Episode 11: Interview with Shanti Ariker, GC & Chief Privacy Officer at Zendesk

How do you build that business-savvy legal team? In this episode, Stine teams up with Shanti Ariker, General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer at Zendesk, to learn just how she did that and the impact it had on the team and the company.


Welcome to inspiring legal, the podcast for inhouse legal. 

Get insights, learn from peers, life lessons from some of the most influential GCs. If it's related to inhouse legal, we cover it. For more inspiration, go to openli.com/community.

Stine: Welcome to another episode of Inspiring Legal. My name is Stine and today I'm joined by Shanti. You will hear much more about her in a second, but I can tell you she has a very impressive resume, working for some of the biggest tech companies. Shanti, welcome. 

Shanti: Thank you so much for having me today. It's great to be here. I just wanted to welcome everybody to the podcast and I'm excited to be here. 

Stine: We are super excited to have you on. What we're going to be talking about today is making legal a part of the business. How do you get legal to be that business partner that not only helps protect the business, but adds value too as well? That's something that I know that you've been very passionate about, Shanti, during your career. 

But before we jump into it, I would love for the listeners to get a little bit of flavor into your background and who you are so they get to know you as well. 

Shanti: I am currently the general counsel of Zendesk, which is a large CRM software company that mainly focuses on customer support and customer success. But previously I've worked at other large companies, as you mentioned, including Twilio, Autodesk, and Salesforce. 

So in my time, I've done a lot to grow large tech companies and to really work side by side and hand in hand with the business folks. So it's not just tech companies. These are some of the biggest in the world. If you know about SaaS businesses and you know about tech, you definitely know about Salesforce and Twilio and Zendesk. 

Stine: So how did you get into the tech as general counsel? How did that start? 

Shanti: So really, it started quite a long time ago with my interest in science and technology. My father was a physicist and always interested me in that sort of thing, even though I was an English major. 

So while I never went into the technology field myself or became a technologist, I was always really inspired to understand about it and wanted to, and having grown up actually in Silicon Valley, I wanted to be near that and be part of it in whatever way I could. 

So when I became a lawyer, I thought, what better way to honor kind of my father's legacy than to continue in the tech field myself. So when I did start out, though, I was at a big law firm on Wall Street and then moved to the Bay Area and was working in the litigation group of a Bay Area law firm. And I really did want to move in-house and work in tech. And in order to do that, I got a little bit lucky and was asked to go in-house by one of my clients. 

So I did that, but I eventually started to work more on technology agreements and work on commercial agreements. And so that, you know, really got me much closer into the business because litigation, you know, you learn like maybe one facet related to a case, but not as much about the whole business. And so as I started to work more on technology transactions, I learned about what the concerns of the business were, what the needs were, and, you know, over time have delved more and deeply into business areas. 

Stine: So you mentioned it, getting closer to the business, and I think this is something that lawyers are becoming better at doing. 

But what would you say have been kind of like the development over the last, let's say, ten years, in your opinion, has it changed? Have lawyers changed as much as the business? And how have you seen this develop? 

Shanti: Yeah, I think, you know, over my career, there's been a big shift between inside and outside counsel, right? So there were much smaller legal departments in-house when I started to practice law. There might even be no general counsel or just a general counsel and no staff, maybe one person at most. But now, you know, some of these companies that I've worked at have hundreds of lawyers or even thousands of lawyers on some of the larger FANG companies like Google, Facebook, et cetera. And so they're almost like whole legal firms in and of themselves. So, you know, the practice of law in-house has really changed quite a bit because you have to specialize, you're much more focused on creating value for the business and really understanding the business. 

And so, you know, the companies where I've worked, we've had, you know, larger legal teams, but not enormous. And I think where you can really add value and where I've been able to add value is to really understand the business. And what do I mean by that? And it's not just about my little area. 

You know, when I was hired at Salesforce, I was mainly working on the master subscription agreement. And certainly I know my way around an indemnity clause and limitation of liability. And then but you have to understand a little bit about the use cases of the customer, what they're looking to put into the system as by way of data, the privacy areas of regulation and where that could trip you up and depending on which country you're in. 

But the more the longer that I'm in a company, the more I'm interested in, you know, what is exactly what is their product do? And where are the things where are the where are the problems and the issues that are facing customers when they're trying to use the product? And how can you as a lawyer bring those to the business and make them understand where they're where there are these friction points that you can help solve? 

