Ebele Okobi has what many people would consider a dream career. As the Global Head of Yahoo!’s Business & Human Rights Program, she helps an enormous corporation direct its resources toward effecting social change. She lived and worked all over Europe and in Africa before landing in California with her husband and having three babies and starting the process of adopting one teenager in the span of three years. But she started out as a corporate lawyer.
Ebele graduated from Columbia University School of Law in 1998. She worked as a corporate securities and M&A lawyer at Davis Polk in New York and London. As a third year associate, she realized that she was more engaged by her pro bono clients, including political asylum applicants and battered women seeking no-contest divorces, than by her paying clients. At the beginning of 2001, she took a year to travel and volunteer in New York, Senegal and France, while leaving open the possibility of returning to law.
Then came September 11, 2001, when everything changed. “I lost one of my oldest friends. We’d gone to high school together–he was one of the kindest people I knew, and his life touched so many people,” she says. “After that, I realized that for me, life is too short to spend doing work about which I couldn’t be passionate. I also knew that I wanted my life and my work to have some sort of impact, for good.”
She started as an attorney fellow at Consumers Union, focusing on health care advocacy, and then went to work as the director of advisory services at Catalyst, the premiere research and consulting firm focusing on women and business. When she and her husband decided they wanted to live in Europe again, she persuaded Catalyst to make her its first and only employee in Europe. Then she fell in love with the emerging field of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Although she was initially resistant to the idea of an MBA (she cheerfully admits to leaving before actually graduating), Ebele went to business school in Paris in order to develop expertise which would help her move into operational roles. She then joined Nike’s management development program, where her rotations included a new business concept launch, a manager effectiveness project in Northern Europe, and helping the Africa strategy team align its CSR, sports marketing and distributor strategies.
When she read about the opening for her current job at Yahoo!, she felt that the position had been made for her. Yahoo! appreciated her legal background as well as her diverse business experience and education.
In fact, Ebele has drawn on her legal experience at every stage of her career. Being an associate, for example, taught her client service skills. “I’ve found that having been trained to focus on the client is excellent practice for putting the consumer first,” she says. “And the research that I conducted and analyzed as a lawyer proved handy in guiding my thinking around what women want in the marketplace at Nike.”
Ebele loves what she does now. “I am fascinated by the nexus between doing “good” and doing well. I don’t believe that they are mutually exclusive, and I believe that companies have a responsibility, and a challenge, to do both.” The process of getting there, while never straightforward, sounds pretty amazing too: “I got the chance to live in Paris, to run in Casablanca, dance in Rio, cheer in Nuremburg, and learn from and work with classmates from every corner of the world. I’m now working for a company I love, in a position in which I feel fully engaged, and from which I am learning what feels like a million new things every day.” Ebele’s story is a phenomenal example of what can happen when your idealism leads you away from law and, maybe, toward a career in CSR.