Podcast: Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Tamarah Belczyk, Audax Group
In this episode of Women @ RopesTalk, hosted by IP transactions partner Megan Baca, private equity partner Chau Le interviews Tamarah Belczyk, Managing Director and Deputy General Counsel at Audax Group, a leading middle-market alternative asset management firm. Tamarah starts by sharing the most exciting recent developments in debt financing products and legal knowledge management tools. In thinking about what attracted her to the law, Tamarah makes a case for how English majors are well suited to contract drafting. Tamarah also talks about the advantages of diverse teams, specifically in the field of private equity, and gives advice on how to succeed as a woman in a male-dominated field (hint: it doesn’t involve changing your personality).
Megan Baca: Welcome, and thank you for joining us on our latest installment of Women @ RopesTalk, a podcast series brought to you by the Women's Forum at Ropes & Gray. In this podcast, we spotlight extraordinary women who have had successful careers and interesting lives, and are also making a positive impact in their workplaces and in their communities. We feature women attorneys at Ropes & Gray in conversation with prominent women clients, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and others, about their careers and what's led to their successes, the challenges they’ve faced, and the hard-earned wisdom they've acquired. I’m Megan Baca, a partner at Ropes & Gray with a practice focusing on intellectual property and technology transactions, and I’m also co-head of the firm’s digital health initiative. I’m based in Silicon Valley. On this episode, I’m joined by my friend and colleague, Chau Le, who’s based in San Francisco. Hi, Chau, can you introduce yourself and your practice?
Chau Le: Hi Megan—yes, happy to. I’m a partner in the San Francisco office in the private equity group. I’m a lifer—I summered at Ropes & Gray and started in the Boston office, then I moved out West in 2016. I do M&A deals for a variety of private equity sponsors and I’m not embarrassed to say that I love what I do.
Megan Baca: Sounds good—I’m very familiar with that because we have the fun of working together a lot. Who is the special guest you’ll be interviewing on this episode today?
Chau Le: Tamarah’s the Managing Director and Deputy General Counsel with Audax Group, a long-time client of the firm. She’s someone I really enjoy working with, and whom I look up to greatly. There can be a dozen deals going at a breakneck pace and Tamarah will be the eye of the hurricane, calmly making the call in every one of them in the middle of all of us going nuts.
Megan Baca: So tell me, how did you and Tamarah meet and start working together?
Chau Le: I think I’ve been working with Tamarah for my entire career at this firm. When I summered in 2008, Ken Chow had me working on Audax, and so I think I’ve been working with her since then. Our relationship has grown over the years. I’ve always loved working with her, but over time, I feel we’ve expanded our relationship, and I consider her a mentor and a friend.
Megan Baca: What would you say is most interesting about Tamarah and her career?
Chau Le: Tamarah is an excellent example of the long relationships we build at Ropes & Gray. She’s in-house now, but I really think of her as a Ropes lifer too. She summered at Ropes and practiced here before going in-house at Audax, which is, as I mentioned before, a long-time client of the firm, and where Dan Weintraub, another alumni of Ropes, is General Counsel. She still works with folks she did when she was a summer here. I’m not sure that’s the most interesting thing about her, but I think the continuity in our relationship with her is quite special.
Megan Baca: Awesome—thank you so much. I can’t wait to hear from her. So with that, I will turn it over to you and Tamarah.
Chau Le: Tamarah, welcome. Can you tell us a little bit more about Audax?
Tamarah Belczyk: Sure. Thanks so much, Chau, for having me. I'm Tamarah Belczyk. I'm Managing Director and Deputy General Counsel at Audax, as you've said. Audax is a leading middle-market alternative asset management firm with offices in Boston, New York and San Francisco. We have both a private equity and a private debt business, both focused on investing in the middle market. I'm a member of our internal legal group, and my primary responsibility is to oversee all things financing, whether that's advising on the financings of our LBO investments for our private equity business, advising on terms related to the investments themselves made by our private debt business, or arranging for all types of fund-level financing. Basically anything finance related, I'm involved with. I'm a member of our legal group and our capital markets group, and I also sit on our diversity, equity and inclusion working group. And I've been with Audax for 14 years now.
