I’m Alex Villarreal O’Rourke, and I’m Valon’s new General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer. I came most recently from Bank of America, where I led their digital banking legal work. I’m originally from Mexico, and I immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. I started my career in government, and I’ve always had a huge interest in social and economic justice issues, things like access to credit and upward mobility.
How have those issues informed your work?
Well, they were one of the big reasons I came here, to Valon. I’ve been working in fintech for a while, and I love using technology to move the ball forward for consumers of all backgrounds, including those who historically may not have had access to high quality financial services. I’ve recently learned a lot about how home ownership, or the lack thereof, can have a huge impact on upward mobility.
In fact, Charlotte, NC—where I’m located—has one of the worst rates of upward mobility in the country; it recently ranked 50th out of 50 large cities in that regard. In Charlotte, if you’re born poor, you’re very likely to be poor as an adult. But, as I’ve learned, one of the key cycle-breakers is home ownership because it helps people build equity and wealth over time, and pass that on to their children. So, as we’re heading into potentially uncertain economic times, I wanted to work at a company that makes things more transparent and user-friendly for homeowners. Hopefully, those things are able to decrease the kinds of issues that tend to lead to people losing their homes, issues that affect lower-income customers disproportionately. I would like to play a part in diminishing that negative impact.
What initially inspired your interest in law?
In high school, a good portion of my friends were fellow immigrants who had every possible barrier thrown at them. My best friend’s family had a small shop that was very successful, but they were constantly surrounded by people who exploited their immigration status to take financial advantage of them. I remember feeling powerless and really wanting to help fight that kind of unfairness.
So, I went to law school, and after clerking for two federal judges, I went to work at the State Department, where one of my jobs was to work on immigration reform. And, well, after immigration reform fell apart around 2013, I knew I wanted to continue doing work that had an important social impact. That’s how I started my career in financial services, working for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on issues including fintech innovation and fair lending
What will your day-to-day look like here?
As General Counsel, I’ll oversee agreements, partnerships, negotiations, and things of that nature. In that role, I’ll also be partnering closely with the leadership team on the strategic direction of Valon so that we can have complete clarity on the relevant legal frameworks and can shape our growth within them.
In my Chief Compliance Officer role, I’ll help ensure that we continue to build upon our already strong compliance culture, and continue to adapt to evolving regulatory requirements.
How would you hope to affect Valon in your time here?
I’m coming at an interesting time, right? Obviously, Valon is mature enough that a lot more is expected of it than an early stage startup, but it’s still very small and nimble. I see my role as helping make that transition from early stage startup to a larger company, without losing any of its momentum.
One of the things that I’m hoping to do here is make sure there continues to be a really close relationship between the business and compliance. In my mind, compliance should obviously be seen as an independent entity with a meaningful oversight role, but also as a partner when it comes to building our products. A partner that takes time to understand the business and to grow with the business, so that everything we develop has compliance already built into its DNA. I’m a big believer that if you know exactly where your bounds are, you can move within them much more quickly.
What advice would you give to a lawyer looking to get into doing what you do?
Follow your gut. In law school, there’s a lot of pressure to go to a big law firm and then become partner and… you get it. There’s a track. But my career has been shaped by unexpected opportunities that required me to pivot in the moment and take a leap of faith. Every single time I have been very happy I did.
You just started at Valon, but what’s one thing you’ve already seen that you’re excited to explore?
I really love how people have come to me and said things along the lines of, “Hey, I don’t think this is a legal requirement, but I think it would be great to do for customers. Are we allowed to do it?” People at Valon are really putting themselves in the homeowner’s shoes, and they want to think outside of the box to offer homeowners the things that will make their journey better.
I’m really excited to be able to sit shoulder to shoulder with these passionate managers and engineers and have a real impact on the product.
Thanks so much, Alex. Lastly: what are you streaming right now?
Oh, I’m obsessed with this podcast about the internet called “Reply All.”
It was great to speak with Alex. If you’re interested in joining our team at Valon, check out our open roles.