Often they don't they don't earn in those conversations, in those negotiations. So they don't necessarily know, you know, sometimes they'll be in a good example is a very acquisitive company may have acquired a bunch of different products and not put them on the same platform. And so when you're negotiating an agreement, suddenly you've got six different security standards or the data is residing in different places or it's being processed in different ways. 

And so you don't want to have the same security addendum apply. And the customer doesn't care because they just want one set of terms. And so getting that in front of the business so that they can integrate more quickly so that you have less terms to deal with is is a help. 

It helps the customer. It helps the business grow. It helps the negotiation go faster. It helps sales velocity. All those different things, you know, just toiling away in the legal team with those same issues without raising it to the business, I think, doesn't do as much justice to you both your role in the business and to the business itself. So that's just one example. 

Stine: So as the general counsel for Zendesk and coming on board and then building out that business savvy in-house team. How do you do that? 

Shanti: You know, you really want to focus on hiring people that understand that we're here to help the business. Obviously, we're here to make sure that we have less risk and that we do things in an ethical way with integrity. 

But at the same time, you know, what is the shortest way to get something accomplished and how can we do it with business savvy? So and what do I mean by that? You know, it's it's around thinking about how would I look at this from the perspective of a business person? 

And I actually brought in somebody who had been a prior general counsel to talk to my team about how to to write like a business person so that, you know, often lawyers will learn from law firms to write in memos and to write out all of the details, which is super important as a lawyer to go through the details, to go through the arguments, to understand all the nuances and the weighing of your judgment calls. But the business person often just wants the answer. 

And the answer may not be cut and dry from the lawyer's perspective. But, you know, if you can come up with a recommendation and then you can back it up with some of the reasoning, I think that is what people are looking for. And, you know, in in-house, you often get these little snippets like TL;DR, which stands for a too long, didn't read. 

And so you have to kind of think about, you know, all of the words that they're going to be seeing on the page. They're not going to want to read a really, really long thing. So that's just one example of what I've tried to do to help my team think like a business person. 

Stine: You also have been talking about legal as a business partner, and that is something that you've been working on both at Send Us but also prior. 

Could you maybe tell the listeners about how you've been maybe trying to get legal seen as a business partner, but also become that business partner? 

Shanti: Yeah, I think it really begins. There's a couple of things. One is, you know, getting a seat at the table is very, very important for legal. And often people say, you know, there's no real need to bring legal in at this point. 

And they'll work on a project and they'll go far down the road and then they'll come with to legal with a specific question. You know, can I do can I send out this type of an email in this country, you know, without having, you know, say in Germany, am I allowed to send this to somebody who's not a customer? And legal will say, well, no, under GDPR in Germany or have a double opt in, you cannot do that. 

They don't come and ask the question that oftentimes that would start at the beginning, which is, you know, what are you trying to accomplish? I'm trying to grow my business in this area, say, in Germany. And so, you know, if you come to legal and say, here's what I'm actually trying to accomplish. Instead of going all the way down the road of I'm going to do it the way that I do it in every other country, instead, come to legal and say, here's what I'm here's the business thing that we're trying to accomplish. 

And what can you tell me about what the rules are in this place or in this area? And legal might say, well, you know, you can't operate the same way in Germany that you operate in other places. But here's what I've seen be successful in Germany with other companies or with other partners that we have. And so if you go about it this way, you'll be successful or more successful and not violate the rules and things like that. 

And so it's very, very important from my perspective and much better for the business to bring legal in from the get go. And that might mean treating legal much more like the same way you would treat an HR BP or a finance BP, bringing them into the early discussions, having them come to the staff meeting, having them be in the off sites in the planning phases so that when you're planning out your net, you know, oh, we're going to be opening a new office in London or somewhere else. 

You know, so that legal can be thinking about, you know, how can we best support the business in this new region? What are the things that we might need to think about? Do we need to make translations available? Do we need to have local support? You know, what about time zone issues? What about the legal issues that, you know, we may not have expertise in? Do we need to bring in some new outside counsel to get us up to speed on these things? You know, having being being integrated into those business conversations early on allows legal to also help and plan and think about it so that it's not a, you know, scramble for the legal team. 

But also, you're not asking them the wrong questions and you're getting to the real heart of what you're trying to accomplish from a business perspective. So when you're getting your in-house legal teams to be that business partner, to joining those meetings and getting a part of, let's call it like if they're supporting marketing, becoming a part of that marketing team, how have you seen that impact the legal team? Like that person, are they more motivated? Do they feel closer to the business? Do they feel further away from their legal colleagues? So how have you seen that develop? 

