Features

Shawnte Mitchell – Geno

General counsel steers strategy of sustainability startup

When Shawnte Mitchell moved from Seattle to the Bay Area in the summer of 2020, she found California mired in a severe drought. This gave rise to wildfires, clashes over water, a loss of hydroelectric power after turbines’ water reservoirs ran low and rolling blackouts due to an overtaxed grid. The sky was often orange, and she says it felt like she’d relocated to the middle of Armageddon.

According to a 2020 study in the journal Science (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science), climate change had rendered the West’s drought more severe, ratcheting it up from a regular drought to a “megadrought.”

Shawnte Mitchell | Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel | Geno

Shawnte Mitchell | Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel | Geno

For Mitchell, who had already taken an interest in sustainability while she and her family were living in Seattle, it underscored the importance of the work that Geno, a biotech leader in sustainable materials, does on a daily basis. Today, she’s the chief legal officer and general counsel of the company.

“It has definitely hit home, particularly the summer that I got here,” Mitchell says. “It’s definitely something that has been continually reinforced since my move—the importance of caring about this issue and doing something about it.”

Plotting a strategic course

Geno makes the precursor molecules that manufacturers need to produce everything from spandex to plastics to carpets in a more sustainable way than conventional fossil fuel-based sources. And Mitchell is providing the legal and strategic direction necessary to help the startup speed up the widespread adoption of its green technology.

One of her responsibilities is to develop a strategic plan for the legal affairs and intellectual property team that aligns with the corporate goals set by senior leadership. She developed the multi-year plan after the company settled on its 2023 corporate objectives and strategies and its longer-term vision.

From fundraising to brand endorsements to collaboration with the research and development or commercial teams—for example, on marketing new products in jurisdictions across the globe—Mitchell has laid out larger projects in the strategic plan.

Shawnte Mitchell | Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel | Geno

This includes plans around opportunities to increase manufacturing capacity for the organization by either the potential construction of new facilities and plants or the engagement of new manufacturing partners (Geno has already partnered with the likes of Unilever and lululemon). The plan also includes protecting Geno’s methods and processes from an IP perspective as the company does business worldwide.

“Maximizing impact is the name of the game for us,” says Mitchell. “Our technology is able to address risk, promote supply chain resilience and push massive industries to change where they source their materials.”

Educating manufacturers

Mitchell and her team have also been educating manufacturing companies and the public about Geno’s technology.

“We’re trying to educate people about the ability to use biologic manufacturing to make these products—that we can make these chemicals that everyone is used to making using fossil fuels, we can make them in a sustainable way, in an eco-friendly way and at a price point that can be competitive with what they’ve traditionally paid for these untraceable products,” she says.

Shawnte Mitchell | Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel | Geno

Specifically, Mitchell and her colleagues have to engage with large-scale manufacturing companies whose procurement teams are focused completely on cost. And while the push to adopt modern environmental, social and governance principles at many companies has aided their efforts in some ways, Mitchell says it’s still somewhat of an uphill climb.

“The senior-level leadership across the market who are very interested in moving forward in the ESG context and who care about sustainability often haven’t translated that message down to the people who are actually doing the buying of the raw materials,” she says.

Checking the right boxes

Mitchell didn’t plan on a career in law. A 1999 graduate of Stanford University, she had thought about becoming a doctor before realizing she wasn’t passionate about being a physician. But she liked science, and she soon hit on the idea of contributing to healthcare from the legal side.

After earning her J.D. from George Washington University Law School in 2004, Mitchell worked at Ropes & Gray and joined Emergent BioSolutions as corporate counsel nearly five years later. Going in-house was a key transition, she says, because it allowed her to help one client grow and scale (which Emergent did). She rose to assistant general counsel while there.

When Emergent spun off its subsidiary Aptevo Therapeutics, Mitchell became general counsel at the new publicly traded company.

“They took a chance on me in giving me this role and recognized that I could fill the shoes: provide the strategic insight as well as the legal assistance,” she says. “And so I got to stretch my wings and get exposure to a variety of different areas within the business.”

Shawnte Mitchell | Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel | Geno

Another pivotal transition was her leap from pharma into the sustainability space at Geno. It’s required her to change the way she thinks about products, and the exposure to a different industry has been a welcome change.

In her free time, Mitchell has also served on the boards of the Urban League of Seattle, ArtsFund and Stanford University. When she lived in Seattle, she mentored African American high school girls through her sorority, leading sessions on topics ranging from how to get into college to how to decide what you want to be when you grow up.

And today, she mentors fellow people of color who want to go into the legal field. It’s her way of paying forward the fulfillment she’s found in her legal career.

“I feel like my career has checked the boxes that are important to me, which are being able to do work in a space that helps people, that is mission-driven, but to do it in a different way than a physician would,” Mitchell says. “Being a lawyer gives me an opportunity to help the world in a variety of ways by the work that I do within this company.”

View this feature in the Vanguard Spring II 2023 Edition here.

Published on: April 12, 2023

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