No one expects a 5-foot-2-inch Asian woman to play basketball or keep up with the boys on the golf course. Similarly, no one expects Visa’s lead trademark and sponsorship lawyer to be a petite, high-pitched Asian woman. Denise Yee is used to being underestimated. But responding strategically to microaggressions has helped her excel in a competitive industry, build a strong team, and provide best-in-class support to one of the world’s most valuable brands.
Yee has exceeded expectations her entire life. At age seven, she was the only girl hitting golf balls on the driving range, where she often outdrove the boys. She also turned heads on the basketball court, where she held her own in competitive pick-up games.
As a fourth-generation Japanese American, the Los Angeles native and Northern California transplant grew up in a neighborhood where there were few minorities in her classroom. As an adult, Yee encounters daily misconceptions. She has been carded buying lottery tickets and frequently receives emails addressed to “Dennis” or “Mr. Yee”. While attending industry conferences, people have commented on how well she speaks English or have asked if she is a junior associate in a law firm.
“Societal norms are programmed to underestimate someone like me,” she says. “But I turn these microaggressions into a competitive advantage.”
People are often surprised when they meet Yee face-to-face. They would say out loud, “Oh, you are female?” She has joined negotiations where the opposing party requested to speak with someone who is authorized to negotiate on behalf of Visa. She calmly responded, “Yes, that’s me.” Their reactions have motivated her to do what she did as a young girl. “I want to prove their assumptions wrong and demonstrate that I earned my seat at the table,” she says.
Yee doesn’t shrink back from the opportunities to perform in a male dominated industry, and she credits Visa with giving her the chance to succeed. “People don’t expect someone who looks like me to be at the table representing Visa, but our leaders put me here so I can shine, support my ambitions, and further my career,” she says.
In 2011, Visa chose Yee to testify before the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary regarding “Targeting Websites Dedicated to Stealing American Intellectual Property.” And in 2018, Yee led the legal team negotiating Visa’s partnership with the International Olympic Committee through 2032. In 2020, she led the legal negotiation extending Visa’s relationship with the National Football League through the 2025 season.
Few other lawyers have more experience and legacy knowledge of the Visa brand. In 1999, after graduating from Santa Clara University School of Law, Yee went straight in-house and joined Visa before it was a publicly traded company. There were just around six thousand employees at the time. Transactions were completed with magnetic stripe cards and carbon paper credit card imprinters were being phased out, and Yee was the only minority woman lawyer in the California office.
Since going public in 2008, Visa has completed several acquisitions and has grown exponentially. Today, the company employs over 21,500 and transactions are completed through contactless cards, mobile devices, and biometric technology. Visa’s legal department is led by a woman general counsel, Julie Rottenberg, and the US-based legal department is over half women. Additionally, according to company records as of September 30, 2021, Visa’s US-based workforce is 63 percent non-white.
As vice president and associate general counsel of brand, marketing, and sponsorship legal, Yee leads a team of eight attorneys and legal professionals.
“Denise has done an amazing job protecting and enforcing rights in the Visa brand, one of the most famous brands in the world, for the past two decades,” says Michael McCue, IP Partner at Lewis Roca. “We have enjoyed every moment of working in partnership with Denise and admire her brilliance, passion, and dedication.”
Yee’s tiny-but-mighty team works on some big deals as Visa sponsors major sports events like the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the FIFA World Cup, and the Super Bowl. They provide clearance advice, review ad copy and campaigns, advise on the legal aspects of promotions, and support brand activations on the ground. As major events play out, someone from her team is providing real-time legal reviews on social media posts and real-time content capture.
“We take a lot of pride in sponsoring these wonderful iconic events that inspires and unites the world. These powerful opportunities help us leverage our value to clients, grow our business, and increase visibility of the Visa brand,” says Yee.
According to the organization’s annual report for fiscal year 2021, Visa is a leading payments company globally with $24 billion in revenue and over 164 billion processed transactions per year. It is also a thought leader in emerging technologies like blockchain, Internet of Things, and biometrics. But that also means the company has a target on its back. And the Visa brand and the company’s reputation are assets that must be protected.
“What we do and how we are perceived in the marketplace is driven by consumer trust, so it’s very important that my team protects and defends the Visa brand so we can maintain that trust in the marketplace” Yee explains.
Although Visa continues to grow its revenues, Yee shares that the company is about more than dollars and cents. For example, the Visa Foundation was established to advance inclusive economies and create equitable and sustainable growth. In 2020, Visa reached its goal to bring digital payment accounts to 500 million unbanked or underserved people. In 2021, 85 percent of Visa employees volunteered in philanthropic programs. And Visa is committed to digitally enabling 50 million small and micro businesses by 2023.
After more than twenty years, Yee continues to enjoy a front row seat witnessing the evolution of payments, where Visa’s efforts continue to advance digital equity and drive positive change to society. “I have the opportunity to make a difference in the world through my work and my company,” she says. “And that makes me proud to be a part of the Visa family.”