I think it's usually very well received by the lawyers. Sometimes it can be a hard nut to crack because, you know, say take marketing, they may not understand why do we need the lawyer sitting at the table? We're talking about things that are related. You know, maybe there's some happy medium where they come to some meetings but not others. 

But I do think over time when they see the model working, they realize how beneficial it is. And I do think that the lawyers really enjoy it because then they get to see more than what they, you know, the tiny sliver that they're often only relegated to. And lawyers don't like to be feeling siloed, that they're just being asked about these legal, three legal issues. And oftentimes lawyers have broader perspectives on the business, on what's happening. Like me, many people join their companies because they're interested in what the company does, you know. 

I met a lawyer who was, who's the general counsel of a shoe company. And this company makes shoes out of recycled materials. She had such fascinating stories about all of the things and how the product was made. She knew so much about the shoes, the process, etc. And lawyers are really interested in delving deep. And so I think getting them involved makes them better lawyers and understand the process, understand some of the limitations maybe of the product or the company or all the other things. 

I think it makes them more empathetic to what the business people also have to consider. So I think it just, it helps everybody as one team. And I don't think that it separates the lawyers from the rest of the legal team in any way. 

Stine: Does it also mean that you're seeing the attorneys or the lawyers on the team maybe broaden their skill sets as well? 

Shanti: Absolutely. Recently, one of the lawyers that reports to me asked if she could take some of her development money and use it on a mini MBA course. I actually had taken the same course and I thought that was a great application of the, you know, to broaden her skill set. 

Because it does, those types of courses and just working more broadly with the business allows you to really stretch your muscles, think strategically about the business. You know, there are definitely lawyers who are interested in moving over to the business side and that kind of gives you an entree into that world to see, is that something that might interest you? You know, and certainly you could stay as a lawyer and still be strategic and think about the business. 

You know, I sit at our management team level. And so, you know, when things come up in the business, I opine on the legal risks and issues. But I also opine on non-legal issues because I'm one of the management team. And so I think that it's helpful to have a broader view of the business so that you can think about everything, not just the legal issues. 

Stine: So when your legal teams are talking about the work that they're doing, does it mean that contract negotiations, like the classic legal work, as you might call it, right, is becoming less of what they're using their time on and more on advising the business? 

Or how do you see those types of, let's call it, assignments and job roles that you have change? 

Shanti: I mean, it's definitely true that you have to still do the work. You know, the table stakes of the legal team is working on the, you know, if you're on the commercial team, working on the deals. But the more you understand about the product itself, the better you're going to be at negotiating those deals. Because if a customer says, well, I don't know why you can't agree to this or that because your product doesn't do that, you might say, well, actually, it does do that. 

And here's how I know this. So, yes, it may take a little bit more time and you have to balance that with, you know, the workload that you have and some companies that are stretched thin, especially right now, that may be harder to do. But I do think it's worth the extra effort because you will get a better understanding of why, you know, you take the positions that you need to take in your negotiations, as one example. 

Stine: We have a lot of listeners that are either general counsels, head of legals, or aspiring head of legals or general counsels. What are your recommendations or tips and tricks for them when they're sitting and thinking, I would love to become closer to the business. I would love to get a say. 

I would love to be sitting like next to the rest of the management group. What would be your kind of tips and tricks as to how they should go about it? 

Shanti: I mean, I think a lot of business is about relationships and getting to know each other, understanding, you know, I think the more you have build those relationships with people in the C-suite or otherwise, it doesn't have to be at the top level of the company. 

And, you know, as you're moving up, you're not going to have entree to be able to just call the CFO, but really learning, you know, what your counterparts are working on, what their interests are, where their concerns are, ask them about, you know, where they see the friction points that you can help with. You know, you can always be figuring ways of doing something better. And, you know, when you're moving up or trying to move up, being the person that people view as figuring out solutions is always going to be advantageous for you. 

And then using that as talking points going forward to say, like, I was able to, you know, take our master subscription agreement and take it from a  pages down to seven, you know, and that allowed us to have faster sales velocity, or I was able to bring up this issue and then help to solve it. You know, not just bringing up problems, but also bringing the solutions as much as you can.

Stine: So at Zendesk, I could imagine that you have legal counsel sitting across the world. So how do you bring together that team? How do we make sure that they're aligned? 

