As a passionate supporter of human rights and social justice in law school, Katie did not expect that she would one day work as a human rights lawyer for a Fortune 50 corporation. At the time, roles like Katie’s were uncommon, and, as she said, “I was one of those people who did not think that businesses took human rights issues seriously.” Looking back, Katie laughed, “I only saw myself going to work in the public sector and focused my sights on roles at NGOs.” Katie is thankful for her professors at Georgetown Law and mentors in the Business & Human Rights field for encouraging her to be open to new and different opportunities as she navigated her own career path from working on human rights litigation on behalf of plaintiffs, to promoting corporate accountability through law and policy, and to becoming a business and human rights expert and corporate advisor on responsible business conduct.  

While on a human rights mission to Jamaica with the Human Rights Institute’s fact-finding practicum, a conversation with the Director of HRI at the time, Professor Rachel Taylor, led to a foot in the door and a legal internship with EarthRights International, a non-governmental organization that seeks to hold corporations accountable for harms to the environment. At EarthRights, Katie provided legal assistance in cases against major corporations whose operations were allegedly causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts. This experience was rewarding and formative in many ways. It confirmed for Katie that she was passionate about the field of Business & Human Rights, but also that litigation was not for her. And it kindled a desire to continue working on corporate accountability, this time from another perspective: policy and regulation. She advanced through several legal and policy roles at the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), a coalition of organizations working to combat corporate abuse and promote corporate accountability, where she advocated for “better government policies that would incentivize more responsible corporate behavior in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”  

Katie Shay headshot in black and white

After working with ICAR for several years, two of Katie’s mentors encouraged her to look for opportunities at companies and in government in order to “get a different perspective on human rights lawyering.” When a role as Legal Counsel at Yahoo’s Business & Human Rights team presented itself, Katie was eager for the opportunity to do this work “from inside a company and to learn more about how companies make decisions.” Far from realizing her earlier assumptions that businesses lack serious attention to their responsibility to respect human rights, Katie learned that for some companies, these issues are top of mind. Katie felt that she had “a real impact” at Yahoo because she and her colleagues “were able to change policies, put procedures in place, and be more transparent with users in ways that had tangible and positive human rights impacts.” She was also able to “help the company think more proactively about what could go wrong and how to prevent it.” Having developed an expertise in advising business executives on responsible decision-making, particularly as it relates to freedom of expression and privacy, Katie was recruited to bring her human rights expertise to Cisco’s privacy team. Soon after joining Cisco, Katie began work to build a comprehensive business and human rights team.  

Now, as Director of Business & Human Rights at Cisco, Katie leads a team of experts who work to identify potential human rights impacts across Cisco’s global business operations and put policies, processes, and strategies in place to prevent, mitigate, and address potential harms. “We are providing more information to executives to help them make informed decisions that include a human rights perspective.” Cisco’s human rights experts work to address potential human rights issues across Cisco’s value chain, from sourcing of minerals, to product design and manufacturing, to risks associated with misuse of Cisco’s products. Drawing from her experience at Yahoo, Katie is especially passionate about managing risks to privacy or freedom of expression associated with the use of Cisco products and working with product teams and other partners to minimize the likelihood that those rights are impacted. Through this work, Katie says that she aims to achieve both “what’s good for the business and what’s good for the people touched by the business.” 

Navigating and Helping to Develop an Emerging Field 

Katie likes that the field of business and human rights is relatively new and emerging. Because of that, she can be a mentor to others in the field and on her team and “help people grow, help the field grow, and help solve tricky, complex questions that may not have come up before.” However, because the area is new, the correct answers are not always obvious. While there are opportunities to come up with creative solutions, there are no clear-cut pathways. Instead, Katie says, practitioners must conduct human rights due diligence to identify potential human rights impacts and then “work creatively and strategically, often with others, to come up with ways to prevent and mitigate human rights impacts.” The lack of predictability in the field means that a decision may not always be the right one. Katie believes there is value in “setting up a framework, a set of policies, a set of procedures to position us to get it right more often, and we’re constantly learning and integrating what we learn back into those policies and processes going forward.” 

On the Importance of Knowing Yourself and Keeping an Open Mind 

Katie advises law students to take advantage of being in Washington, D.C. and to network with lawyers and practitioners in their fields of interest. She also encourages students to try out jobs with different skillsets. Katie herself did not figure out what she really wanted to do until she tried different positions. Thinking back on her varied career path, Katie said, “‘Am I a person that likes to sit in front of a computer and do research for long stretches of time?’ ‘Do I want to be writing briefs?’ Those weren’t the things that really spoke to me or got me excited about going to work every day, even though I believed in the mission of the organizations. I needed to try different things and figure out the kind of lawyering that I like to do and the types of tasks and the structure of my day that I like to have, in addition to feeling very passionate about the overall mission of what I’m trying to accomplish.”

Reflecting on her early assumptions about businesses and human rights and her hesitance to work outside of the public sector, Katie is grateful for the advice to keep an open mind and get a different perspective, and she encourages students to do the same. “Not only do I enjoy working for a corporation, but my assumption was also wrong. The businesses that I have had the pleasure of working with really do take human rights issues seriously and want to get it right. This work is very rewarding. I wish I had known that earlier on, but I got there,” Katie said. 

Outside of work, Katie enjoys volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and is highly involved in her local chapter. 

By Sabrina Lourie (author) and Michelle Liu (editor)