The Team Player

By Robert Green Atlanta Trend
  • Apr 29, 2024

As an in-house lawyer, Kenya Pierre prefers to be part of the business conversation from the beginning. “Even when there doesn’t appear to be legal issues in the beginning, having me there as a partner at the start of a project or issue helps me to understand the context and find a solution a lot faster when a legal issue later arises,” she says. As a General Counsel with hands-on experience, Kenya is used to winning the trust of her business partners from the earliest possible moment.


Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, she loved school so much that she would “teach” school after her school day ended by reading to her sitter and the younger children. Sometimes she would write her own books about her favorite character, Strawberry Shortcake, and read them aloud to the children. At eight, she was asked to skip a grade, but her parents refused. “My mom felt that my social development was just as important as the academic and I was already one of the youngest kids in my grade,” she says.


A natural athlete, Kenya swam before she could walk. Her godmother, who lived close by, had a pool and she would swim all summer long. She also played a lot of soccer and tennis but by high school, she was focused entirely on gymnastics. When she became a senior in high school, Kenya grew too tall to continue the sport and turned down opportunities to compete as a gymnast in college. 


Kenya came to Atlanta to attend Spelman College majoring in chemistry pre-med because she initially wanted to become a pediatrician. She also played on the tennis team, was a modern & jazz dancer in the dance theatre, and ran track where she ultimately became an NCAA All-American athlete. When it came time to apply to medical school, Kenya scored a perfect score in the writing section of the MCAT and averaged out in the other categories. Being that the writing section was of lower consideration (in fact, in 2013 it was removed from the test entirely), one of Kenya’s advisors suggested that she either retake the MCAT or seek a field that would allow her to apply her science and writing skills.


Not sure which way to jump, Kenya graduated cum laude and decided to join Teach for America for two years. “I decided to teach high school chemistry and biology in Watts, California,” she says. “I have always been a big believer in education and wanted to take some time to give back while I figured out if I should retake the MCAT or take the LSAT. Teaching has always been a passion so joining TFA allowed me to take the time I needed and make an impact in something I was passionate about. It is a decision I never regret. It helped shape me into the lawyer and leader I am today.”


Working as a teacher helped Kenya decide to go into law. “I felt that I could have a more visible presence and my advocacy for education would be heard more effectively as a lawyer,” she says. Knowing that she ultimately wanted to work as a lawyer for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Kenya decided to attend the University of Cincinnati School of Law.


Finding law to be more abstract than chemistry, she nevertheless took to the field of study. “I studied hard and made law review, which was an honor. Additionally, I decided to make use of my science and math background to go into patent law. I thought it would be an employment advantage and feed my interest as a scientist,” she says. 


Kenya’s favorite classes in law school were contracts and constitutional law. “They both helped me figure out how to understand each party’s issues while balancing objectives and protecting interests,” she says. “And, of course, I loved intellectual property and patent law classes because they required attention to small details and analytical execution,” she says.


“Honestly, I was afraid to go to law school at first because I was a math and science kid. I thought that law school was the exact opposite of what I would enjoy. However, there is a lot of alignment between science and law. There is a lot of problem-solving, analysis, and deductive reasoning wherein my scientific brain could use the same tactics to resolve legal issues. I just wanted to do well, and I was glad that I made law review as soon as the first year was complete,” she says. On law review, she was also elected to serve her third year as an Executive Member - student articles chair.   


Continuing to do well, Kenya got an internship at Procter & Gamble after her second year of law school and received a full-time offer. She also received an offer from Taft Stettinius & Hollister, Cincinnati’s most prestigious law firm and one of the top law firms in the United States. Although it was a tough decision, she ultimately took the role with Procter & Gamble. “I was grateful for the opportunity to work with Taft, however, becoming a patent lawyer for Procter & Gamble was my goal when I came to law school. So, being offered my dream position ultimately won out. Besides, being in-house at P&G was like being in a large law firm.” The company’s legal department handled most matters internally saving just a few areas for outside counsel support.


“I had taken the patent bar exam in April of my third year of law school and, fortunately, passed. It’s uncommon to pass the patent bar exam on the first try, but thankfully I did,” she says. She then passed the Ohio bar over the summer after graduating from law school. She is now also licensed in Georgia.


At Procter & Gamble, Kenya worked in Beauty Care, first on skincare and cosmetic products and then deodorants. Innovation was a daily occurrence at the consumer product giant, not a once-in-a-while event. “P&G was a patent lawyer’s dream,” she says. “New products were being developed all the time and they naturally needed to be protected.”


After seven years, Kenya was recruited to Coca-Cola, which brought her back to Atlanta. She had to sign an NDA to work on the new “Free Style” Coca-Cola fountain machine, which was quite interesting. “It was a game changer. The machine uses innovative computer technology to dispense over one hundred different varieties of drinks,” she says, “and it is cool to see the machine now at venues everywhere.”


While at Coke, Kenya expanded into food law, even receiving a certificate in International Food Laws & Regulations from Michigan State University. She also supported juice, including Minute-Maid, and began to branch out as more of a legal generalist.


Kenya moved to Kimberly-Clark Corporation in Roswell to become the Assistant General Counsel for patents in 2011. She handled global licensing, research, and engineering while also leading a global compliance initiative. She eventually became the Assistant General Counsel for the Global Nonwovens division. “I was treated like a general counsel by the division president and worked hard to be a good partner,” she says. “I made it a point to be as flexible as possible in serving my business partners and they helped to sharpen my skills in both patents and business finance and strategies.”


In 2016, Kenya became the General Counsel for Arauco – North America. Based in Santiago, Chile, the billion-dollar corporation is one of the largest manufacturers of medium-density fiberboard in the world. “I facilitated the deal to build the largest particleboard facility in North America and while my work was focused on the various plants in the US and Canada, I also made regular trips to headquarters in Chile,” she says.
Since 2021, Kenya has been working at Strava where she now serves as General Counsel. The social network for athletes allows friends and the community to connect, compete, and track their progress in health and activities. Strava means “strive” in Swedish. Backed with over $150 million in funding, including from Sequoia Capital, the San Francisco-based company is somewhat of a welcomed change and a great fit for Kenya, particularly as an athlete and lawyer. 


Kenya took the same approach at Strava as she did in all her other positions.


“Although I do legal work, my goal is to be a partner to the business side, not just be their attorney. The goal is to meet business objectives but achieve them effectively and efficiently under the law. By being in on business conversations early, I can be more useful to company leaders as an effective thought partner,” she says. “Sometimes the attorneys can be treated as a service provider that you call when things go wrong or you just need an answer regarding the law,” she says. “I don’t think that’s an effective way to use your in-house counsel team. I train my team to be thought leaders and work side-by-side with the internal clients to find solutions within the confines of laws and regulations. To do this, you must understand the business and the clients internally and externally. Then you need to anticipate and be strategic in how you align the principles of the law to the business. That is an effective approach to an in-house team.”


Kenya believes in being a hands-on leader. “I want to get out there and be with the business so that I understand the business,” she says. “It’s hard to be an effective lawyer only from behind a desk. I like to get out there and roll up my sleeves.”


All in all, Kenya is very satisfied with her career and where it has taken her. “I sometimes feel that I didn’t specifically choose the law profession. It chose me. I think God placed me on this journey,” she says. “I have faced my share of obstacles as well as some amazing highs. It’s only through my faith that I’ve persevered, shown resilience, and kept my positive attitude. Whatever happens, I believe that you either learn or you succeed but either way, you build upon the successes to achieve your goals.”