PayPal’s Walcott is ‘Democratizing Financial Services’

PayPal’s Wanji Walcott holds a unique role. “We are one of a handful of companies that has a chief legal officer and a general counsel,” said Walcott, who was tapped as PayPal general counsel and senior vice president this past year by the online payment company’s chief legal officer.

Walcott has since been a strong advocate of empowering a legal team of more than 170 people worldwide.  

“My overarching desire is to make PayPal an employer of choice,” Walcott said. “Everyone on my team should feel empowered to make decisions.” That’s crucial, she said, in an industry marked by rapid innovation, alongside policy changes that demand close and ongoing communication with regulators. 

Learn how Walcott is tapping team members to act with authority, while advancing a common mission of “democratizing financial services.” 

In a global business like PayPal, how do you keep pace with rapidly evolving regulations?

The short answer is focus. We currently operate in 200-plus markets, and we’re seeing tremendous evolution in the regulatory landscape, as well as uncertainty. We can’t afford to wait for things to happen; we want to be at the forefront of shaping how regulators think about our industry, while also making some bets and predictions. We’ve developed, and continue to refine, a framework where we’re proactively assessing the appropriate regulatory structure for our business.

We’re seeing there will be increased regulatory oversight in our space. The pace of innovation in our industry is fast, too, and we’re always trying to balance managing the risks while keeping pace with a body of regulations that may lag behind innovation.

How do you build the kinds of relationships with regulators that allow you to advocate for industry positions?

There’s a misconception that industry and regulator interests are misaligned, when in fact they’re not. We’re both focused on serving and protecting our customers. We’ve seen direct benefits from proactively engaging regulators on the policy side, because when you’re in a regulated industry, you’re not just dealing with policies, you’re also dealing with enforcement activities.

I have found that ensuring that you’ve got those foundational relationships on the policy side in place can be very helpful in forward-looking industry and policy-related discussions, and certainly as you go into examinations with regulators.

What’s your secret also to building a strong legal team, spanning 170 people worldwide?

My overarching desire is to make PayPal an employer of choice. We’re all working toward a common mission of democratizing financial services. I’ve been touting authority and accountability—everyone on my team should feel empowered to share their insights and recommendations, raise their hands for opportunities, make decisions, and flag concerns.

That’s really important in an environment where innovation is happening quickly, and our business partners are trying to take products and services to market quickly.

For example, PayPal announced four acquisitions in just five weeks’ time as part of a concerted effort to continue strengthening our merchant services offerings. Given this timeline and the legal expertise required for these types of deals, my team worked in close partnership with the business to quickly advance these deals and to share best practices across the team to improve our process for vetting and executing acquisitions.

What I’ve learned is that once my team members are empowered—and supported—they begin to feel personally vested in helping to deliver optimal results and partnering with colleagues to help the business win.

What regulatory changes do you foresee impacting PayPal and the larger online payment industry?

What we’ve seen in Europe, by way of privacy protections like GDPR, is setting the standard around the globe. I think we’ll continue to see similar regulatory frameworks for privacy in other countries. Regulators are also continuing to focus on cybersecurity, making sure companies do all they can to protect all the data elements they collect.

In addition, I anticipate that we’ll continue to see evolution in the anti-money laundering space and in fraud prevention and detection, specifically. So, again, because we’re touching important aspects of customers’ lives and businesses, we’ll continue to see regulations squarely focused not only on ensuring a good customer experience but also on protecting customers.

Similarly, what technologies do you anticipate impacting PayPal and the larger online payment industry?

Artificial intelligence will continue to play a significant role not just in our business but in the larger payments industry. We see examples of that in one of the companies we recently acquired, Jetlore, where they’re using artificial intelligence to optimize predictive retailing. We’re also very focused on making sure we meet customers where they are, whether shopping in-store, online, or in new contexts.

You’ve promoted diversity in the tech sector–tell us about your participation in PayPal’s women’s network?

I’m proud of the work that we’ve done at PayPal in this area. As of our last report, 43 percent of our global workforce is female, and we continue to work toward maintaining a strong balance. A couple of months ago we also hosted a delegation from the Congressional Black Caucus to talk about diversity in the tech sector and Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, PayPal chief executive Dan Schulman has signed onto the [CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion], a [CEO-led business pledge] in which a number of CEOs have come together to create more inclusive environments in their respective organizations.

On a personal note, since joining PayPal, I’ve become the executive sponsor for our women’s interest network, Unity. One event we recently had, called Life Hacks, brought together a group of senior leaders from across the company to talk about how they manage busy professional lives with family and personal commitments.

We’ve also launched Amplify, our black employee network, and I’m really pleased that we’re up and running there, too.

Can you share a little bit about your collaboration with PayPal’s legal officer, Louise Pentland, and some of the lessons she’s imparted since she tapped you for this GC role?

We are one of a handful of companies that has a chief legal officer and a general counsel. It’s a neat structure that Louise Pentland, with her foresight, crafted for PayPal, about a year and a half ago. With her taking on an expanded role as [executive vice president of] chief business affairs, she created a general counsel role for me. I would love to see other companies model this opportunity.

Some of the challenges women and minorities face at Fortune 500 companies is the whole predicament where, if you’re not a general counsel but a deputy interested in making a move, you may [not find opportunities to rise through] the ranks to become general counsel. So I applaud Louise for the work that she’s done in creating this opportunity.

In terms of lessons imparted, this is my first public company and general counsel role. It’s been great to collaborate with Louise on a range of matters, from working directly with our board of directors to navigating novel global issues.

As you close out your second year as PayPal’s senior vice president and general counsel, what can customers and industry colleagues expect next from you and your team?

Our company values—innovation, collaboration, inclusion, and wellness—are the lens through which I view what we do. I’m also focused on ensuring that as a legal team, we continue to optimize how we work together, and that we’re aligned more on metrics in our day-to-day activities to better measure output.

On the D&I front, I’m focused on what we can do as a legal team not only to advance diversity and inclusion efforts internally but beyond PayPal, through our use of minority- and women-owned law firms, as an example. We’ll continue to push ahead with those efforts, because I think it’s really important for us to think about how we can also support our communities.

Louise and I share a passion for this and actually partnered to launch PayPal’s global pro bono program back in 2015. We’ve seen some great momentum in this program and in an effort to build on this, I’ve asked that our legal team commit at least 12 hours of pro bono or volunteer activity in their local communities this year. We’re well on our way to meeting, and likely exceeding, this goal.

I also want us to be an employer of choice, so I’m focused on finding opportunities for our employees to develop their careers. And then, ultimately, we’re here to serve and protect our customers, as well as provide proactive support to our business partners to deliver value to our shareholders. That’s just a sampling of all the things you’ll continue to see.

This profile originally appeared in In-House In Brief, a biweekly newsletter of Big Law Business and the In-House Council. To receive up-to-the-minute news and analysis curated specifically for in-house counsel, subscribe for free todayLearn more about the In-House Council event series.