Q&A: Emerson’s senior VP, Sara Yang Bosco, on being a woman in law and her time in Asia

Society & Culture

Sara Yang Bosco, senior vice president of Emerson, talks about her career and gives advice to women in law.

Sara Yang Bosco

Sara Yang Bosco was appointed senior vice president, secretary, and general counsel for electrical engineering giant Emerson in May 2016. In this role, she is responsible for Emerson’s legal affairs, as well as providing legal counsel on a wide range of matters, such as mergers and acquisitions, compliance, dispute resolution, and corporate and commercial operational matters. In 2016, she was named to Emerson’s Office of the Chief Executive, which helps develop and guide the company’s global business strategies.

Bosco will speak at the SupChina Women’s Conference 2022, which is slated to take place virtually on May 19 and in person on May 20. Get your tickets here before they sell out!

We talked to Bosco ahead of the conference. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

If you can give one piece of advice for a woman, a female lawyer trying to make it in this industry, what would it be?

If people are asking you to do something that you feel is completely not what you’ve never done before, you feel it’s something that you’ve never done before, they’re asking you to do it, not because you can’t do it. They’re asking you because they know you can do it, and they want you to bring what you have to offer to that role. And don’t underestimate your abilities. Don’t underestimate the judgment of other people, and don’t underestimate your abilities when you are asked to do that. I think that’s very important.

And I’ll tell you, when I was asked to do that Asia job, that president role, and it was the CEO and the COO who brought me over and asked me to do it, it wasn’t like I had that good of a relationship with them. Hierarchically, I was pretty far from them. I mean, I had interactions, of course, I had engagements, but I didn’t report to them directly. It’s not like they were mentors. But you have other people who see what you do, and they’re communicating to people like the CEO and the COO.

And so, it’s the collective views that they’re receiving that then brings them to a particular conclusion. So, at least for Emerson, I know how important it is for me to talk about other people. And not because I can promote them on my own, but they need to hear from me because they probably are hearing from other people, and it’s that collective opinion that really gets you to that end point.

Have you seen changes in your profession during the span of your career, especially for women in the legal field?

I think women have made great inroads in the legal profession. We can see from the intake of law schools, the percentage of women that are going into law versus before, I think that my class was 30%. And now, I think it could even be 55/45 in favor of women, or 60/40 in favor of women. So there’s been a huge change in terms of the legal industry being a welcoming industry for women. I also think women have made great inroads in becoming general counsel, the chief legal officers of publicly listed companies, which is the role I have. I think that there’s been a lot of progress there.

I think, sometimes, however, the U.S. in particular, doesn’t always see Asians as a diversity candidate. We get a little bit lost in the shuffle. And I think we can do a lot more to promote that and to showcase the diversity of thought that we bring, as Asian Americans, as Asians. I think we can do a lot more there.

What initially drew you to pursue a career in law?

Could I say my mother? What Chinese parent doesn’t have an opinion about what their kids do, right? Almost all Asian parents want their children to be a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. Probably doctor, in that order, and then lawyer is at the bottom of the list, because I think they don’t really know what lawyers do, nor do they want to learn. In my case, my father is an engineer who came from China, very science and engineering focused. And I was never as interested in math, and sciences, and stuff like that. And I think for Chinese immigrant parents, it’s a little harder to visualize what a career that’s not in the sciences might look like, at least in my parents’ generation.

But I had always been the most vocal one in my family. I’m one of five children, and I’ve always been the most vocal in terms of opinions, and even volume of my voice, and things like that. So I think that I was always destined towards some kind of role that would require communication and less paper-based, or now, computer-based.

But to be honest, I really didn’t know immediately after I finished college. Or I didn’t know immediately during college that that’s what I would do. And so, I went to law school. I think most kids are fairly typical in that they don’t really know exactly what they’re going to do. They come to it or evolve into it. And that’s really what happened to me. So I went to college, and then after college, I went to law school right away.

It was a three-year program and in the summer after the first year, you could do pretty much anything and you’d be fine. The second year was really where you had to start to focus on where you wanted to work. And then you graduate and you would work where you went for your second year summer program. But the first year was, at least in my time, very flexible.

But back then, you could do whatever you wanted, so I went to China for the summer. And this was in the very early days. There was a little bit of tourism. We’re talking about 1980, so this is a long time ago. And so, there were only certain visas available. I went on a visiting relatives visa. My father is from Shanghai, so I went to Shanghai first, to meet my aunt and my uncle.

But he had a very good friend who he had grown up with, who later became quite a well-known pianist in China. Her name was Zhou Guangren, and she passed away just a couple months ago, actually. She was getting her first set of students to study in the United States as they had just started opening up to allow Chinese students to come and study.

So she had three or four students whose English was nowhere near where it needed to be. And they had taken TOEFL, of course, and all that, but they really needed more help with English skills. So I went to stay with her at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and taught her students English for that first summer. And it was a very different China than it is today. I lived with her on the campus of the Conservatory. And at that time, the Chinese government had just allowed Western classical music to be performed again, and there was just the beginning of this opening up. So it was a very exciting time to be in China, because I think everything from the West was very new, including being able to learn English and then having the opportunity to go overseas.

So I did that, and that really captured my attention. I gotta practice my Chinese and I really just loved Beijing. I loved being there. You got everywhere on a bicycle. There were very few cars. It was just a very different China than it is today, but one that was. I wouldn’t say it was more pure, but there was a different mindset. People were just really starting to understand or having different experiences than maybe their parents had had in the previous 10 years, because of all the political strife.

