Q&A Erika Rottenberg, GC of LinkedIn
In the aftermath of the dot-com bust, LinkedIn emerged from the living room of Reid Hoffman, a former PayPal executive and current venture capitalist with Greylock Partners. Founded on the philosophy that in business referrals are everything, the site now has 65 million users and counting—the largest professional network in the world. Its general counsel, Erika Rottenberg, attests here to the power of connections.
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition - January 2010 magazine
on December 7, 2009
Updated on May 27, 2022
In a previous career, you taught special education in Anchorage.
It was one of the single best decisions of my life. I grew up next door to some folks who were in the Coast Guard and spent time in Alaska. I have a real passion for the outdoors, and had often talked about going up to Alaska to work for a summer in a cannery, which is basically like a slime line. In my senior year at the State University of New York at Geneseo—I went there because they had one of the top special education programs in the country—I was at a convention for the Council for Exceptional Children, and the Anchorage School District was interviewing. This was in the early ’80s when there was money in Alaska from the pipeline days. I ended up getting a job offer.
In a unique way, it laid the foundation for your legal career.
I became very active in the Anchorage Education Association, the local teachers’ union. I ran our grievances committee. I actually ended up deferring law school because I was on the bargaining committee for the teachers’ contract and I ended up being spokesperson for the teachers’ contract. There were 2,400 teachers and it was a $240 million contract. I was in my mid-20s and that was the thing that was just great about Anchorage and Alaska—it’s in many ways a meritocracy.
We didn’t go on strike but we ended up having to go through federal mediation. I learned to talk to all sorts of constituents—from teachers to the bargaining unit people to press. Ultimately we reached a negotiated settlement agreement.
You earned your J.D. from Boalt Hall, which put you right in Silicon Valley. How did you then choose Cooley Godward Kronish?
That was a very intentional choice. Silicon Valley was attractive to me because of the entrepreneurial ethos, if you will. It’s going to be you and a partner and that’s it. I wanted responsibility early on. I also chose Cooley because Cooley—well, they had dress-down Fridays, so that really was part of it.
They had a firm culture that was more than just the billable hours. It was a culture, it was a family, it was a partnership, there was a commitment to mentorship. Frederick Baron headed up the employment group and he’s just an amazing attorney, a fabulous human being. He went on to serve in the Justice Department under Clinton.
At Cooley you had a chance to capitalize on your experience with bargaining agreements.
I wanted to do employment law; I had a union background. Friends back home [didn’t understand] my switching to the management side, but actually it was great because management listened to me. And in Silicon Valley where human capital is your greatest asset, a company’s greatest asset, it was a great place to practice employment law.
After three or four years, Cooley let me switch to corporate. I went up to the Sand Hill Road office, which was the venture side of the house. It was before the dot-com [boom]. I worked on a number of public offerings, and some mergers and acquisitions.
I was basically there for a year when a friend of mine from Alaska died. It really made me think about life and what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a part of business. I wanted to live with the successes, live with the failures, be a part of the team. So a former client of mine whom I had been talking to knew the head of business development at Creative Labs and I got introduced.
How would you describe Creative Labs?
Creative was just a phenomenal opportunity. You would know Creative because they developed the innovative sound blaster, which brought multimedia—i.e., sound—to computers.
I went in as a licensing lawyer, but very quickly we ended up taking about a 20 percent stake in a company called Cambridge SoundWorks. From there we started to enter the dot-com boom. We had a venture fund at one point, we did a number of acquisitions that I spearheaded, and we did countless investments that had strategic partnerships to them.
So what happened after the dot-com bust?
We were affected. The company now is a shell of what it used to be, but at its height we were a $1.2 billion company in revenue. So we were a pretty big company.
In 2002, you left Creative to bike across America and raise money for cancer research. What inspired you to do that?
Corporate America had been good to me and I wanted to give back. I was also turning 40. A close friend of mine who basically kicked me out the classroom door to go to law school had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and my mom had died of breast cancer, so to me doing the bike ride was an intersection of two passions.
I ended up doing the nine-week ride with a company called Cycle America. I raised over $60,000. The largest donation was $2,500 but most people gave a few hundred dollars. That was during the dot-com bust. It really was just amazing. Check out erikasride.org.
After the ride you joined another Valley firm, SumTotal Systems.
SumTotal Systems was a newly formed company, based on the merger of two public companies. One was called Docent and the other was called Click2Learn. So I joined the day the merger closed. And that merger catapulted SumTotal to be the market leader in e-learning software. It just got bought out by a private equity firm.
How did you land your current job as GC, VP and secretary at LinkedIn?
Relationships matter. I received a telephone call from an attorney at a major Silicon Valley firm who heads up the M&A practice and we did some acquisitions when I was at SumTotal. He said to me, “I don’t know whether you’re looking, don’t know whether you’re happy, but you have to promise me to take this phone call.” So I was introduced to LinkedIn through him. And the rest is history.
What do you do as general counsel?
I’m responsible for all legal issues that face a high, explosive growth Web 2.0 company. I couldn’t ever imagine a job that could be so much fun. I’m putting in place a foundation that allows LinkedIn legal to scale.
You can run a company of 100 or 200 people by touching each thing. When I joined the company we had just under 300 employees, and by the time this article gets printed, we’ll have more than 500. So you can’t negotiate every single contract that you get. You have to develop contracts that can be self-executed. You have to develop and implement systems that don’t require a human being to touch each piece of paper.
And the other side of your job?
It covers a lot of privacy, global, corporate and intellectual property issues, always ensuring that we maintain the integrity of our ecosystem. And retain and promote the trust that our users place in us from a privacy perspective. Our users trust us with their information. LinkedIn is about maintaining and building your professional reputation.
Are you on Facebook?
Yes. I use Facebook for social and LinkedIn for professional.
What’s the best part of your job?
I have the privilege of working with an amazingly talented, bright, passionate and engaged group of people. We’re playing to win, and we’re doing so with integrity and innovation. I fundamentally believe we’re changing the way the world works.
How is LinkedIn changing the way the world works?
Our mission is to connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful. For example, if you are sitting somewhere and decide that you want to hire an engineer who went to MIT who worked at the following two companies, and by the way speaks Mandarin and Spanish, you can plug that into the database.
People want to hire people who are happy and are performing well. You want to hire superstars. How do you find those people? They are not out looking at classified ads, they’re not out scouring for a job. They allow recruiters to go find them. So that’s why I say we’re changing the world. I don’t go into a meeting any longer where I say, “OK, I don’t know this person.” I plug their name into LinkedIn and find out how I am connected to them. Never go in cold again.
LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman once said, “Basically, everything that comes to me without a referral I say no to.”
He’s absolutely right. There’s no reason to ever have to enter into or seek a business relationship where you don’t have referrals. LinkedIn is shrinking the world.