This month, we speak with de Verneuil, global general counsel, Reliance Communications (Enterprise) & Global Cloud Xchange. She talks about the challenges of working in a male-dominated environment and taking the road less travelled in her career path. A flair for languages has helped her move around the world. She also has some wise advice about self-image.

Vanina De Verneuil

Career path

Originally from Colombia, de Verneuil graduated from the New York University School of Law and started her legal career at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in the same city. After meeting her husband in Paris, she moved to France and had to adjust herself to a completely new environment, including picking up French. This experience of stepping out of her comfort zone only made her stronger at adapting to changing circumstances. “No recruiter wanted to represent me and I wrote over 30 letters before I heard back from a South American Shearman & Sterling partner,” recalls de Verneuil. “I was offered a role within a few weeks.” She didn’t stay long in France though as she saw the potential of a rapidly developing China and set her sights on Beijing.

“I was in Hong Kong for a year as a lawyer and then transferred to the firm’s office in Beijing,” says de Verneuil. “After a couple of years in Beijing, I took a year off to study Mandarin.” It wasn’t easy as a foreigner to fit into the Chinese culture, though she could communicate in Mandarin, and capital markets and M&A work dropped when she returned from her sabbatical. It forced her to create her own opportunities. Armed with her Mandarin skills, she developed and led Shearman & Sterling’s Greater China and Latin America practice group. In late 2014, the general counsel role at Global Cloud Xchange in Hong Kong came up. She was attracted to the potential of not just handling legal matters, but also the management and business aspects of the company. “It’s important to be aware of where the markets are going and be willing to take risks,” says de Verneuil. It wasn’t easy, especially as she was juggling her career with two young children. “I’m bothered by the term work-life balance. I think balance is for you to create. When I started the role, I was travelling 60% of the time and I took my kids with me everywhere I went but I don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed.”

Working at Reliance Communications and in India

As the international arm of Reliance Communications, an Indian telecommunications/technology company, Global Cloud Xchange owns the world’s largest private undersea cable system, which connects with Reliance’s network of domestic optic fibres. It’s an exciting time to be working in the Indian telecommunications/technology industry as it is undergoing rapid changes, especially as new, at least for India, regulatory issues such as net neutrality are emerging. “India is in its baby stages of a developing market where internet law is still being developed,” says de Verneuil. Handling commercial contracts and dealing with compliance and disclosure form a large part of her work but one of her biggest acaccomplishments was spearheading the company’s sale of its North American ethernet business to GTT Communications in 2016. “I had the opportunity to deal with not only the legal and contractual issues, but also the management and HR matters,” she says.

Self-image and networking

Navigating the Indian culture as a woman and Colombian-American hasn’t been easy for de Verneuil but her career has shown she isn’t someone who takes the easy path either. Even with her assertive personality, she had to get used to working in a culture where women are looked down upon. “I had to be more comfortable cutting people off without thinking it’s rude,” says de Verneuil. “It’s harder in a law firm when you get used to listening to clients so I had to make the switch.”

The challenge doesn’t just exist in the boardroom but also in communicating with colleagues. For example, recalling an incident where she got upset about an email from a senior male colleague, she thinks that she should have handled the matter differently. “I had the feeling of disappointment and thought that I hadn’t done enough. I took it personally and was consumed by it. I think it’s important to differentiate whether it’s an issue that is just in my head or whether it is an issue I’m actually facing.” Rather than over analysing what the person meant and what she was doing wrong, she confronted the person and figured out that she had to use a different way to communicate with him going forward. However, often times, women aren’t comfortable with direct confrontation and stay in their heads.

De Verneuil thinks it comes down to self-image and that self-image is automatically housed in the subconscious, so to change it, it is important to be aware of it. Being able to share similar experiences with others helps. As a mentor in The Women’s Foundation mentoring programme in Hong Kong, she says that participants not only connect with mentors, but also have a lot to gain from leadership seminars. “I’ve met a multitude of successful women and the best way to connect is through open dialogue,” says de Verneuil. “It’s also important to keep in touch with individuals and help them as much as possible.” De Verneuil also sits on the board of directors of Justice Centre Hong Kong, a role that allows her to make use of her expertise and passion in human rights law while give back to the community. Looking back, she is thankful for those who have helped her along the way, especially during the times when she had to adapt to new environments, and feels that sharing her own experience will help others to relate and be inspired.