Chau Le: Fourteen years—I feel like that's flown by. The last time we saw each other, I think we were either having madeleines at Bar Boulud or maybe coffee at the Barnes & Noble Café in Boston. But how are you? I know it's a big question to ask in 2021.
Tamarah Belczyk: I'm doing pretty well. Thanks for asking. Yes, the transition to remote work has been pretty seamless for us and deal volume has picked up pretty quickly. So despite spending a lot more time at home and sort of juggling things a little bit more directly, it's been good. It's been pretty much business as usual.
Chau Le: I love it. Yes, you guys have been incredibly busy. I mean, your deal flow has been extremely high and you've kept us on our toes. I thank you. I know Ken and Mike are grateful as well.
Tamarah Belczyk: We couldn't do it without all of your support.
Chau Le: Happy to be on the team. So let's jump straight into some substance. I know you said that you deal with all things finance. Are there any legal developments that have been particularly interesting or challenging for you and for Audax recently?
Tamarah Belczyk: I'm kind of a debt financing geek, so all of the really bespoke financing products are really interesting to me. In particular, on the fund financing side it feels like there's been just an explosion of new products—there are plain vanilla sub-lines, but also ABLs and hybrid facilities. And the newest thing that seems to be getting a lot of press are ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance)-related facilities, so those involve some sort of pricing grid that fluctuates depending on whether you meet predetermined ESG metrics. So just seeing all the innovation in this space is really, really exciting.
Chau Le: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and your career path? How did you get to be a debt financing geek? I assume that wasn't one of your stated goals when you were in kindergarten.
Tamarah Belczyk: Well, it certainly wasn't. I started my career at Ropes & Gray—like you, I started as a summer associate. And then I was an associate in the corporate department. And as so many people did, I just did a variety of corporate work, but I found myself really liking the debt financing work that I did and really liking the lawyers in the debt financing group. I think Mike Lee is one of the smartest and nicest people I've ever met in my life. And so just having the opportunity to work with those really smart, really nice people, doing more deals like that—I sort of fell into it by happenstance, but I fell into doing something that I really enjoy doing and so looked for more and more opportunities to do it.
Chau Le: I know how you feel. I think that, in a lot of ways, that was my path for private equity deals as well. I confess, I think a lot of us at Ropes consider you a Ropes lifer, since you spent your career at Ropes and Audax. I feel that’s increasingly rare now when people hop around a lot. The duration of the two institutions that share relationships speaks a lot, I think, to both those institutions and to you.
Tamarah Belczyk: Well, it is interesting. It does seem like there's a lot more moving around of lawyers lately and lawyers going from firm to firm and always looking for the next or the better opportunity. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that, but I've just found a group of people that I really like working with, both at Ropes and at Audax, and I found a type of work that I really like doing. My work really has evolved in the time that I've been at Audax. Saying "14 years" out loud sounds like such a long time, but you're right, it really has flown by. The type of work that I do, although it's always been debt financing work, it's been constantly evolving, and so that's just been really exciting and fulfilling. So I haven't really felt that need to look around for something new or something different.
Chau Le: Though you've focused on debt finance the whole time, I at least have seen your role really change to the point where you're managing large teams and overseeing folks, and so I feel like even though it's still debt financing, what you do has evolved a lot over those 14 years.
Tamarah Belczyk: It really has. And, like I said, it's been really gratifying and fulfilling. I started off doing debt financing work both at Ropes and at Audax, but that was sort of limited to working on the financing piece of an LBO, and that's definitely what I did in my early years at Audax. I still do some of that, but I do fund financing work as well. We launched a CLO a couple of years ago, and so I've been working on the CLO. And so there really has been a lot of ways that the substance of what I do has grown and evolved over time in ways that I find really interesting.
Chau Le: So I'm going to throw a curveball at you with all our debt talk. I googled you before we talked. I feel like I've known you actually well over a decade, but then I only learned by googling you that you have a masters in communication. So what prompted that degree? What were your master plans?
