In honor of Black History Month, we are pleased to feature a Davis Polk partner and alumna with different yet equally interesting career paths: Uzo Asonye, who joined the firm in 2020, is a partner in our White Collar Defense & Investigations group in Washington DC and a member of the Black Affinity Group Steering Committee. Stephanie Dorsey (NY ’17) is the co-founder and managing partner of E²JDJ, a venture capital firm that backs entrepreneurs leveraging technology to innovate food production and create sustainable food systems.
Read on to learn more about their unique career paths and tremendous accomplishments in their respective fields.
Stephanie, tell us about how you became interested in sustainable food production and why you decided to start your company.
SD: I come from a family of entrepreneurs and knew that one day I would become one. From my perspective, founding a venture capital firm is truly the best of both worlds. I get the privilege of both being an entrepreneur and supporting founders who dare to think differently, push boundaries, do what has never been done, and nudge the world ahead to transform it for the better. After a lot of groundwork and market mapping, my co-founder and I refined our investment thesis and, in 2021, officially launched our VC firm, E²JDJ. We were fortunate to have incredible supporters, advisers, collaborators, investors and founders who have put their faith in us to execute on our strategy. The firm’s name, E²JDJ, is composed of the initials of our last names and those of our respective late grandparents, whose names we carry as our middle names. They inspired us to be entrepreneurs and investors.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to developing a sustainable food production system? Can you also comment on how to build a sustainable system in light of global population increase?
SD: There is a powerful convergence of macro megatrends, technological advances and sustainability demands that are driving an incredible amount of innovation in the food and agriculture industry. Our agricultural system is failing – operating on a linear path within planetary boundaries, constraining producer economics, disconnected from consumer trust and relevance, enabling chronically unhealthy Western diets while leaving many people around the world undernourished. Yet, agriculture is the single strongest lever to optimize environmental sustainability, human health and life on earth. We ultimately need to make today’s methods of food production cleaner, less wasteful and less environmentally damaging. We need to do more with less.
What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
SD: Helping businesses grow is what wakes me up in the morning. I love working with businesses that share my core values and founders who are deeply committed to creating a better future. Founders have a passion, hunger and eagerness in whatever space they pursue. They tend to be 100% focused on the problem with an obsessive, almost maniacal commitment because it resonates so deeply. True entrepreneurs have the tenacity and ability to work very hard to see opportunities where other people see roadblocks, to see possibilities where other people see closed doors, to imagine things that don’t exist that need to exist that will solve real problems in the marketplace.
What advice would you give to lawyers interested in entrepreneurship?
SD: The skill set that comes from a legal education and time spent in the legal field is incredibly helpful in building a company. A legal background enables you to grasp the entirety of complex issues and understand the intricate web that makes an issue complex. These skills are exactly what are required to think through and understand a business. The core of any attorney’s craft is questioning, analyzing and simplifying. This core competency helps lead to strong and solid conclusions when navigating areas where there are no clear answers and attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before.
What are the most important decisions you can make as an entrepreneur?
SD: The most consequential decisions you make are related to people, and the choice of who to add to your team is paramount. Entrepreneurs will want to ensure that the new teammates share the values of the firm and the vision for what they are building. They also must be super talented, add unique perspectives, introduce additional networks and bring complementary skill sets.
Can you give a few examples of startups you have invested in?
SD: Vori is a software platform that connects data across the food supply chain and streamlines operations. It helps grocery stores buy, manage and sell inventory that they procure from their hundreds of wholesale suppliers – moving them away from the inefficient, archaic methods they rely on today. This solution also helps reduce food waste considerably. The founding team is incredibly talented and led by a second-time entrepreneur with deep experience in the grocery space.
Have any mentors been particularly helpful to you in your career?
SD: I had great mentors during my time at Davis Polk that I am very grateful for. There are really too many to name, but I will give a special thanks to the white collar group (including Sidney Bashago, Martine Beamon, Greg Andres, Angela Burgess and Tatiana Martins), Michael Flynn, Adrienne Adkins and Tom Reid.
– Uzo Asonye
Uzo, you started your career in private practice and, after several years, joined the Financial Crimes and Public Corruption Unit of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. Tell us why you decided to make the move into government.
