Victoria Libin is General Counsel at Bright Machines, a California-based technology company that offers a disruptive approach to intelligent, software-defined manufacturing.
Computer vision, machine learning, 3D simulation, and adaptive robotics are among the technologies Bright Machines brings to the factory floor, and Victoria is the senior in-house attorney and executive responsible for the legal issues behind it all.
Victoria’s path leading legal teams at Fortune 100 companies and venture capital backed start-ups is a case study in adaptive legal problem solving.
Welcome, thank you for joining me. Why don’t we talk about your background first? Where’d you grow up, where’d you go to school, how’d you get into this field in general?
I would say some of it is serendipity, on some level, as it is for many people.
My father was an entrepreneur. He started a company that, in a way, did something similar to what Bright Machines is doing now. That company created optical sorting machines for agriculture, coffee and grains, to automate the manual sorting process that used to happen in farms.
We moved a lot as he worked on that, and I started playing tennis during some of those formative years at around age 8. That took me to a tennis academy in Florida where I played through high school until I had a back injury.
I attended college on the East Coast and stayed through a master’s degree at Harvard, but decided that academia wasn’t really what I wanted to do with my life. I was contemplating whether to go to law school or business school, and the person who I was dating at the time who is now my life partner and husband said something very wise.
He’s an engineer, and he said keep the options open: If you go to business school you can’t do law, but if you go to law school you can still be a businessperson. He wanted to move to the Bay Area, where he would have more job opportunities, so I went with him to California and attended law school at UC Hastings.
It’s interesting that you took up tennis seriously at 8. I don’t know many 8-year-olds who are doing much seriously. You must have been quite a prodigy.
I don’t know about that. There wasn’t much to do in the town where I grew up, so tennis was definitely an outlet. It kept me busy and out of trouble.
So what’d you do out of law school?
I graduated in ’97 and it wasn’t exactly the hottest legal market at the time. I ended up going to a small plaintiffs-side firm doing employment and landlord-tenant law.
It was great from a formative standpoint to do some litigation early on. It helped me learn how to manage and assess risk in a better way.
As a transactional lawyer, that’s really what we’re trying to do is keep things from ending up in a courtroom. But litigation wasn’t something I wanted to do long-term. I always wanted, early on, to go in-house.
Maybe that goes back to my formative years growing up in a family of entrepreneurs. I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to one client and understand their business deeply.
And by that point, a couple years into it, we were having the dot-com boom and I was able to leverage some of the employment work to go in-house at a tech offshoring company that sort of had a foot in India and a foot in the U.S.
You know, I hear again and again from in-house people about that desire to deeply get to know one organization. What came next?
I had the opportunity to work with a company that was very hot at the time, Portera Systems. They were doing software-as-a-service before software-as-a-service was a thing.
At the time they were called Application Service Providers, and they basically had a platform to help professional services groups do collaboration remotely. Fast forward to the dot-com bust, they were actually still doing OK after that, but the issue for them was 9/11.
The combination of the economy going into a bit of a tailspin, plus we lost our VP of Sales on Flight 93 and shortly thereafter we lost our VP of Professional Services in a freak surfing accident, we went from filing an S-1 with the intent to go public, to basically having a fire sale in short order. Lot of lessons learned though, it’s not always just about scaling a business up, you have to think about what’s around corners.
As painful as that experience was, it was also something incredibly formative in my career. You can never take anything for granted, and you have to be nimble. You have to understand the kind of risks that are hard to even fathom, black swan events.
Sorry to hear about that. Sounds like a lot of loss in a short amount of time.
After that I went to Homestead Technologies, which managed to hang on in the dot-com bust. Homestead eventually got acquired by Intuit. They did pretty well after that.
Through chance, I got the opportunity to go work for Atom Entertainment and pivoted again, to online games. They were a spinoff of Macromedia at the time.
That was one of the most fun jobs I have ever had. You can’t beat playing video games for a living. Again, I learned a lot, a lot of privacy regulation, a lot of truth in advertising laws.
Later we were racing around doing the eventual sale to Viacom for $200 million. I stayed on at Viacom. They wanted people with what they called “native digital expertise.”