Tamarah Belczyk: Part of it was not really having the best master plan or not knowing what my master plan was or should be, so it really was just hedging. I knew I was sort of interested in law, but I wasn't 100% sold on it, and I also wasn't 100% sure that I'd be good at it or that people would want to hire me for this job. So it was hedging and thinking that two is better than one, and so if the whole law thing didn't work out, I'd have another career that I could try out.
Chau Le: You're clearly killing it on this podcast, so I think that can be your second step as well, if you decide that you're done with debt financing. Just continuing on that then, Tamarah, what attracted you to law as you were hedging?
Tamarah Belczyk: So I think in large part it was a love of literature. I love language. I love thinking about precise and elegant ways to put thoughts on paper. I was an English major as an undergrad and I just realized that a lot of those skills—careful, nuanced reading; thinking about how an author's intent may differ from how a reader understands language; an ability to consider multiple interpretations of language—a lot of those translated really well to contract law. And so it just in some ways seemed like a natural evolution to me.
Chau Le: That makes total sense. So let me do a quick side venture and ask you: What books are you reading? What do you recommend?
Tamarah Belczyk: I'm trying to make my way through Ibram X. Kendi's books. So I started, I think, with what was his first book, which was Stamped from the Beginning, so I'm working my way through that one. And then I think I'm just going to move right on to the rest of his books, hopefully.
Chau Le: That’s wonderful. How to Be an Antiracist is on my list, though I’m impressed you plan to read his entire body of work.
Tamarah Belczyk: I feel like I'm a little behind, though, because his books have been out for a while and he recently started the Antiracism Center at Boston University, which I'm super excited about. And so I saw the press release about him doing that, and I'd always had his books on my list, so when he made the move to BU (I'm a BU alum) I felt, "I'm really overdue in reading these. I need to do these now," and then maybe make that the first step in learning more about him and hopefully contributing to some of his work at his antiracism research center.
Chau Le: The BU connection is awesome. You’ve inspired me to do more than just finish the kids’ book he wrote. Transitioning back to work, let me ask you, in your day-to-day right now with the pandemic and other challenges we’ve faced, what do you see as the most important change in legal services and legal technologies for Audax recently?
Tamarah Belczyk: I think figuring out the right knowledge management tools that allow us to track information efficiently. The market's changing so quickly and the terms of financing—and really the terms of all deal documents—can be so situation-specific. You need tools to track those developments, but you also need really sophisticated lawyers to help interpret those developments. Some of the tools out there involve AI, some don't. So there are tools like Xtract and Covenant Review, and then there are others that rely on AI. They can be helpful, but you need the expertise of specialized lawyers who see a lot of deal flow in your particular space to really help you understand what's in some of those knowledge management tools.
Chau Le: Tamarah, when you analyze these legal services, how much do you talk to your external law firms about their usefulness and about what they could offer you?
Tamarah Belczyk: We do talk to our external law firms a lot about them and I think rely on outside counsel quite a bit to vet some of them and give us their thoughts on them. We do have internal knowledge management specialists as well, but they're less focused on legal terms and they're more supporting our private equity business and broader market deal learning. So when it comes to legal knowledge management, it really is our internal legal team and outside counsel, and then relying a bit on some of these knowledge management tools, which, again, we're still trying to figure out. Almost every day, certainly every week, I feel like I'm getting a cold call from somebody who started some sort of new knowledge management firm or has some sort of new knowledge management product that they want to pitch to us. So figuring out which ones are useful, and which ones are different and better than some of the ones we might already be familiar with is quite a daunting task sometimes.
Chau Le: Yes, absolutely. It's interesting—I actually have gotten some calls from clients who want to talk to us and our IT group about which of these tools we at Ropes use because I think that legal software and legal knowledge management services are an industry that folks are becoming interested in investing in. Like you said, you see new products all the time, and it feels like it really is an industry that has a lot of potential. So not to embarrass you, but though we are about the same age, I took some time off between college and law school. So you were already a client when I joined the firm. And so I confess, I've always considered you a role model and a mentor. I remember attending, when I was maybe a first or second year, an alum panel that you were featured on where you were talking about the pros and cons of going in-house. So segueing a little bit into these concepts, how do you see the importance of mentoring in your career? And I guess, as a transition, how have you been involved in mentoring others?
