Stripe was uniquely positioned to help businesses move online, and provided support to distressed parts of the economy. How did legal support these initiatives in such a challenging environment?
Trish Walsh is the General Counsel at Stripe. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'.
Do you remember when you first heard the word ‘coronavirus’?
One of our co-founders, Patrick, had an early awareness of COVID, so I first heard about it through discussions at the leadership team meetings in early 2020.
We first became keenly aware of the seriousness of COVID with the threat of the virus coming into the Seattle office from someone who had traveled from Singapore. We weren’t many degrees of separation away from people who had contact with some of the earliest incidents of COVID.
We took steps to address the situation, with half the senior leadership team going remote by late February. I was part of the second wave of the senior team to go remote, by the first week of March; the whole company was fully remote shortly thereafter.
When things started to escalate before the first lockdown, what were your initial concerns and priorities as a GC?
My initial concern and priority was definitely the safety of our employees. So at the time, as it began to unfold, it was a health crisis that we thought we were dealing with - a communicable disease that we didn’t fully understand. We were keenly focused on the safety of our employees and their families.
As a business, we are embedded in many economies globally, and it soon became clear that this was going to affect every economy and every way of doing business. It became clear that internet-enabled businesses could survive and become much more central to economic life. Stripe is a business that enables other businesses to sell through the internet. We knew we would be busy with much higher volume of demand.
“As leaders and as managers, we were checking on one another’s mental and physical health before moving onto work. That intimacy was an unexpected gift of the crisis”
What was your main priority from a people perspective, when it came to managing the team during the height of the pandemic?
As leaders and as managers, and as people, we were focused on the health and wellbeing of our people. We were in each other’s homes (via Zoom), asking how they were doing, asking about their parents and children. That was the start of every employee conversation for a long time - checking on one another’s mental and physical health before moving onto work. That intimacy was an unexpected gift of the crisis.
Obviously the mechanics of how we got together changed - we were fully remote and on Zoom far more than we’d ever been before. But we had always been a distributed workplace to some degree, as there was always a Zoom component to our meetings. The pandemic certainly has evened the playing field. In some ways, that works better than when most of a team is located in an office with a few joining via video.
Did you have to make changes in terms of how you worked as a legal team, both with each other and with the business? What kind of changes?
The frequency of meetings picked up, partly for business reasons as well as because people wanted contact and to see others. When we were in person, our interactions could be and were less conscious, less deliberate. So I think we had to get used to more meeting time and that in turn led to Zoom fatigue, which in turn led to us declaring meeting-free Wednesdays at Stripe, to give everybody a break from video conferencing.
How did the pandemic change the way legal worked with internal clients, and managed tasks?
I started at Stripe about a month before lockdown, so almost everything I know about Stripe has been in this crazy situation. I think the volume of work for all of us escalated considerably, the business got much busier, and we were being exposed to different kinds of problems.
The global situation meant we were exposed to companies and industries that were suddenly distressed, or perhaps confronting bankruptcy. We needed to help the business understand our exposures and our remedies with respect to not just users but also our financial partners in these suddenly changed circumstances. We also needed to be more flexible in order to help businesses move online quickly - which can mean taking on more risk.
Crisis situations often produce opportunities to fix things that you didn’t even know were broken. I think they stress-test the system. And the stress that doesn’t break you can be really helpful in terms of understanding the risks you can and want to take and those you may want to avoid. And we saw plenty of that during the early months of COVID.
“We all realized that 2020 was not going to look like we’d imagined and that we would be better off focusing on the massive increase in businesses that needed the internet to survive”
What was the most unexpected new workstream or risk you had to advise on as a result of this unprecedented event?
In the beginning of COVID, I think there were two major workstreams that developed. One was around how Stripe could be helpful in connecting financially distressed users to resources. In the US that took the form of talking to the Fed, and the federal government about ways in which Stripe could be helpful in sending and providing support to distressed parts of the economy.
The second workstream I would highlight was around risk but not in the way you might think - and I suspect it would have been a focus without COVID. But the work we focused on as a legal leadership team was empowering the team to use risk-based approaches to problem-solving, to move faster with less-than-perfect information.
How did you handle the influx of customers alongside all these other plates that you were spinning?
We all realized early on that 2020 was not going to look like anything we’d imagined and that we would be better off focusing on the massive increase in businesses that needed the internet to survive.
So it was really about looking at how we get as many users onto the internet and as quickly as possible. We definitely redirected some resources, both in the legal area and certainly in the business, away from what we expected our priorities would be and towards helping new users get online.
The work felt really important - even if it was, in some senses, back to basics work, like reducing the friction in our sales contract or user onboarding processes.
As a new joiner to the company, it must’ve been a wild year! How have you found it?
Needless to say, totally different than I expected. I had moved to San Francisco to start this job in January. By early March, I was alone in San Francisco, in lockdown, in a rental house.
I knew nobody, and after about three months of non-stop work and not seeing anybody but the mail person and food delivery people, I decided that I should really figure out a way to get back to New York and to my spouse.
Overall it’s been an incredibly rewarding yet challenging year. I have felt so well-integrated into Stripe, despite everything being remote. I love the team I lead. I just wish I had been able to spend more time with them in person before this craziness started.
“Someone said to me that this feels like the 14th month of 2020. I think that’s true. But I also think we’re emerging from this crisis slowly, into a world that has changed”
How do you visualize the future, post-pandemic?
For many of us we’ve become totally convinced that we can work just as effectively, in a fully distributed, fully remote team. The notion of how we do work has changed dramatically, and that is here to stay. We also appreciate the flexibility of it - people can find talent in different places, and people can work how they work best.
We have always been convinced that there is tremendous potential for economies to grow when they access commerce online. And Stripe has been a supporter of helping businesses grow by helping them to get online. More businesses have come to understand that the world opens up in ways that are unimaginable with that internet opportunity.
I think the one learning I will take away comes with the changes brought on by COVID. I think the intimacy we have found with each other throughout this year has made us stronger and healthier, and I plan to nurture that in the future.
It seems that the exit from this pandemic isn’t going to be overnight, but rather with small steps - how do you see legal’s role in being ready for the bounceback?
This has been a really, really difficult year filled with loss - and I don’t think the impact of that will go away overnight. It’s important to remember that. Someone said to me yesterday, that this feels like the 14th month of 2020, and I think that’s true. But I also think we’re emerging from this crisis slowly - into a world that has changed. The way we work has changed, and what we value has changed.
For me as a leader, there’s a real focus on helping people deal with the ongoing strain of what feels like the 14th month of 2020. People are pretty exhausted. Work continues to be demanding, so figuring out how to provide the support that people need to show up everyday is going to continue through 2021. Especially when it comes to employees with kids, for example, who don’t know whether or when their school will reopen.
Even though we’re bouncing back and emerging from the crisis, we can’t forget that we are coming through a real trauma that will linger for some time. Being able to talk about that and remember it in how we manage our people and the expectations we have for them and the support we give them is going to be critical.
Trish Walsh is General Counsel at Stripe. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'. Download to hear more stories from GCs at Hopin, Deliveroo, Revolut, and more.