INTERVIEW ❘ ARLEAS UPTON KEA, DC AND COO, FDIC
ARLEAS UPTON KEA HAS SPENT HER ENTIRE CAREER AT THE FED-
eral Deposit Insurance Corp. She was the first woman of color in the
FDIC’s legal department and is now the deputy chairman and chief
In an email conversation with Corporate Counsel, Kea discussed
some of the challenges she faced as a woman of color in law and the
importance of having a mentor. This conversation has been edited for
clarity and length.
CORPORATE COUNSEL: Having been the first woman of color in the
FDIC’s legal department, did you experience any uncertainty not seeing
people in the department who looked like you?
ARLEAS UPTON KEA: Yes, there’s always that uncertainty. However,
even throughout my childhood, youth and adulthood—this is mostly
the case. By the time I was a lawyer at the FDIC, the experience of
not encountering someone with a similar background was something I
came to expect. The environment for minority students was not immediately friendly. I relied on coping skills to avoid having any of the negative factors distract me from getting the best legal education that I could
possibly get from a top-rated law school. At the FDIC, initially, I overcame the negative stereotypes by always performing at my best, being
prepared, focusing on the business and disregarding or simply avoiding
the negative distractions, which I came to regard as just “noise.”
CC: What were some of the early challenges you faced in the legal
department at the FDIC?
AUK: I believe that some of the challenges that I faced as a young
lawyer were commonplace during the time. Obviously there were a
lot fewer women, let alone a woman of color. Often at the start of
meetings, I would be mistaken for the secretary, and others would be
obviously surprised to learn that I was legal counsel representing the
FDIC. Sometimes opposing counsel would be so surprised that I felt it
gave me a clear advantage in the negotiations because they were still
trying to get over the fact that I was a black woman lawyer working for
the FDIC. Although I was a high performer and a strong contributor in
my early days in the FDIC legal division, promotions did not come easily,
and I always felt that I had to work harder than my nonminority male
counterparts. Even though I came with an excellent legal background
and worked very hard, I believe that finding informal mentors and sponsors made the difference for me as I started to move up.
CC: What kind of mentors did you have early in your career?
AUK: I had a strong mentor while at the University of Texas. She was
Barbara Jordan, former congresswoman from an underserved community in Houston. Although she passed away at a time when I was early
in my legal career, I regarded her as inspiration always. Of all my role
models, she epitomizes the ideal ways she broke through many glass
ceilings, overcoming challenges and obstacles as she pursued her education and ultimately her career as a public servant.