I was at Viacom for a number of years, until they decided to divest themselves of their native digital properties. I didn’t want to move to New York and do more traditional entertainment law, so I decided to stay in the Bay Area.
I went to an ad tech startup as GC for about a year but kind of questioned whether my heart was really in advertising. That’s when a former colleague of mine who had gone to Accenture said that they were looking for someone to take over legal for Accenture Digital, a division of Accenture.
We actually had some product platforms that we were licensing in the realms of prescriptive analytics/artificial intelligence and IoT. Loved it there, I learned so much at Accenture. I cannot say enough good things about that company and my colleagues there, both in-house and in the business itself.
Who’s our guest? Don’t worry about that. What kind of dog do you have?
I have two dogs. I have a Labrador retriever who is 11 months and a Scottish terrier who is 10 years old. They are a little bit of an odd couple.
I bet you have your hands full with the young lab there.
Strangely enough, it’s the older terrier who is a bit of a terror.
Oh, sure. That’s fun. Go ahead.
So, I was at a tennis tournament in the spring of 2019 as a spectator with my friend, and the CEO of Bright Machines was there together with the chairman of our board. I got to meet them socially during the tournament and we started talking.
They were looking for a GC and I threw my hat into the ring. A few months later, in the summer of 2019, I came on at Bright Machines.
Was that a difficult transition? Did your previous experience prepare you enough for it?
I’m not going to say it was an easy transition, but a lot of things came together. By the time I started, the company already had operations in various countries, and it had 350 to 400 employees, although we were building a legal function from the ground up.
I felt very comfortable around software and anything internet-related but hardware and manufacturing were definitely new areas. The key things were to have a growth mindset, stay humble, read a lot, and try to find some good mentors along the way.
I wish more of my colleagues in litigation would take that advice, especially the “be humble” and “read a lot” parts of it. What are you doing now at Bright Machines? Any big projects on the horizon?
I think it’s just continuing to build the legal function. It used to be a team of two when I started. We converted the contractor who preceded me to a full-time employee and we recently hired another person.
Trying to build a compliance function in a more formal way is something we’re working on. We obviously still partner with some great external law firms, but we’re trying to identify some of the more repeatable processes and other work that we do that it makes sense to bring in-house.
That’s always a balance about how you use your resources most effectively. Repeated, day-to-day things where you really have to know the business should be handled in-house though.
We have to be first and foremost business partners. We have to know the business inside and out, because if we don’t, we’re not truly going to understand what are material risks versus maybe make-believe risks.
That assessment of materiality of risks is one of the most important things you do as an in-house counsel. Ultimately you are a service-orientated organization, and you don’t want the other people in the business to avoid you because you are perceived as the department of no.
That is a pet peeve of mine. I instill in the people on my team to listen, understand the problems, be the problem solvers. If you do become the department of no, people go around you.
That’s also something I hear a lot from in-house people, not to become the department of no. I suppose if people then go around you, that’s a big problem too.
Then you become the clean up the mess department and it’s not fun.
No, I imagine not.
It’s much more fun to be collaborative and solve problems. Often the issue is not necessarily what the goal or the business objective is, but the tactics to get there that have some kind of compliance, or regulatory, or legal risk.
So if you really understand deeply what the goals are, then you can go into problem-solving mode in a way that is law-abiding and ethical.
We’re getting some good stuff here. If you have any advice you want to leave the readers with or anything final you want to say about your company, now’s a good time.
I think Bright Machines is a super exciting company. It’s at a very exciting scaling up phase of its growth both from an engineering and business standpoint.
Obviously as I’m building up my team, I welcome inquiries from people who have a deep passion for wanting to revolutionize manufacturing as we know it and apply some of the most cutting-edge technologies in that field. Also, just generally I encourage people to stretch themselves, always be intellectually curious, and not to be afraid to take some risks in their careers.
Sometimes what seems to be the safest bet career-wise might not be. If you’re not 100 percent excited about waking up and going to work, ask yourself why you remain in that position.
Always be asking, “What can I do differently?” and, “What will make me happy?”
We do this for a lot of hours every day, and we have to make sure we look forward to what we do every day.
I think that is great advice, especially within the legal profession.
Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your Debt-Free JD (affiliate link). He has taught legal writing, written for a wide variety of publications, and made it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.