2019 Words to the Wise Interview with Sponsor and Board Member, Leslie M. Spencer

How does your life story relate to the mission of SVUDL?

The mission of SVUDL is to empower Silicon Valley students, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status, to reach their full potential to become professional and community leaders. 

As a woman of color, I am fully aware of the challenges that our students may face in terms of access to resources and opportunities for personal agency and professional success. Without question, having personal and professional champions is the biggest factor in achieving such successes.  I was fortunate to have substantial role models and mentors, starting with parents who encouraged me to push beyond every boundary—real or perceived—that might limit my success. At SVUDL, we hope to provide Silicon Valley youth not just education resources, but access to personal and professional champions who foster in the students a vision of themselves as future leaders, in the workplace, their communities and our nation.

How do you believe debate can impact someone over the course of a lifetime?

Debate provides a framework for critical thinking as well as research and communication skills that well serve an individual in almost any profession. Debate teaches our students to always anticipate the next question, to think one step ahead, and consider alternative viewpoints. These are important skills for life, let alone most professions. Debate also fosters teamwork, and leverages partnerships to achieve a goal. The students learn to work with a partner in pursuit of common goals for their team, their school, and SVUDL broadly.  These are also capabilities that individuals must employ over the course of a lifetime.

In addition, debate leads our students to think deeply and articulate their views on significant matters of public interest, such as economic, political and foreign policy issues.  In addressing such complex issues, we believe debate fosters in our students a lifelong quest for knowledge.  

Why is your firm/company a champion of SVUDL and its upcoming “Words to the Wise” 5th Anniversary event?

The firm has been a champion of SVUDL for several years. Lawyers readily appreciate the intrinsic value of debate, oral communication skills, research and critical thinking. We understand the nexus between the skills that SVUDL develops in students and professional success. Therefore, supporting the work of SVUDL has been important to our firm.  It is also consonant with the firm’s commitment to diversity, including in the pipeline to the legal profession. In addition, the firm undertakes this and other community service project to serve under-resourced populations in the Bay Area.  

The Words To The Wise event is an important way for us to show our commitment to SVUDL’s mission. Debate and SVUDL in particular provide a long-term investment in the success of the students. That’s a differentiator for SVUDL, as not many community service projects (or after school programs) have such a long-lasting impact.  As discussed, SVUDL empowers students with a set of skills that will serve them over the course of their lives. The core skills of critical thinking and rigorous analysis that stem from debate can carry forward for a lifetime.  

Why do you hope other companies, law firms and even individuals will support the event?

The Word to the Wise event is an opportunity to support SVUDL at an important juncture in its growth. The funds raised at this event are to help the organization continue its recent growth and ability to reach an increasingly diverse group of students, schools and geographies in the Peninsula.  For example, SVUDL has seen an increased need for infrastructure and staffing as it supports a greater number of students and allows those students to compete in a broader set of debate tournaments. This event will go a long way to allow SVUDL to extend its impact, and provide a richer set of opportunities for the students.  For example, SVUDL debaters are competing in more challenging tournaments, against teams prepared at a higher level, and in geographies within California and beyond, which new experiences provide an education of themselves. A larger fundraising base greatly enhances SVUDL’s ability to enrich the students through such offering.

Why is diversity important? 

Although we have some differences, people are fundamentally the same.  The more we interact and experience each other across those differences, the more we grow professionally and personally. Studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership outperform those that are less diverse. Conversely, our students who are exposed to more diversity will be enriched and likely outperform their peers. Certainly, society as a whole is enriched by the diverse group of high-achieving students that SVUDL produces.

Speaking of diversity, why is it important for these students to see themselves in professional careers?

Minorities are historically underrepresented in professions, such as the law and engineering. To the extent that SVUDL provides students with critical thinking, research and analysis skills, it helps to prepare a more diverse group of candidates for such professions.

Importantly, through debate tournaments and programming, students are able to step into roles that test them in ways that they haven’t been tested before, require them to interact with people who are unfamiliar, and force them to perform in settings outside of their school or communities. In this way, the students develop a broader vision of who they are and what they are capable of doing in the future.

As an example, one SVUDL alumnae, an African-American female, expressed that her SVUDL experience, such as our Moot Court competition, changed the way she saw herself and what she saw for her life.  She now sees herself as a lawyer because she saw herself doing what lawyers do, that is, she actually stood in front of judges and made substantive arguments. She’s now a college sophomore with a law firm internship lined up next summer. That’s significant for this student, but also for the legal profession as a whole.


Thank you to our Words to the Wise Bronze Sponsor, Ropes & Gray