A former counsel for startups, Prof. Arewa sees growth in failure


Rex Bossert

The way Professor Olufunmilayo Arewa sees it, failure is not only an option, it's essential.

"Failure is an important message," says Arewa, referring to the late Steve Jobs' now-famous 2005 Stanford commencement address where he talks about how failures in his life — including dropping out of college and getting fired from Apple — taught him valuable lessons.

She says her own experience as general counsel for startup companies that went belly up taught her the importance of being entrepreneurial, embracing challenges, taking different approaches to solving problems, and realizing that there will always be things outside of your control in business and life.

"I like startups. I like the energy. That's why I came to a new school like UCI Law," says Arewa. "The students here are exciting. There's definitely a lot of energy and engagement."

Among the things she appreciates in a new law school is the ability to embrace changes in legal education, she says. "We need to work on more interactive teaching and on problem solving." And she does that in her class this semester in Business Associations, where her students have created a virtual company, a consulting business that does marketing surveys of graduate students.

"Students need to be more entrepreneurial in getting jobs now, especially because the legal job market is not the same anymore," she says.

Arewa came to UCI Law in July from Northwestern University School of Law, where she taught intellectual property, securities regulation, business associations, copyright and digital music, and financial markets and private funds. She has also taught at Case Western Reserve School of Law and the University of Georgia School of Law.

In addition to her time as an in-house lawyer, Arewa also spent five years as an associate at law firms in California and New York, working on venture capital financings, advising clients on employment and compensation matters and representing companies in public and private offerings.

Few law professors display the depth of real-world experience or the breadth of interests that Arewa does. Her interests include intellectual property, copyright law, the entertainment industry, corporate and securities laws, private equity, entrepreneurship, anthropology, African culture, folk lore, popular culture and music.

In addition to her law degree from Harvard, Arewa has a master's degree in economics from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from UC Berkeley, where she wrote a dissertation on images of Africa in the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Her bachelor's degree from Harvard was also in anthropology, and her joint appointment at UC Irvine is in that field as well as law.

Currently, Arewa is writing a book that allows her to engage many of her interests, "Black Face, Black Music: How the Music of Slaves Transformed the World." In it she explores how the music of slaves influenced American music, and how that in turn became the world's music. In doing so, she analyzes how non-written forms of music tended to escape copyright protection, and how a balance must be struck between musical innovation and legal protection.

She is interested in discovering the "contexts of invention," she says, and has taught a seminar on that topic. She looks at how a shift in 20th century American music came about around the time Ragtime music became popular, in the teens and twenties, and how oral traditions in music began to be written down and then protected by copyright laws.

"We need to think about participation rather than ownership," she says, describing how innovation in music, in such forms as blues and hip hop, have involved borrowing among artists, while copyright laws were developed to protect musicians' creative inventions.

Her interest in music preceded her interest in law by quite a bit - she was a classically trained singer when she was young and still enjoys singing.

Her interest in law came about during a stint at the U.S. State Department after earning her master's in economics. She spent nearly two years in Uruguay at a consular post determining visa eligibility, and that gave her a taste for international affairs and immigration law. Being part of "a huge government bureaucracy" was not for her, but the law was, so she was off to Harvard Law School.

Once she earned her J.D., she served stints as an associate at various law firms - including New York-based heavyweights Sullivan & Cromwell and Sherman & Sterling, and Silicon Valley’s Gunderson Dettmer - before going in-house with her first startup in New York, a company that developed methods of payment for the Internet.

There she found she needed to be more of a generalist in law, handling everything from fundraising to developing employee stock option plans. She also enjoyed working with technical people, who think differently from lawyers, she says. Not surprisingly, that environment was better suited to her wide-ranging interests.

"We need to follow different paths because that leads to enriching experiences," she says.