Nuala O’Connor ’89 was recently reminded of her childhood professional goals when her parents found her fourth-grade yearbook while cleaning out the attic. Back then, she said, she wanted to be an international lawyer (spelled ‘laywer’ in her fourth-grade writing) — “I had no idea what that meant,” she says. “That must have been something I dreamed up from watching television or reading books.” Today, O’Connor is the senior vice president and chief counsel of digital citizenship at Walmart.
O’Connor studied English at Princeton because of the “phenomenal faculty.” Writing and communication have continued to be essential skills throughout her career: “The more senior I get at a company, the more I realize that how you communicate is almost as important as what you’re communicating.”
Her first real pivot point came when she left private practice in 2000 to work for DoubleClick, an internet advertising company. At that time, the internet was relatively new. She says hers was one of the first privacy-law jobs at any company, and she realized that her company’s ethical responsibility included educating users on what data would be collected and how it would be used. “It was a hot area of evolving law then and still is.”
O’Connor switched to government work when she moved to Washington, D.C., for personal reasons. “It’s OK to make career choices that are wrapped up in taking care of yourself and your family,” she says. At the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, O’Connor felt “called” to use her privacy expertise, especially since her own family left Northern Ireland when she was a child to escape terrorism there. Her work at DHS carried back over to the private sector when she moved to General Electric and then Amazon: At each organization, she set up a new framework and way of thinking about the company’s responsibility for data and personal information.
At Walmart, “the ethical use of data and the responsible use of information” is the mission that guides O’Connor’s team. She says the increasingly digital company puts an emphasis on civic duty and meeting customers and employees with respect.
Lesson learned: “Always be willing to try something new and different and take risks.”