Shaila Ruparel’s mother is her biggest influencer and inspiration in life.
After escaping an abusive marriage in Kenya, her mother brought them to the United States to build a new life. Ruparel doesn’t remember her mother feeling hopeless because of the distressing circumstances. “We grew up laughing and smiling,” Ruparel says. “My mother never looked at the past as something that burdened her, but as an opportunity to grow and learn.”
For the rest of her life, Ruparel has held this lesson dear to her and allowed it to guide her throughout her career—just like her mother.
From Nairobi to the Bay Area
Ruparel was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in the third generation of her Hindu Indian family. Before she was born, her mother was arranged to be married to a seemingly ideal partner—a tall, attractive doctor from a good family. The moment they were engaged, however, the abuse started and persisted.
At the time, women in similar situations rarely had the option to simply leave the marriage. So, when Ruparel was born, her mother worried for her daughter’s safety. Luckily, Ruparel’s grandfather “had a little bit of money and was a little bit of a Western thinker,” she says. He knew a child couldn’t be raised in an abusive, discontented environment.
On the evening of her uncle’s wedding, her grandfather arranged for a car to take herself and her mother directly to the airport, offering her a new life in the United States. Once they arrived, her mother became an avid learner, an aspiring educator, and was eventually offered a teaching position in Kentucky, where Ruparel spent some of her favorite childhood years surrounded by a new family of friends and neighbors.
Then, when she was thirteen, her mother explored a different path. She took her CPA exam and applied to KPMG in San Francisco, moving the mother-daughter duo to the West Coast, where Ruparel stayed to earn her bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley.
Ruparel, equipped with a similar passion for learning, took any opportunity to gain more experience in the industry of policy, law, and politics. She took time during her summers at UC Berkeley to gain real-life experience in the field, attending an exchange program at Oxford University, and even working as an intern in the White House during the Clinton administration as part of a domestic policy group.
“My internship was just an incredible experience,” she says. “It lit my fire for politics and made me want to come back to California to do the same kind of work I was doing in DC. I had this passion for politics and policy and wanted to help the underdog and do good for the world.”
And she did, through the yearlong California Executive Fellowship program. Ruparel, appointed by Governor Pete Wilson, worked at the Department of Health Services to create a health insurance program for the children of low-incoming working families.
After attending Vanderbilt University Law School and working as an associate for a couple large Silicon Valley law firms, Ruparel expanded her experience and knowledge of the industry before taking her expertise in-house.
Protecting Data at Finisar
Nearly fourteen years ago, Ruparel landed her current position as associate general counsel for Finisar Corporation, a global leading supplier of optical communication products. She carried the same craving to learn in all aspects of the business. Throughout her career, she’s helped in transactions with complex issues, helping her adapt her problem-solving methods to better serve Finisar’s employees, suppliers, and customers.
“I’ve had the opportunity to touch upon every subject that faces a corporation,” Ruparel explains. “I’ve developed the intuition to recognize red flags and know when to get outside help. While the bread and butter of my practice revolve around commercial agreements, every day I’m touching upon intellectual property questions, employment issues, executive compensation benefits, and corporate social responsibility policies. I’ve really expanded my growth and opportunity in the practice.”
What has been the most fulfilling about your career?
One of the most fulfilling parts of my career, to date, has been the opportunity to handle such a myriad of issues. While the bread and butter of my work are commercial agreements, I have developed a certain expertise in intellectual property matters, executive compensation/ employee benefits, labor matters, etc. Knowing that every day brings a new challenge motivates me to keep learning and to help the company find the right balance between the business and the legal risks/exposure.
Recently, Ruparel used her expertise to address questions and issues with matters focused on privacy. Over the past few years, she created a comprehensive global data privacy program that helps the company define privacy and how to go about protecting information. Stemming from the fact that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has a very broad definition around what is considered personal information, Ruparel was tasked with solidifying where personal data is captured globally at Finisar, assessing how it is shared or transmitted, and informing each branch about best procedures moving forward.
“We used questionnaires to see how data flows throughout the organization,” Ruparel explains. “We had to make sure employee information was compliant with the law, which required cross-functional planning between groups. So, IT and legal worked with every branch of Finisar across the world to educate employees about the law and how to collect business processes. It’s an ongoing program that will continue to grow and hopefully become more robust over time.”
Unsurprisingly, Ruparel identifies strategy work as one of her strong suits, making this data privacy project among the most fulfilling aspects of her job. While she enjoys having the freedom to solve big challenges, she’s constantly grateful to have strong mentors working symbiotically with her, helping each other thrive.
“I like being invited to the table to ask for advice and guidance,” Ruparel says. “I’m able to bring the legal knowledge or framework to a business decision, and I can look beyond the law to see what the facts and circumstances are to determine what direction would be advisable.”
Both in and outside the office, Ruparel holds on to the lessons she learned from her greatest mentors, including her mother. “I am most grateful for the people who have guided me along the way because they often saw something in me before I saw it and they’ve created opportunities for me,” she says. “I am looking forward to be in a place where I can pay forward the time people have taken for me to eventually train the next generation of lawyers to be inventive, creative, valuable, and good global citizens.