As a child, Lauren Neiswender remembers her mother getting dressed for work, donning a suit before her commute to the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The morning regimen captivated the young Neiswender, who admired her mother’s professionalism. That quality took root in Neiswender’s mind as her own career blossomed years later.
Neiswender sees strong role models like her mother behind each turning point in her career—a professional journey filled with mentors and lessons that equipped her to run a legal department from the ground up. Now as general counsel, ethics compliance officer, and corporate secretary for Blue Nile, the largest online retailer of diamonds and jewelry in the United States, Neiswender knows that genuine success includes mentorship, career mindfulness, and the ability to develop a distinctive leadership style as she continues to guide the Seattle-based company toward new triumphs.
Adults around the young Neiswender often pinpointed the qualities that marked her for a legal profession. “When children are particularly strong at negotiating, often adults will say, ‘You should be a lawyer,’” Neiswender says, laughing. “From a very early age, I felt like it was in my head.”
Such introspection eventually led Neiswender to Emory University, where she studied political science and environmental science. That’s also where she experienced another turning point—the debate team. Neiswender credits her coach and debate partner, both women, as huge influences on her career path. “At the time, it was pretty unheard of for two women debaters to be together in a top-ranked program,” she says, later adding, “I think that there is a tendency, not just in law, for women to doubt themselves more, to wait until they’re overqualified for a job to raise their hand. But I would say, be there, be present, and let it be known that you want it.”
Neiswender’s coach persuaded her to take a year off after graduation, a point of debate she is grateful to have conceded. “The debate training seeps in, and you have a very strong point of view, but I was not trained at all in the art of listening, which is one of the most important things to do in your career,” Neiswender says. “I feel like whether you’re a woman or a man, it’s important to have your own voice and perspective and your own style—but that doesn’t mean be inflexible.”
Her year off turned into two years of lobbying on Capitol Hill and working at an environmental law firm before attending the University of Virginia School of Law. Afterwards, Neiswender says the quest to find her “forever job” led her to the West Coast, where the dot-com boom was yielding cutting-edge developments in technology law.
Neiswender’s search stopped in Seattle, where she seized every opportunity as an attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. “From day one I was very involved in deals and by my second year there, I was doing deals,” Neiswender says. “You’re expected to learn very quickly, to dig in, to sink or swim, and if you can figure it out, you can get as much responsibility as you want.” Neiswender also recognized the qualities that made her mentors successful, adopting a leadership style built on confidence that didn’t shut somebody else down, humility to admit what you don’t know, and bravery to say what needs to be said.
A career is not fixed—it’s cultivated, according to Neiswender, who champions professional development first through self-awareness. “It’s important to have that heart-to-heart talk with yourself,” Neiswender says. “For me, that’s always my self-reflection: am I enjoying what I’m doing, am I enjoying the people that I’m working with, is the company still going in the direction that I think is right for creating long-term shareholder value, and am I adding value?”
As a testament to her professional development, Neiswender was a key player behind the scenes of Blue Nile’s initial public offering in May 2004, which ignited her admiration for the specialty retailer. Always mindful of new opportunities, Neiswender approached the then-CEO about a general counsel position—a first for Blue Nile. By that October, Neiswender had transitioned to the new company and faced the challenge of building Blue Nile’s legal team.
“I look for people who I think are smart but not arrogant; somebody who’s willing to say, ‘Here’s what I think based on X, Y, and Z,’ but who’s also willing to listen and learn.”
For Neiswender, passion and appreciation for Blue Nile’s mission extend to her team members, referring to the business model as the opposite of “a fool is born every minute” philosophy. Blue Nile attracts customers who wish to better understand their diamond purchase and the industry. “I love being a part of that transparency and educating consumers to make sure they know that they are getting the best product,” she says.
This education manifests in an online tool that allows consumers to search Blue Nile’s database of more than 200,000 diamonds to get the best product at the best price; a call center with non-commissioned diamond and jewelry consultants serving as customer advocates; and a webroom in New York that Blue Nile recently opened in Roosevelt Field to offer consumers one-on-one interactions in a live environment.
“In the same way Blue Nile is customer-focused, our legal team is customer-focused with its internal customers,” Neiswender says. “I look for people who I think are smart but not arrogant; somebody who’s willing to say, ‘Here’s what I think based on X, Y, and Z,’ but who’s also willing to listen and learn.”
Continuous changes in the laws and regulations applicable to Blue Nile require Neiswender’s team to stay up to date on implementation. “It’s important that the world doesn’t change without us,” she says. “We as a legal team and as a compliance team are staying abreast of those things to make sure we’re not caught flat-footed.” Such preparation includes working closely with security and technology teams to identify and reduce risk such as cyber security.
“What I do really evolves as the company evolves, and there’s always new challenges and new opportunities,” Neiswender says. “When I was young, I remember my mom saying that there are different places and roles for different people that are right for them, and I’ve learned that your journey there will be more exciting if you’re taking those opportunities. You can’t stay in a business that changes all the time and remain static.”