After I went back to law school and finished my last two years, I knew that I really wanted to somehow use my legal training and skills to somehow get back to Asia or do something where it would give me the opportunity to travel to Asia. So after law school, I moved to New York, took the New York bar, and then moved to Taiwan because my husband was doing his field work research as an anthropologist

The two years in Taiwan was quite an interesting time. At that time,. Taiwan was going through an economic development that China went through 10 years later. There were a lot of state-owned companies in Taiwan, who were trying to become private. They were getting involved in a lot of international transactions. There was a lot of inflow investment into Taiwan. And so, because I had this combination of a U.S. legal background and language skills, I was able to work in a firm that really was involved in a lot of transactions where we were representing Taiwan companies in joint ventures and transactions with Western companies.

One of the great projects I worked on, that I think of because it had a direct personal impact on me, is negotiating the contract for the Taiwan government to import the hepatitis B vaccine from France. They were trying to start their own inoculation program and vaccination program for the Taiwan population. So representing a couple of the Taiwan agencies in negotiations with the French manufacturers of the vaccine to get that to be imported. And then I actually got the product of that work, because I got my inoculations in Taiwan. So, that was a really great experience to understand how law can actually help a country achieve a certain level of economic development, quite frankly. And so, for me, that was just really eye-opening.

We then went back to New York because my husband had to finish his graduate work. And I ended up working for a smaller firm in New York City, which was starting to take companies public on NASDAQ. And NASDAQ was this know-nothing exchange that nobody really knew about. But it was another great experience, because you’re at the beginning of the development of infrastructure that develops the economy, but I was doing it back in the U.S. And I think the reason why the firm hired me is because they thought that the experience that I’d had in Taiwan, helping investments into Taiwan, gave you a particular lens at looking at how you start building infrastructure. And that’s what NASDAQ was trying to do for the U.S. economy.

One day, my husband, who was doing a postdoc at Columbia, came home, and said, “Okay, I’ve been applying for all these tenure track jobs. Guess where we’re going.” I said, “Where?” He said, “Hong Kong.” And I said, “When did you apply for a job in Hong Kong?” So we packed up the kids and moved the family to Hong Kong.

We lived in Hong Kong for 24 years and during my time there, I joined Emerson. Back then, Hong Kong was the gateway to China, and so we were really doing a lot of work in investments.

So, long story. I know it was a very long explanation, but I really only came to find my niche because I had gone to China and Taiwan, both in non-legal capacities, and then pivoted. That was really where I felt I could have a great career and really learn economic development through that lens and be able to contribute in the very small ways that I’ve done.

As Emerson’s senior vice president, secretary, and general counsel, what does a typical day in the office look like for you?

In my current role, I am the top legal officer of the company, and everything that involves, with understanding, and mitigating, and anticipating legal risk for the company. And legal risk is relatively narrow. I mean, it’s looking at laws and rules that are written down. But I think anybody who has worked in an emerging market like Asia, and could be anywhere, Europe, Latin America, et cetera, understands that the way that the world operates is not always within the fairly strict confines of the rules. And so, you have to have a much broader perspective about how things get done and where’s that line of risk that you feel you can do and keep the company.. I don’t want to say out of trouble, but out of a level of risk that perhaps then is no longer manageable, and you lose control.

As a chief legal officer of any public company, what you are really trying to do is to manage what’s that range of risk that you as a management team, or your board of directors, feel is manageable, and addressable, and you can put enough the right controls around it so you don’t run outside of that risk range. And you have to get the organization on board with that, and put in guideposts and frameworks to allow them to continue to operate, all within that manageable risk profile that you’ve set up, and as things change, like what’s going on in Ukraine, in Europe. That’s the situation that nobody anticipated.

So again, that will impact that range. Because you have to make decisions. Now for U.S. companies, there’s a lot of sanctions that we have to navigate. We also have a very large European organization. They also have their sanctions that they have to navigate. So you’re constantly saying, “Okay, this wall, maybe we need to move it out a little bit. Or maybe we need to bring it in a little closer. Do we have to dig that moat a little wider, or a little deeper?” Just things like that.

COVID is another factor we need to consider when making decisions. We have factories in the U.S. and all over the world. They’re working shoulder to shoulder despite the level of COVID, rules, and psychological perspectives being different. And if you had told me that, back in February, 2020, when China seemed to have gotten it really under control, that they would be where they are now, after we’ve gone through the last few years, I would’ve said, “No way, no way.” So, it’s constantly changing, and you’re dealing with forces that no one controls.

What has been a defining moment, or a particularly challenging moment, in your career?

I think for me, there were maybe a couple things. One, just overall, when Emerson asked me to move from a legal job into a general management role. That, I think, really is something that makes you worried at night, and you wake up with that awful feeling in your stomach, what we call the pit in your stomach. I think it was the first year into that new role. Because there was an expectation, or certainly there was an expectation, at least from me, that I had to be this business person overnight. And I had never been in a business role. I’d only been a lawyer.

With the title of “the president,” I suddenly became the face, the voice, the conduct of the company. I think that was extremely challenging. I’m very grateful, because my then-senior management had confidence in me. And one thing that I always tell younger people, if someone asks you to do a role, they’re not asking you because they think you can’t do it. They’re asking you because they know you can do it. It’s just, what do they need to do to give you the confidence that you need to do the job?So even if you don’t have confidence in yourself, listen to other people and what they’re telling you, in not that they’re necessarily saying, but what they’re doing in terms of moving you in your career.

So I think that was a huge transition from being a lawyer into the business role. And the reason why it became so important is, if I had not done that, I probably would not have the job I have today. And even though it’s back in a functional expertise area, because I’m at what we call the Office of the Chief Executive, the experience I had in navigating my Asia role, I probably use that far more in my current job than I do the actual legal technical expertise. I have lots of great lawyers on my team. I don’t need to be the greatest lawyer. I need to be able to take what they do and translate it for strategy and decision making at the OCE level, at the Office of the Chief Executive level.