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Tuesday, December 11, 2012
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Vanessa Washington, Senior Executive Vice President | General Counsel & Secretary | Bank of the West
by Tanya Guzman, Souther California Edison & Claudia Castillo, Miller Law Group
Vanessa L. Washington has come a long way from her upbringing in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to build a distinguished career in the financial services industry and has earned a myriad of accolades for both her professional work and community involvement.
Vanessa is a Senior Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary at Bank of the West and also serves as a member of the Bank's Executive Management Committee. She also serves as General Counsel and Secretary for BancWest Corporation, a member of the BNP Paribas Group. She started in 2005 as Executive Vice President in charge of the Bank's legal function, and the Bank quickly recognized her talent and promoted Vanessa to her current position in just one year. Since then, as the Bank has doubled in size, Vanessa's role has grown to include responsibility for the Compliance, Community Reinvestment Act, Security, Business Continuity and Regulatory Relations functions for both the holding company and the Bank. She also serves as a Trustee for the Bank's charitable foundation.
Prior to joining Bank of the West, Vanessa served from 2001 to 2005 as Senior Vice President and Corporate Secretary at Catellus Development Corporation. From 1992 to 2001 she was Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at California Federal Bank.
Vanessa's career in law took flight with a very different path in mind. After earning a degree in criminal justice and psychology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she aspired to a career in politics to reform the penal system in North Carolina. Vanessa then attended UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law and worked in politics. But her stint in politics was short-lived, as Vanessa realized that politics required personal compromises that she was not willing to make, so she shifted her goals.
Vanessa then practiced in Atlanta as a commercial real estate attorney for a few years before answering a head-hunter's call that would lead her to an in-house position with HomeFed Bank, where she helped to develop a work-out group to handle troubled loans. While this has become a common practice with special asset management, it was a new concept when Vanessa was at HomeFed Bank. She enjoyed the process of building something new from the ground up, and her interest in working on new, cutting-edge issues has shaped her career. Vanessa is also drawn to organizations that explore new concepts or ideas, and this has allowed her to build a business-oriented practice. Vanessa recalls being influenced early on during a presentation that she attended two years out of law school. The presenter (a young Ken Chenault who had just moved from the legal department and is now the CEO and Chairman of American Express) delivered a simple message: If you want someone to give you a chance, go to a place in transition, where talent is needed. If you can demonstrate that you have the talent, it will be recognized, and race and gender will not hinder you. Vanessa followed this advice, and it has served her well.
Vanessa steadily climbed the ladder at each company where she has worked. When faced with legal and business challenges, she credits a strong network of contacts and mentors who have helped her throughout the years. Vanessa advises newer attorneys on the importance of networking; she recommends joining organizations that provide genuine enjoyment - and the business and personal connections will flow from that. She has followed this advice, volunteering her time to causes she believes in, including serving on the Boards of CMCP, Boys & Girls Club of Oakland and California Bankers Association.
Vanessa believes that the most important trait an attorney can have is confidence. While challenges will always arise, attorneys must have the confidence that they can conquer each one. Vanessa's own confidence has helped her fuel her career, and she has been recognized accordingly by the legal profession. She was named one of San Francisco's "Most Influential Women" by the San Francisco Business Times in 2008, 2009 and 2010; she was profiled by San Francisco Attorney magazine in a piece entitled "Reinvigorating the Initiative and Celebrating Successful Women: Breaking the Glass Ceiling, (Profiles of Success)" in Spring 2010; and she was featured in The Recorder's "In-House Profile" in October 2010. With such determination and strong sense of self, it's no wonder Vanessa has defied the odds and shattered the glass ceiling!
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