Meet Denise Ho, Head of Legal, Asia Pacific (ex China) at Tesla. Passionate about technology, innovation and sustainable energy, she has found she thrives in a fast-paced environment that is always changing and keeps her thinking on her feet. That is what she has at Tesla, which is quickly expanding into different markets with its electric vehicles and energy products. She tells Asialaw about her career change from a M&A lawyer to the in-house role at Tesla and the challenging yet fulfilling aspects of her job.

Going in-house

Denise Ho

Before embarking on the brand new legal role at Tesla three years ago, Ho worked as an M&A lawyer at Shearman & Sterling in London and Hong Kong. But having done that for nine years she wanted a change and was drawn to Tesla because of the company’s mission for sustainable energy. The general-counsel nature of the role also gave her the variety she was looking for. Covering seven markets - Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand - Ho advises on all of the company’s legal and regulatory issues in Asia Pacific and is closely involved in the business as a whole.  From deciphering consumer law and data privacy issues to negotiating with financial services companies on the financing of customer vehicles, she handles issues affecting a broad spectrum of the business. She says: “I get to work with staff ranging from engineers and sales to marketing and operations, the entire spectrum of the business.”

Fast pace

Tesla’s young, passionate workforce and fast pace means you have to work closely with the business teams to address legal risk issues. “I need to make sure that the right decisions are made and that people are informed and mindful of the risks they’re taking on,” says Ho. “There is little bureaucracy so decisions are made quickly and in order to advise properly it’s important to be on top of how different parts of the business interact. Having an M&A background is helpful because it’s a very business-oriented area of practice, and this experience has benefited me in understanding the needs of the business and being aware of how different people’s key performance indicators motivate their decisions.”

New markets

When exploring new markets, the legal team is always one of the first teams to go in to figure out what regulatory barriers and obstacles need to be overcome in order to launch the market successfully.  Therefore, while her job at Tesla does not require the long hours she had to do in her previous job, she does have to travel frequently.  Breaking into any new market presents unique challenges for the tech company. Korea is a good example. With murky laws and the protectionist stance in relation to its domestic auto industry, many interests are involved and things are not always transparent. “For example, there was a piece of law that we didn’t initially realise existed regarding electric vehicle (EV) subsidies,” explains Ho. “The criteria to qualify for EV subsidies involve a 10-hour charging rule, where the EV had to charge from zero to full in less than 10 hours using a 7-kilowatt charger, which means that only a vehicle with a pretty small battery would be capable of being charged in such a time and qualifying for the subsidies.” The archaic rule is in the process of being abolished but it was a lesson learned about the importance of having local resources and building good relations with government. “We rely on local external counsel, the business team on the ground and meetings with government ministries to find out about and tackle the various roadblocks in our way when entering a market,” says Ho.

Taking the leap

Ho is proud to be contributing to the cause for sustainable energy at a company that not only takes the issue seriously but is leading the pack. “It’s really exciting to be part of a company that’s at the cutting edge of technology and to be grappling with the legal and regulatory issues, especially in situations where the law hasn’t caught up with the technology.  It’s a rare opportunity to be able to support a cause that directly impacts our future and how we will live.  I like the moral and existential aspect of it,” says Ho.

It’s an exciting time for Tesla as it continues to innovate in the area of autonomous driving. “We have to figure out what is, what will be and what should be legally permissible.  At this point, our vehicles are not autonomous yet.  Part of our mission is to educate the market, including transport regulators, so they can better understand what our technology can enable vehicles to do, both currently in terms of driver assistance and in the years to come when autonomous driving becomes a reality,” says Ho.

Her decision to join Tesla wasn’t without risks. “Back when I joined a few years ago, Tesla was just starting out in APAC, things were still very much touch and go, and it wasn’t always clear that we’d survive or thrive,” says Ho.  “But we are now truly disrupting the auto industry, and it’s been one hell of a ride.”