An Interview With LEAD Academy Director Elena Villaseñor Sullivan

Elena Villaseñor Sullivan
2024 Feature Nominations

View Tiffanie Clausewitz’s intro to new LEAD Academy Director Elena Villaseñor Sullivan: New Leadership at BCWB’s Foundation LEAD Academy.

Elena Villaseñor Sullivan is an executive director of Compliance at USAA. She leads a team of compliance analysts and risk managers to help corporate clients understand, operationalize, and comply with the laws applicable to their business. Prior to joining USAA, Sullivan was a partner and commercial trial attorney at Jackson Walker LLP.

Sullivan is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. She grew up in San Antonio, and is committed to giving back to the community that has given so much to her. She is the 2020-2021 Director of the Bexar County Women’s Bar Foundation LEAD Academy and Co-Leader of a Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas Troop.

She is married to Boston-native, Chris Sullivan, and they have a daughter, Lucia, who is just as independent as her mom. She enjoys traveling, arts and crafts, strength training, and yoga.

AALM: How would you describe the main goal of the Bexar County Women’s Bar Foundation LEAD Academy in your own words?

EVS: LEAD strives to foster the next generation of leaders within the San Antonio legal community, the greater community, and across the nation. LEAD is paving the way for attorneys of all practices and backgrounds to build a successful career in a way that is authentic to them. The program gives women attorneys the opportunity to understand and leverage their strengths, build their confidence, create a vision of their career path, and develop the tools needed to get there. Perhaps the most rewarding benefit of LEAD is the professional relationships that are organically forming. We are witnessing LEAD participants referring business to one another, being promoted, overcoming obstacles, and helping one another make career transitions. It is a place to build trust, find a sense of belonging, seek advice, and build yourself up by building up others. For that reason, we are affectionately calling the LEAD leadership and participants our “Tribe.”

AALM: Who should go through the LEAD program?

EVS: Women attorneys with a desire to develop themselves professionally and a demonstrated potential for leadership are the perfect LEAD candidates. Under the leadership of Tiffanie Clausewitz, the founders of LEAD set forth a mission – to assist women attorneys in attaining the highest levels of success in their firms and organizations, communities, and in the legal profession. To achieve that mission, we want to ensure that our participants are diverse and our program is inclusive so that we are truly building leaders across all spectrums of our diverse profession—Big law, mid-size firms, solo practices, government positions, in-house departments, nonprofit organizations, the business world, or, legal services agencies—and across all areas of practice. Because we don’t need to be stuck in these silos and are more powerful when we collaborate, LEAD strives to make connections crucial to our participants’ personal and professional success.

AALM: What kind of programming does LEAD offer?

EVS: Each year-long LEAD program kicks off with a two-day symposium dedicated to empowering the participants with self-awareness and confidence. It follows with three quarterly seminars focused on how to advance professionally and personally through self-promotion and effective communication, developing a network of peers, mentors, and sponsors, and effectively leading projects and teams. Our faculty includes successful lawyers, businesswomen, and academics from across the nation to facilitate interactive and engaging leadership training sessions. We have also offered informal programming such as mentorship circles, book clubs, and social events. Now that we have three classes that have graduated, we’ll be adding alumni events in 2020. Another important component of the program includes candid discussions with successful women practitioners and judges who serve on the LEAD advisory committee and who continuously offer their time and talent to mentor the LEAD class members and alums.

AALM: How did you get involved in LEAD?

EVS: Christine Reinhard, Judge Renee Yanta, and I met to prepare for our William S. Sessions Inns of Court group presentation. We were talking about women in leadership, and I mentioned my work as the San Antonio Chair for JW2 and Entrepreneurial Connections. As we were leaving, Christine invited me to lunch with Tiffanie to talk about joining the LEAD steering committee.

At the first steering committee meeting I attended, I was hesitant. Everyone else in the room had been a president or on the board of the Woman’s Bar, and they were all very close friends. I had very little involvement in the Women’s Bar many years prior. I never felt like I belonged in the Women’s Bar. But I stepped up, volunteered to take on some key tasks to plan the first LEAD class symposium, and I followed up on my commitments.

One of my favorite leadership books, “The Go-Giver,” teaches that when you put others’ interests first and add value to their lives, it ultimately leads to unexpected returns. Four years later, fellow steering committee members have become some of my closest friends and colleagues who regularly engage in long text chains about everything from business referrals to working mom guilt. I am honored that these successful San Antonio attorneys have entrusted me to lead them through the next two years of the LEAD program. This is the kind of network we aspire to create among all the LEAD classes.

AALM: As the new director of the Bexar County Women’s Bar Foundation LEAD Academy, what are your goals for the next two years?

EVS: The 2020 LEAD Steering Committee is committed to: (1) Providing LEAD class members with a top-notch curriculum and program that fulfills the LEAD Mission; (2) Enhancing LEAD’s network of potential and current participants, alumni, advisors, faculty, and donors; and (3) Developing a long-term planning and succession strategy so that LEAD will outlast its founders and become a legacy in the San Antonio legal community. I am honored to follow in Tiffanie Clausewitz’s footsteps. She created the vision for this program and brought together the founding steering committee to make it happen. LEAD’s success is a direct result of the countless hours and commitment brought by a group of local leaders who serve on the steering committee. Together, much is accomplished. With a solid foundation, now, is the time to continue building on that success.

AALM: What lessons have you learned from your predecessor?

EVS: Tiffanie’s superpower is transforming ideas into action. She had a vision to help our legal profession, and she brought people together with different talents to collaborate to make it happen. And, she is an amazing gift-giver— literally and figuratively. Last year, she gave the LEAD Steering Committee a framed print with the quote, “Empowered women, empower women.” That’s exactly what Tiffanie has inspired me and many others to do—help our legal community by helping the women in it define their own visions of success, and take action to achieve it, all while building their network. My goal is to sustain her vision because our legal community is stronger when we all raise the bar.

The LEAD Academy would like to thank The Sporting District at the Historic Pearl Brewery for the use of their retail store for this photoshoot.

Jackson Williams

Jackson Williams is a writer with Attorney at Law Magazine. He has written for the publication for more than six years.

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