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Alumni Spotlight: Ricky Fong

May 7, 2024

Alumnus Ricky Fong, General Counsel, Terraformation Inc., practiced in the firm's Corporate Department in the Mergers and Acquisitions group from 2006 to 2010.

Paul, Weiss: Tell us about your professional experience. What led you to go in-house?

Rick Fong: I started my career with Paul, Weiss right after law school. In my law firm days, I did a mix of M&A, capital markets, private equity and venture capital transactional work, with ample opportunity to work on cross-border deals with Asia and Europe. Naturally I took an opportunity to join an automotive manufacturer as its International Counsel, eventually relocating to its Asia headquarters in Shanghai. After a short stint in venture capital and working at a fintech startup, I returned to the United States and joined a forestry technology startup. I’m primarily drawn to in-house lawyers’ opportunity to impact decisions directly within an organization. Additionally, it is tremendously rewarding as a startup in-house lawyer to see your work enabling founders to solve some of the biggest problems in our world.

PW: You’ve touched several different industries in your career so far (Big Law, manufacturing, venture capital, fintech and now greentech). What lessons have you learned from each? 

Rick Fong: My Big Law experience served as the foundation for drafting contracts and negotiating deals. In automotive manufacturing, I learned how to build a global regulatory compliance program at a public company whose entire industry faced antitrust scrutiny domestically and abroad. My venture capital investment experience taught me how to evaluate startups and how the wrong fit within a founding team can potentially result in a startup’s demise. It also allowed me to transition into operator roles with the startups that we looked at. Finally, at my last fintech and the current forestry technology startups, I learned why focus is fundamental to the success of an organization. Legal teams at startups will always have plenty of curve balls to deal with, but one should never lose sight of strategically optimizing legal resources for organizational objectives and key results.

PW: What makes Terraformation special as a startup?

Ricky Fong: A few things make Terraformation pretty special. First of all, Terraformation’s founder and early members are seasoned veterans from diverse backgrounds, including forestry, botany, carbon science, fintech and logistics. The team recognizes the urgency of the climate crisis, and we are relentlessly focused on scaling native reforestation around the world to solve this problem. The world needs a trillion new trees, and we look to solve the various bottlenecks to make this happen. Speaking of the world, that’s another unique aspect of Terraformation. As a startup that has fully embraced the remote work culture, it is not uncommon to have a Zoom call with participants across six or seven different time zones, as our reforestation and seed banking efforts span the globe.

PW: How would you describe your day to day practice?

Ricky Fong: Given the global reach of our forestry partners and seed bank users, legal issues could come up from the Aloha state all the way to Zimbabwe. There are not many places I can think of where I get to negotiate an asset purchase deal, work with the people team on policies concerning our team around the world, create solutions for the business development team to apply on cross-border transactions, prepare for our SEC filing, debrief our team on the latest developments on sanctions and advise senior management on GDPR and data privacy matters—all on the same day!

PW: What are the most challenging aspects of your job? Has your law firm experience helped you in any way?

Ricky Fong: One of the most challenging aspects of my job is determining our risk tolerance on any given task. If I turn the dial all the way up by taking an overly conservative approach with some of our policies or contracts, nothing will ever get done in a fast-growing startup like ours. Sometimes, I need to allow for some flexibility and help my team understand the risks before proceeding ahead. Conversely, if I turn the dial too low due to being overly risk tolerant, our sales team might be thrilled to get the deal done today, but we could end up subjecting ourselves to a major risk in the future. Every situation is different because a number of factors can sway how we perceive risks within the organization. Sometimes, a strong commercial reason can outweigh these risks. However, under- or over-valuing them can result in leaders making suboptimal and often costly decisions.

PW: Which trends and developments in the green startup scene do you currently find exciting?

Ricky Fong: The use of blockchain among green startups is particularly fascinating to me. We are already seeing plenty of applications out there. But within the forestry and climate technology sectors, we could greatly benefit from carbon offsets via smart contracts, tokenization of carbon units or a carbon marketplace built on the foundation of a decentralized network, among others. These solutions, if properly implemented, could help standardize and expedite transactions on a global scale, reduce friction and transaction costs and improve transparency in carbon markets around the world.

PW: Who were some mentors who inspired you? How have they impacted your work and relationships today?

Ricky Fong: Yvonne Chan inspired me to maintain interests and pursuits outside of corporate law. Carl Reisner taught me through a variety of deals how legal issues in M&A transactions directly impact value and price. Outside of Paul, Weiss, I’ve worked with Lawrence Chu for a long time at BlackPine and Oriente—he always pushed me to see things from an owner and investor perspective. Here at Terraformation, every time I speak with Huey Lin, it’s like attending a clinic on leadership. To this day, what I learned from these remarkable people continues to shape how I develop as a lawyer.

PW: Tell us about your life outside of work. What are some of your hobbies?

Ricky Fong: To cope with the intensity of my weekdays, I try to hike and spend time outdoors with my wife during the weekends and our time off. My weekend pickup basketball games also help me decompress. And when the time comes for the NBA playoffs, I follow the Suns and Chris Paul as they contend for a championship.

PW: What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC someday?

Ricky Fong: Have a plan to seek out different kinds of work. One of the most important qualities of a GC is having great judgment. It’s difficult to develop great judgment if you don’t encounter, struggle with and overcome a wide range of challenges under different situations. While I focused on M&A in Big Law, I also welcomed what appeared then to be random assignments in a bankruptcy sale (which in hindsight gave me a better understanding of how creditors operate), an internal investigation involving a private equity client (which taught me the importance of Upjohn warnings and gave me a front-row seat to forensic accounting) and a pro bono representation (which allowed me to do research about 501c3 and taught me how to counsel non-lawyers). Sometimes, we don’t fully appreciate these “distractions,” but the opportunity to extend our knowledge and experience across different issues and clients will ultimately widen our perspective and help us develop better judgment.

PW: What project are you most looking forward to in the coming year?

Ricky Fong: Terraformation recently announced its partnership with BITKRAFT Ventures that will support reforestation and seed banking efforts in Ukraine and Tanzania. In the coming months, I’m looking forward to structuring and executing more of these types of deals that will hugely impact reforestation projects globally. Separately, we are beginning to ramp up the production and orders of our seed banks. One of the biggest bottlenecks to reforestation is the shortage of seeds around the world. Our seed banks integrate a set of hardware and software technology solutions that will allow reforestation teams to better collect, monitor, prepare and manage their seed supplies remotely. Managing our supply chain, manufacturing and delivery will require thoughtful and innovative commercial arrangements that my team will be tasked to create. I can’t do the tech to help reverse climate change, but I look forward to building the process that will allow others to do so.

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