Dianna Renea Jones ’03 Shares Journey from Vanderbilt to Silicon Valley

The Black Law Students Association and Hyatt Fund welcomed Dianna Renea Jones ’03 as the Keynote Speaker for 2024 Black History Month programming. Jones is the Director of Legal and Trade Compliance at Uber Technologies, Inc. She is also a Non-Executive Director of Next 15 Group, a publicly traded technology and data-based growth consultancy firm, where she serves as Chair of the ESG Committee. Dianna has served on the Equity Leadership Counsel at Uber and is the Co-Chair of Uber’s Employee Resource Group, Black at Uber.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Dianna Jones spoke about her career path, Uber’s in-house legal department, the current state of ESG, and more. Below, we highlight key takeaways from the event:

Dianna Jones Career Path

Jones forged her career path by following her interests, expertise, and shifts in the legal industry. The technology and legal landscape looked very different at the beginning of the 21st century. The dot.com bubble burst in 2000, and future tech giants like Google were still in its nascent stages of growth. “There wasn’t much of a tech industry to make my way to,” Jones recalled. In-house law departments were smaller; major corporations outsourced much of the legal work to law firms. “You were looking for firms that either did the kind of work or had the kind of clients you were interested in working for,” she said.

Jones was interested in Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A). She launched her legal career at Winstead, Sechrest & Minick (now Winstead LC) in Houston, practicing M&A in the Oil & Gas industry. She also gained experience building out a global compliance program in the wake of a settlement by Baker Hughes, the largest settlement ever by a global company under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act at the time.

After 5 years in private practice, Jones took a Senior Counsel position at John Wood Group. “I took that in-house role because the company was doing a lot of deals,” she explained. “At that point in my career, one only went in-house if there was substantive work to be done.” Her timing was prescient: the move narrowly preceded the financial crisis of 2008/2009, when M&A work at law firms nearly ground to a halt. “Being in-house with a company that was doing a lot of acquisitions, I was able to continue on that M&A path,” she said.

Over time, Jones found herself drawn to compliance, “because I knew it would enable me to see across the entire global business.” Her work took her across Europe, South America, and Africa, operating in “high-risk” jurisdictions to design and deliver ethics and compliance training programs.

That experience in the high-risk world of Oil & Gas attracted Uber, a company in the midst of a leadership transition that sought to build a strong compliance program ahead of a push to go public. After conducting her own due diligence, Jones accepted the tech giant’s offer. “It was something that, over time, I found my way to,” she reflected.

In-house legal departments have grown in size and scope. The headcount at Uber’s legal department across the globe totals roughly 760 people. The team comprises lawyers, data analysts, paralegals, and personnel to handle physical and information-related security. Legal compliance ensures that the company abides by corruption and bribery laws, as well as regulations at every level of government in all of their markets. “Our team ensures that employees know how to operate in their jurisdictions consistent with those jurisdictions’ laws,” Jones explained. The trade compliance side of her department screens payments, ensures that physical and digital assets are imported and exported legally, ensures proper licensing when required, and more.

The landscape for in-house counsel looks quite different from the one Jones encountered out of law school. “It’s interesting now because across a lot of industries, the legal in-house departments are huge,” she said.

Uber’s “Democratizing” effect on transportation. Jones was partly drawn to Uber because of the company’s impact on travel. “Prior to Uber, if you were a person of color in certain cities, you couldn’t get a taxi,” she said, reflecting on past experiences when white colleagues had to help hail a cab when she or other colleagues of color could not get one to stop. Jones also noted Uber’s effect on cities without reliable public transportation, where the company “became the way that people got from point A to point B.”

“You see the utility in it, but at the same time, you recognize that this was a company that also needed to redirect their growth trajectory and build up their integrity muscle. It’s been fun to be a part of that,” she said.

Corporations pay attention to election cycles but do not build strategies around them. When asked about the potential impact of this year’s elections (in the U.S. and abroad), Jones noted the “need to understand the geopolitical landscape that you’re operating in,” but stressed that decisions are based on the company’s strategy. “I think companies focus on their business model, first and foremost.”

The concept of ESG predates the term. Dianna Jones traced the prevalence of the term Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) back to the start of the pandemic in 2020, when “we could see the interconnectedness of the marketplace. We could see the impact of health and how quickly things could travel. And we could see just how important the working class is.” She noted that while business media may question whether ESG is still important 4 years later, the concept has been in practice for many years, under the label of corporate social responsibility or environment.

“Certain things maybe get politicized that impact companies that were committed to being a good corporate citizen,” she explained. “That doesn’t go away with an election. Things might be navigated differently, perhaps, but your purpose should not change based on election results.”