graduation, went straight to Howard University School of Law. “Being an African American kid from the Twin Cities, it was a huge and strikingly sharp contrast to go from there to an historically black college that is so rich in history as Howard,” Brown says. “I jumped at the chance to do something that would be different and challenging.”
That sentiment followed Brown throughout his life and legal career—taking him first to a respected law firm, then on to a highly successful in-house counsel career, ultimately leading him to the GC seat at Dyson Inc., a U.K.-based technology company, famous for its vacuum cleaners and bladeless fans.
Please tell me about your career path immediately after law school?
When I graduated, my focus was to be that trial lawyer that I envisioned being in high school, so I started my career doing that and thoroughly enjoy it. It was challenging and I specifically picked a mid-size firm because I wanted experience and an opportunity to go to court and be an active participant.
In my fifth year of practice, I started thinking, “did I want to be a senior associate with a plan toward partnership or was the grass greener someplace else?”
Around that time, even though I wasn’t even looking, a classmate of mine from law school happened upon an opportunity at Pepsi Beverages Company (formerly PepsiAmericas). She sent it to me and said “this sounds like a cool opportunity that is litigation focused, and if you’re looking to get different experience, this could be good.”
I read the job description and it was managing litigation and risk management, and I knew it was something I could do. I fit the profile so I gave it a shot and boom! I got the job.
How long were you at Pepsi?
I was at Pepsi for almost eight years. In fact, the bulk of my in-house career was at Pepsi. It was a fast-growing company, publicly traded company. We were an anchor bottler company with operations in the US, Caribbean and Europe, it was the second largest Pepsi bottler in the world.
That role provided me the opportunity to grow my capabilities as a lawyer, deal with issues in other countries and understand supply chain. I got to manage litigation, support marketing and sales, and execute a compliance program. It was a great opportunity with a agreat company. I got a wide breadth of experience in the eight years I was there.
What happened next?
I left because our company was actually an independent bottler, and PepsiCo wanted to bring its major the bottlers under one organization. The opportunity for me to stay with the company would require a move to New York and a position that was more limited in scope than what I wanted at that point in my career. The opportunity itself would have been exciting. But where I was in my career, I was hungry for new opportunities and challenges.
So for my next role, I became the first Executive Director for the National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF). PepsiCo was a very early investor in and benefactor of NAMWOLF. They loved the idea and concept and the legal department had expressed early interest in helping to support NAMWOLF’s mission in expanding the notion of diversity. My boss at Pepsi at the time encouraged me to take a look at the organization to see if I wanted to be involved. So I got involved, and much like a lot of things I am passionate about, I jumped in head first. Soon after, I was the first corporate lawyer to join the NAMWOLF board of directors.
While I was on the Board, we began to search for an Executive Director of the organization. NAMWOLF was about 10 years in existence with a solid financial standing and rapidly growing membership. The organization needed guidance as to the future vision of who we would be as an organization.
Although I still wanted to practice law, I believed it was a great opportunity for me to take the Executive Director role—running and managing an organization, developing marketing plans, managing a budget, training and planning, and working with the board of directors as well. I thought it would be great leadership training for me so I committed to at least two years in the role.
When I was nearing the end of my time at NAMWOLF, I had learned about an opportunity at MillerCoors. I was ultimately offered a position within the legal team as associate general counsel to co-lead their commercial group. This role included supporting sales, marketing and the regulatory function of the company. I reported to the CLO and led a team of lawyers and paralegals until 2013.
How did you end up at Dyson?
I hadbeen at Miller Coors for two years, and I was enjoying it, so I was not actively looking. A recruiter contacted me about the opportunity to lead the legal function for the Americas operations for Dyson. Approximately four or five months after the initial inquiry, I was offered the opportunity to join Dyson Americas as its General Counsel in December 2013.
How has your role evolved over the years?
Dyson is a UK based company. During the my recruitment process, I learned that they were searching for someone to be responsible for all legal matters that impact the Americas, so that’s basically Canada all the way down to the tip of South America. When I came in, we were just in the U.S. and Canada. Now we have added Mexico and are planning further expansion into Latin America. When I joined, we were a team of four, and now we have grown to a team of 11.