Shanti: So, you know, I personally do have, you know, we have about  people on the team. They're all over the globe, different time zones. What I have tried to do since I've been at Zendesk is to ensure that we have monthly all hands meetings and that we vary the time so that they're not always at like am Pacific so that people are, you know, it's the middle of the night for somebody in APAC. 

So we vary the times. We try to have some fun events. We're having a virtual holiday event twice today, for example. And, you know, we do also try to do local things. We were able to get some budget to put together an offsite in January so that we can all meet in person, which we haven't been able to do for several years now. And we're very much looking forward to that. But we also do things like playbooks that have very specific fallback suggestions, not just the language, but the reasoning behind the language, which is super important so that everybody can get on the same page. 

We use collaboration tools like Slack so that people can ask questions, can raise issues, can talk to each other in real time or asynchronously. And that I think is really helpful so that people can be on the same page. And then, you know, on the commercial team, they have syncs as well about what's happening. And, you know, so each segment within the team will liaise on the issues that they're facing. 

Stine: Today, when you're looking at your team and talking about scaling and ensuring alignment, what have been some of the biggest wins that you've seen? 

Shanti: So, you know, we've had a lot of great wins. I think first, you know, what I try to do is make sure that the team isn't overwhelmed. And so from the time that I started at Zendesk until now, I was able to almost double the size, more than double the size of the team. And I did that through using metrics. And I think when I first was interviewing for the position, I definitely got the sense that people were overworked and overwhelmed. And so to me, it's a big win to get that kind of appreciation for the legal team that we were able to grow the headcount so much. 

Second, I think it's just making sure that people understand how important the legal team is to the company and we're always getting that feedback and just feeling like we are getting that integration into the teams is a big win. And then finally, things like, you know, starting an ESG committee so that we could have all of the alignment that we have with our diversity, equity, inclusion that happens sometimes on the partner team, you know, along with what, sorry, the marketing team, along with our sustainability, people that work on sustainability and then other areas of ESG. 

So I think, you know, when I first got to the company, that all those different facets were being worked on in different areas of the company and our disclosures and our website, maybe marketing towards potential candidates and things like that and without necessarily always checking in with each other. And so now we actually centralized it in a committee where we get together at least quarterly and we understand kind of what everybody is working on, what the goals are for each of the segments and then, you know, how we can support each other on that so that I think it's more holistic and we have a better company wide approach going forward. So that's another big win, I think, for the legal team. 

Stine: So metrics, as it sounds like, have been a key driver for being able to showcase the success of legal, getting more headcounts. I know a lot of people, especially working in-houses, struggling with just identifying what metrics, identifying what data they need. 

Can you share maybe just a little insights as to what it is that you're looking for and what you're measuring on? 

Shanti: Sure. So, you know, we use Zendesk for our tool. So it's a ticketing system that, you know, when somebody has a legal request, they file a ticket with the legal team. So we're able to count the tickets and measure against prior years. So that also informs us as to whether we have sufficient headcount because we can look at the ratios. We can see what the specific tickets are about. So we can say like, oh, this is how many data subject right requests came in or this is how many MSAs came, you know, requests came in versus other types of tickets. 

We can also see how many people who worked on each ticket. So we can really break down, you know, productivity, what type of work we need to have support for. And that really, really helps. But, you know, I think you can also, if you don't have a system like that, you can just look at number of agreements, type of agreements, number of people, you know, increases in the various things that you're seeing. And pretty much the way I always put it is anything that you can count can become a metric for you. 

Stine: So, when people out there are sitting and listening and getting inspired by you. 

My question to you is, is there anybody inspiring you? Or is there anywhere you go for insights or inspirational material that you could pass on to the listeners?

Shanti: One of the people that has been really inspiring to me is Michelle Banks, who was my coach. She had been the general counsel at the Gap for a number of years and now she coaches other lawyers and she's been very inspirational. She's written a book recently about women in the law and she does a lot of great pro bono related to aspiring women of color and she just does so much to support women. So she is a great support and always somebody who I like to turn to for advice. 

Stine: So, Michelle Banks sounds as if she is an inspiring woman. So thank you for that tip. And thank you so much Shanti for joining us today on the podcast talking about how legal can become a stronger business partner, and how we can showcase all the great work that the legal teams are delivering to the business. So thank you so much for sharing your insights. 

Shanti: Thank you so much for having me. This was great.

Thank you so much for listening to Inspiring Legal. Remember to subscribe and if you want more information, you can always go to openli.com/community.