“On a daily basis, I partner with our team members to protect the company, mitigate risk and ensure the smooth running of the business while helping us get from point A to point B, safely,” said Wande Elam, Toyota Connected North America’s managing counsel.
Which is a modest way of saying that Elam is the first line of defense for Toyota Connected North America (TCNA). She works with dozens of lawyers and contracts managers within the Toyota ecosystem for items as small as checking the fine print on a contract to supply TCNA’s office with carbonated water all the way to multinational technology sharing agreements that have the potential to affect millions of people. She’s even working with subject-matter experts to help define how TCNA and other Toyota companies use artificial intelligence tools to accelerate programming and in-vehicle assistance without sacrificing quality, intellectual property or customer experience.
“In some way, I work with every team in this company,” she said.
Elam is quick to point out that she has a small army of team members at TCNA and Toyota Motor North America’s in-house legal team – known internally as Toyota Legal One (TL1) - who support her and are often specialized in places where Toyota companies see a lot of activity, like intellectual property law.
Making it so: A love of sci-fi, technology and helping others
“I know this is going to sound a little silly,” Elam said before stating that she and her husband are huge fans of a certain long-running sci-fi franchise whereupon a space federation boldly goes where no one has gone before. (Editor’s Note: You’ll need to search that phrase online to find the name of the series – intellectual property law works both ways.)
“I like sci-fi. I’ve always been interested in technology,” she said. “Seeing all that and realizing that those TV shows were put together long ago – now we are getting some of those technologies in reality. I’ve always thought it would be so cool to work for a tech company.”
After immigrating from Nigeria, Elam attended college and law school, finding herself in bankruptcy law, helping restructure businesses or represent lending institutions. After working with law firms for a decade, Elam interviewed with the Army and Airforce Exchange Service, which is a retailer that provides U.S. servicemembers with goods and services worldwide.
“It’s a business,” she said, “but it’s also the government.
“They wanted to launch an app, so I worked with their IT group. They hired a consultant, and they were able to put together this app to help their customers shop more easily. It was a project I really, really enjoyed while I worked there.”
Elam kept her eyes out for a more dedicated tech path and saw an opening at Toyota Connected. It checked all the boxes she was looking for, and she was fortunate to earn a place within Toyota Legal One, the team that supports the greater Toyota organization. She asked her manager at the time, Christopher Yang, who serves as deputy general counsel, what he saw in her.
“He said, ‘Look, you can learn about transactions related to technology and how to support a tech company, but the reason why I picked you was because I saw that you came from another country when you were 17. You left Nigeria. You came to the United States to attend college and look at the life you made for yourself. I can’t teach that. I want that grit.’
“That really encouraged me,” Elam said.
“I was stubborn.”
“I'm the youngest of five. I have four older siblings, and my parents had a rule that you had to get your bachelor’s degree in Nigeria,” Elam said. “Everybody followed the rule except for me.”
Elam attributes her curiosity, stubbornness and her desire to see the world. She wanted to help others. She wanted to practice law.
She studied and took both the SAT and Test of English as a Foreign Language and found programs through the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that supported international students. Elam had one-by-one triumphed over her parents’ well-founded concerns to her studying abroad.
With her family’s support, she packed up and moved from her hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, population of 15 million, to Wichita Falls, Texas, with its slightly smaller population of 105,000.
Elam had a passion for humanitarian law, and she found ways to use that passion through pro bono work and her involvement in various nonprofit organizations. The same is true for her time at Toyota Connected.
“After I joined the company, (Chief Technology Officer) Brian Kursar told me how important it was for TCNA to do social good,” Elam said. “We have a responsibility to use what we have for good. That totally ties into my passion as well.”
Through community outreach programs, being an active part of the community and developing technologies like Drivelink telematics services and other concept technologies in development, Elam feels her mission is to guide TCNA and its many team members where they want to go while navigating the legal and regulatory landscape.
“Whether technical or nontechnical staff, our success depends on one another,” she said. “We’re all passionate about what we do. I always want to make sure I am supporting all our teams so we can continue to thrive, create, innovate and serve our customers.”