My department has expanded naturally as growth happens. Dyson has had double digit growth every year since I’ve been here. Four years ago, when I first joined, we were known simply as a vacuum cleaner company; now we expanded our portfolio of products and sell hair dryers and lighting and we’re expanding our line into other areas in the not too distant future. Dyson is, as we have positioned ourselves going into the next decade, a true technology company. We are connecting our appliances in smart ways—creating these synergies and looking at additional product lines that mesh. With that, the complexity has grown.
The competitive landscape has grown. Dyson did very well as innovators in the area of bagless vacuum cleaners. Now you look at the store shelves of our retailers and a lot of products look like ours. The competition is heating up and challenging us to continue innovating to maintain our competitive advantage.
The next venture for us will happen with the opening of retail stores for Dyson. The first opened in Tyson’s Corner, a mall near Washington, DC. We will open flagship stores in New York City and San Francisco by the end of the year.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
When you say the name Dyson, people are aware of it. But they’re shocked to learn that it’s less than 25 years old as a company. James Dyson, the founder of our company, just turned 70. We did not make the move into the U.S. until 15 years ago. We’re still a relatively young company.
When it comes to dealing with different issues, a lot of it for us is building the infrastructure to manage and maintain the growth we’re having. We are making sure we’re being effective in how we approach the market, but at the same time from a legal perspective, we have to be cautious to make sure everything we’re doing is in line and appropriate so we don’t have any missteps.
What is a goal you have for your department in the next 12 months?
I want us to be much more efficient in delivering the services we provide. We do a very good job of balancing what the business needs and meeting those needs. But I want to be so efficient that we’re able to be even more proactive than we have been in the past, so we’re providing solutions before problems arise. As we grow quickly, the need to do that becomes more pressing.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
I love that we’re aiding a business or individual get where they want or need to go. When someone comes to you with an issue they can’t seem to solve, you are there to guide them in doing the improbable.
I also enjoy the strategic side of the role. You always have to be thinking of new ways to tackle new issues. Make your best argument to win your side of that story. Preempt obstacles to success.
I also love the intellectual challenge, the support and the service you provide to others. It’s extremely rewarding when you enable people, or organizations, to do great things.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
My first job in-house, I had an exceptional mentor named Scott Nehs, who is now with BlueCross BlueShield Association. He pushed me and gave me opportunities to do different things as opposed to simply fulfilling the role he hired me to perform. I was able to learn and grow, and he challenged me to be focused in doing that.
Joel Stern, who is now ironically the CEO of NAMWOLF, was the one who, when I was contemplating leaving Pepsi, got me to consider the unique opportunity NAMWOLF would be for me. I talked to him about my career goals and he helped open my mind to notion that non-traditional roles can be the catalyst for the next phase in my career. And that I needed to be ready and willing to embrace those challenges.
I would also mention, when I first came out of law school, a gentleman named Cornell Moore. He was a graduate of Howard Law and would teach me the nuances of how to be an effective lawyer—not the technical side, but rather how you carry yourself. He was one of the very first black partners in the Twin Cities area at a major law firm and I greatly appreciate all the lessons he taught me.
Please tell me a little about your life away from the office. If you’re comfortable, please tell me about your family.
I’ve been married for 15 years. I have three daughters: an 8-year-old, 13-year-old and a 22-year-old, who is currently a senior at Howard University. She is majoring in public relations and communication.
I currently live in Chicago, but travel frequently to California where my middle daughter is an accomplished dancer. I serve on a few non-profit boards: Make-A-Wish Foundation of Illinois and Legal Prep Charter Academy. I am very active in mentorship through an internship I helped start years ago through the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC in a large company someday?
You cannot be satisfied with where you are. You constantly have to be hungry for learning new and exciting things about the law. Understanding that, if you are an employment lawyer, what are the contract lawyers doing, for example. And if you’re a contract lawyer, understand what the employment lawyer is doing. You always should try to gain the experience you need to be effective. Move between groups and grow in your path to be a really effective and desired GC.