Tamarah Belczyk: Mentoring has been instrumental. What I found is mentors don't really need to look like you or act like you. There's certainly value in having a mentor that shares a similar background to you, definitely, but there's also great value in diversity of perspective and diversity of mentors. And it really dovetails into just building your network, too, which is so important I think for all of us. So building a broad and diverse network is important. It took me a long time to realize, too, that networking doesn't really need to be this herculean task—it’s really just making a connection with people. I'm very much an introvert by nature and so networking always struck me as daunting, but some people love it—I do not. But networking really is just about trying to make connections with people, and once I realized that, it became a lot easier. Just finding out what motivates and excites people, and getting them to talk about that—it’s a great way to connect with people. And if you're an introvert like me, it takes the burden off of having to be the one doing the talking. So I really think that's the best way to find your mentors when you're starting out and it's the best way to find people to mentor as you make your way through your career, is just building those connections with people and not looking at it like, "Okay, I'm going to go out to this event and network. That is my stated goal." More just, "I'm going to go to this event to try to make a connection with people."
Chau Le: Yes, I'm similar to you. The idea of going to actively networking, using "networking" as a verb is horrifying. So I'll say though, too, I loved what you said, that mentors don't need to look like you. I'll confess that Dan Weintraub has definitely been a mentor to me, and I remember in 2019 he won The American Lawyer’s Best Mentor Award, which I think was well-earned by him. But I think we can both safely say Dan does not look like either of us, but he's been a great mentor to me.
Tamarah Belczyk: And that's something that he loves doing, too. I know he's helped a lot of people throughout the legal community, throughout the investment management community. He's really helped a lot of people grow their careers, and I know that's something he takes great pride in and really loves doing.
Chau Le: Yes, he is very generous with his time. We had a paralegal who's now actually I think a third or fourth year at the firm, but then at the time she was a paralegal who did a lot of Audax work. Before she went off to law school, I think he met up with her twice to talk to her about her career goals and where she was headed. And I remember she was completely touched by the fact that the GC of a major client was taking the time to do that with her, so I think you guys have a great legacy of mentorship at Audax.
Tamarah Belczyk: Wow, that's great. That's so good to hear. I think it's important to all of us.
Chau Le: With that, though, and the importance of mentorship, and I think the value that you and I both found in it, I think we still see in law—and especially in private equity—a pretty high rate of attrition among women. What secret sauce do you have? What have been your keys to your success and your longevity within private equity and the law?
Tamarah Belczyk: I don't know that it's a secret sauce by any means, and it took me a while to figure this out, but understanding that you don't need to change your personality to be successful in this field, whether it's law or private equity. For a long time it has been, and in some ways can still be, a boys' club, and a white boys' club in particular, but that doesn't mean that you need to stifle your personality to fit in or to succeed. You can figure out a way to interact with people in a way that feels authentic to who you are. Some of the advice that women get strikes me as confusing, bordering on enraging sometimes. Advice about being more vocal or more assertive; that's fine if that feels authentic to you, but you shouldn't try to turn yourself into someone you're not. We shouldn't all feel like we need to adopt this stereotypical persona of a successful businessman to succeed. That's a stereotype that frankly feels damaging to a lot of men and non-binary people too. Speak up if you have something to say, be assertive if you feel that a situation warrants it, but if banging the table doesn't feel right to you, don't do it. If there's another approach that feels more authentic to you and that you feel can be persuasive, use that approach instead. We shouldn't be perpetuating the view that women or that anyone should have to adopt this sort of stereotypical persona that's a cis gendered "straight white man" in order to succeed. There's great value in diversity of perspectives and in diversity of personalities, and we should be fostering that.
Chau Le: That makes total sense. And I'll say, I think one of the most inspirational things I see within Audax is that I feel like you guys have all showed there are a lot of different ways to be successful. I wouldn't want to work at a place where there was only one path to success, and I wouldn't want to work for a client who thought that all lawyers should be the exact same. Building off of that, I’ll confess, with your success, what do you see as your role in supporting other women, other junior colleagues at Audax and at other law firms/private equity shops? What's your role there?
