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Black in Tech: Damien Atkins, Chief Legal Officer at Aura

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Our Black in Tech series features the career path & advice from Black professionals in the tech industry. In this Q&A, Damien Atkins, Chief Legal Officer at Aura shares his story.


Where did you grow up and what were you like as a child? What did your parents do for work? 

I am originally from Oakland, CA, but moved around a lot because my father was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. I lived in Ecuador, Panama and went to high school in Washington, DC. My mom was a special education and elementary school teacher. 

As a kid, I was a sports and sci-fi fanatic and somewhat of a know-it-all. I still am. 

Damien Atkins Aura

Did you go to college? If so, what did you study and what did you do after graduating? 

I went to Stanford University for undergrad and New York University Law School for my law degree. As an attorney, I have worked at law firms, three startups, AOL, Panasonic, and Hershey. 

What inspired you to get into the tech industry?

I kind of fell into the tech industry by accident. By chance, I joined an internet startup in 2000 and since then I have always loved the tech space. In many ways my career journey has been characterized by working in organizations that are grappling with changes driven by technology. Some of the organizations have been part of driving the change and others have been trying to adapt to it. It’s fascinating to me.

In addition, the tech sector is extraordinarily talent dense and full of intellectually curious and forward thinking people. Being around people like this is a constant source of inspiration. 

What has your career path looked like in tech and the various positions you’ve held before joining Aura? 

I’ve worked in mature tech companies like AOL and startups like govworks.com and now Aura. At each one, I’ve worked as a lawyer helping the company execute its strategy. Sometimes the companies have succeeded and created a lot of value, while others didn’t do as well and went bankrupt. Each experience, however, has been immensely valuable. 

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position as Chief Legal Officer at Aura?

As Chief Legal Officer at Aura, my primary aim is to add value, insight, and energy to the organization. In addition, I aim to develop and inspire our team as well as develop future leaders. Lastly, I strive to identify and mitigate legal, compliance, financial and reputational issues such that the enterprise can successfully execute its strategy. 

What has attributed to your success thus far and what types of obstacles have you had to overcome along the way as a Black professional? 

I think having a deep sense of curiosity as well as having confidence are critically important. In addition, having a well developed network of relationships across industries and specialties has enabled me to increase the chances for me to be in the path of opportunities. Lastly, I think being willing to help others on their journey irrespective has been hugely beneficial. 

In terms of obstacles that I have overcome, I tend to see obstacles as opportunities and a chance to have a high performance mindset. One of my favorite sayings in my favorite book “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius is “the obstacle is the way.” What that means is what stands in your path will become the springboard to propel you along the path. So, being the only black person in a role or a company helps with what may be perceived to be an obstacle. But in reality, it's a great opportunity to stand out and show your value. Lastly, it's important to focus on those things that are in your direct control like your attitude, willingness to work hard, and delivering value. 

What types of programs and initiatives does Aura have that support diversity, equity, and inclusion?

We have some great business resource groups that have developed second to none programming. For example, for Black History month we have a book club where we are reading “Caste”, by Isabel Wilkerson. 

What advice would you give to other Black professionals who are interested in joining the tech industry? 

First, acquire skills that are in demand in the space, whether it's software engineering,  marketing or IT.  And be excellent at those skills. Second, be confident in your abilities and don’t shy away from opportunities to learn from people who are different from you. Third, build relationships with people in the space and make yourself valuable to people who are doing interesting things in the space.

While general awareness of the problem of diversity in the tech industry is a step forward, to make a lasting change, real actions need to be taken.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what companies or employees can do to step up and make a difference?

First, companies need to focus on what the real drivers of excellence are when recruiting and evaluating talent. For lawyers, those drivers are grit, curiosity, excellent communication skills, and high EQ. I look for and measure for that when I recruit and promote. Second, it's critically important to have a diverse slate of candidates for every role or promotion. Lastly, it's important that companies measure and compensate leaders based on their performance against diversity goals to truly make a difference. Incentives drive behavior always.

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