UA: I have always had a strong interest and commitment to public service. Working at the Department of Justice gave me a chance to strengthen my community and leave a positive mark on society. After five years of training as a as a white collar defense associate in private practice, I also wanted to experience the other side of the investigations practice. Serving in government allowed me to more independently lead and manage my own cases from start to finish, sharpen my oral advocacy skills by appearing regularly in court, and try jury cases more regularly. Moreover, the cases I investigated and prosecuted were personally meaningful and often nationally relevant. At the time I made the move to government, I expected to stay approximately four years, but I ultimately served over 10 years, principally because the work was fulfilling and my colleagues were outstanding.
You worked for the United States Attorney’s Office from 2010 to 2020. Tell us about your experience there, including your time in the Office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
UA: In my view, being a federal prosecutor is one of the best jobs a young lawyer can hold. With a guiding mission to achieve justice, the camaraderie and the espirit de corps are tremendous at the Department of Justice. But many do not realize how much time a federal prosecutor, who specializes in fraud and public corruption cases, spends investigating potential cases rather than litigating and trying those cases. I spent approximately 60% to 70% of my time investigating and building cases as opposed to trying them in court. Much of that time I worked alongside various federal law enforcement agents from the FBI, IRS, CIA and a host of other agencies, developing cases. Yet, many of those cases were never brought or prosecuted because there was insufficient evidence or I exercised prosecutorial discretion to decline the case. I consider my decision not to prosecute certain cases just as important – if not more significant – than those matters that went forward.
What do you find most satisfying about your work?
UA: I like helping people. Whether it is in the private or public sphere, fundamentally a lawyer’s job is to serve the client. I find the work of advising, guiding and advocating for clients deeply satisfying.
What advice would you give to lawyers that has guided your own career?
UA: My best piece of advice is to be proactive about the development of your own career and to be open to different challenges. I have seen too many lawyers entirely shaped by paths that others have created or dictated for them. While every lawyer must contribute to the success of the organization, it is important to have a voice in your own career development and be appropriately assertive about the kinds of experiences you seek.
You joined Davis Polk in 2020. What drew you to the firm?
UA: After a decade in government, I wanted a new challenge. I wanted to continue to work on important cases, tackle the most challenging legal issues, and surround myself with exceptional lawyers. In that respect, Davis Polk set itself apart. Most importantly, I was drawn to Davis Polk by its people, including a number of lawyers I worked with in public service. As I mentioned, Greg Andres, now co-head of our white collar practice, and I worked together in the Special Counsel’s Office. Neil MacBride, a former Davis Polk partner who recently was confirmed as the general counsel of the U.S. Treasury Department, hired me first into public service. For multiple years of my government service, partner Paul Nathanson sat two doors down from me in the same unit. When I became acting chief of the Financial Crimes and Public Corruption Unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I worked closely with Dan Kahn, who was then at the fraud section and is now yet another white collar partner at Davis Polk. I have deep respect for all of these lawyers as human beings and as professionals, and the other Davis Polk lawyers I met shared the same values and vision. I could not be more thrilled to have joined the Davis Polk team.
Tell us about your experience serving on the firm’s Black Affinity Group Steering Committee.
UA: BAG reached out to me shortly after my arrival at Davis Polk, and I felt immediately welcomed to the firm. I have tried to be as active in the group as possible. BAG provides a space for participants to be open and candid about some of the unique challenges that Black lawyers face in the legal profession. I really appreciate having that special space and group of people to lean on and support when needed.
The plentiful programming from BAG, supported by our DEI team and others, is another way to culturally engage within the firm and to develop relationships with people outside my practice group. The BAG steering committee meets fairly regularly, and we also collaborate with steering committees of the other affinity groups.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion issues are important to me. So too is the development of Black attorneys. Being involved with BAG is another means for me to advance issues that are very important to me personally.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
UA: Black History Month is a crucial observance for us as individuals, organizations and a country to reflect on and celebrate the important contributions, accomplishments and experiences of African Americans, and the central role of African Americans in shaping U.S. history, society and culture. Black history is an integral part of American history but is often overlooked or neglected. Black History Month spotlights the lasting impact Black people have made to society, which is particularly relevant and timely given the racial justice issues our country has recently faced. It also serves as a reminder of the ongoing work that must be advanced to achieve full equality.