Tamarah Belczyk: I hope to be supportive and help people, and I guess help the community build a more diverse and inclusive community. So to the extent I can, I'd like to support all different types of people, women and men, at all different stages of their career. I just think it's important to have really diverse representation in law and in private equity. And I think private equity and financial services generally, it's been a lot more homogeneous, to the detriment I think of the business and of the community. So to the extent I can, I’d love to be a mentor if anyone feels that that would be helpful or just look for ways to encourage greater diversity and greater inclusion in our field.
Chau Le: So as you are building that diversity, I think I see where you're coming from, but then maybe you could talk a little bit about what you see as the advantages of having greater gender and other diversity in law, in private equity, and in leadership teams generally across both those industries?
Tamarah Belczyk: I think there's a wealth of scholarship out there about how diversity of thought leads to better outcomes. It prevents groupthink and it empowers innovation. In the investment world, diversity of perspectives just leads to better investment decisions. And diverse leadership teams are instrumental in motivating and retaining the best talent, because the most talented people are not a homogeneous group. You need a leadership team that can communicate with and motivate a diverse talent pool. So this has been very much a focus of Audax lately. I'm on our DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) committee, our working group, and we're spending a lot of time thinking about ways to mentor and retain diverse talent. Again, the industry I think is struggling with this, has struggled with this for a long time, but hopefully it's changing. It's been slower than I'd like, but it is changing. I'm excited about all of the energy and passion around this and can't wait to see how the next several months and years unfold. I think that an increased focus on diversity and inclusion will lead to a much stronger organization, it'll lead to a much stronger investment community. And I'm hopeful that Audax is going to be a leader in this, and that'll make Audax a place that I'm even more proud to be part of.
Chau Le: That's wonderful. Are there examples that you've run into where the diversity of perspective at Audax has led you guys to better outcomes or to avoiding pitfalls you might have fallen into?
Tamarah Belczyk: One of the things I think that's great about Audax is when we're looking at investments, we really do try to get input from everyone on the team, so it's not just the MDs who are running the deal that are listened to. I think there's certainly a danger in that at other shops that might just rely on the leadership team to make all of the decisions. I think the leadership team isn't always going to have their finger on the pulse of that particular industry. I remember hearing one story, and I must confess, I don't know if this was at Audax or elsewhere—just sort of an anecdote about somebody looking at some business that was marketed, or that's main distribution channel was Walmart, and all of the senior people on the team, nobody had ever even been to a Walmart. And so you need people with diverse perspectives, with diverse experiences, with diverse economic backgrounds to really be able to understand the diverse set of investments. I think if you're looking at an investment in something, in a product that's sold primarily out of Walmart and your entire investment team has never been to a Walmart, I think you're not going to be as knowledgeable about that investment.
Chau Le: I do think there is so much to be said for a wide array of diversity for strengthening our teams and our business results for our clients. And what you said about being proud about being at Audax. I confess, I'm very proud to work with you guys, too, and to be on your team. Thank you so much for your time, Tamarah. I don't know if you have any last nuggets of wisdom that you'd want to put out there for folks who are looking to get into private equity or the law?
Tamarah Belczyk: I don't think I have any nuggets of wisdom, but I think your story about Dan just proves that you really should just reach out to folks even if you think that somebody might not have time. I think most of the people I know anyway in this community are happy to share thoughts and be mentors to the extent we can. So I don't think anyone who's starting out their career should be shy about reaching out to folks and asking to go for a cup of coffee or pick someone's brain about their career path.
Chau Le: That's great advice.
Megan Baca: Chau and Tamarah—thank you both so much for this great discussion and for sharing your insights. Thanks also to our listeners. For more information about Ropes & Gray's Women's Forum and our women attorneys, please visit ropesgray.com/women. You can also subscribe to this series wherever you typically listen to podcasts, including on Apple, Google and Spotify. Thanks again for listening.