Growing up in São Paulo, Brazil, Ligia Bernardo remembers playing with the kids at an orphanage in the countryside, near her grandparents’ ranch. Her parents took her there often to deliver toys and clothes, and Bernardo says that to this day, the experience continues to inform her desire to give back as head of legal for Olam Americas. There, she serves as a mentor to many others, but to get there, she also relied on the advice of mentors of her own.
When talking about the mentors that have shaped her success, she points to her parents first. “My parents always told me to never wait to get prepared but to get prepared and the opportunity will come,” Bernardo says.
She credits her father, a sales executive, and her mother, who held various jobs, including executive secretary, public relations associate, and estate manager, for instilling in her curiosity and a strong work ethic. Such traits propelled her to work during the day and attend classes at night to finish law school and complete two master’s degrees in law in Brazil. And, they also empowered her to seek professional mentors at esteemed firms such as DLA Piper, in the US, and KPMG, in Brazil, to cultivate the legal career she has always wanted. “My mentors have never given me the answers; they have challenged me to find them,” she says. “They have provoked my thinking.”
In fact, it was one of her mentors who suggested she look for an opportunity to use her fifteen years of experience in civil law in a common law environment after she earned her LLM at the University of Michigan. That’s when the opportunity to build her own legal function on the West Coast, at Olam, caught her eye.
In the three years since her arrival in Fresno, California, Bernardo has counseled the company regarding its strategic US partnerships with food clients and suppliers around the world, from Egyptian onion processors to Mexican cocoa manufactures—helping Olam add to and enhance its resource network of 4.7 million farmers and their communities.
Bernardo has also designed the company’s legal function as more of an entrepreneurial arm. “When I came, nobody could tell me how many law firms we were working with,” says Bernardo, who got support from management to develop a guideline. “I challenged the service providers to interact with each other to be creative on how to support our business better.”
Since emerging in Nigeria in 1989, Olam has evolved into a giant of contemporary food production around the world. From seed to shelf, the $20 billion agribusiness employs 72,000 people in 66 countries to deliver food and industrial raw materials (such as nuts, coffee, cocoa, spices, and cotton) to more than 22,000 international customers. “When I was hired, I thought I would be working for one company,” Bernardo says. “However, we have eighteen entities in our group in the US today.”
With Olam continuing to add new business units to its portfolio—including cocoa, grains, rice, and superfoods—while expanding other units such as spices and peanuts, the company’s US revenue has almost doubled during Bernardo’s tenure. At the same time, though, she has cut its legal expenditures in half while creating its legal function from scratch and supporting finance, IT, and HR functions, among others. She also champions the antibribery and anticorruption policy for the company in thirteen countries in the Americas.
Amid all these efforts, Bernardo rediscovered her passion for pro bono and charity work, in part thanks to her friend and mentor Bradley Gayton. This led her to support the Instituto Pro Bono, which provides legal pro bono services in São Paulo, and to work as outside legal counsel for the Global FoodBanking Network during her time in Chicago and Michigan.
“Growing up in a developing country, I saw people struggling with the ability to put food on the table,” Bernardo says. “Now, working for the food industry, it is even closer. I could not help but set the entire company on fire to really participate.” With her support, Olam takes part in an annual rally for the local Fresno food bank.
And, last year, Bernardo completed the nine-month Leadership Fresno program. It partners with the local chamber of commerce to make a positive impact on the community through projects such a learning garden and a library for a local elementary school in need.
Today, Bernardo continues to serve others—at her church, as part of the San Joaquin College of Law Board of Trustees, and at Olam, where she counsels other women through an alliance program that matches mentors and mentees. She advises them to put aside destructive competitiveness. “If you don’t want to be vulnerable, it’s hard to grow,” she says. “The beauty of mentorship is that it tells you that no matter how smart, talented, hard-working, or experienced you are, there is always value to counsel.”
Her own track record proves her point. For example, while attending the law school Faculdade de Direito de São Bernardo do Campo, in São Paulo, Bernardo interned at HP Enterprise Services (formerly Electronic Data Systems do Brasil). There, her mentor Firmino Campos, an engineer and sales executive, taught her how to navigate the corporate world. Later, she worked for Stuart Berkson, at DLA Piper, who encouraged her to reinvent herself after more than a decade in the field by earning a master’s degree in law from the University of Michigan.
“Every day is an opportunity to learn and grow as a professional and be creative and apply the rich experience my background allowed me to have to deal with the multitude of matters that come to me,” Bernardo says. “It really inspires me to see, support, and experience the dynamic development of Olam.”