L-R Heather Calhoun and Brennan Stewart
L-R Heather Calhoun and Brennan Stewart ()

When Heather Calhoun joined the legal department of Aaron’s Inc. from Holland & Knight in 2014, she says she was excited to join the lease-to-own retail company’s women’s leadership program—only to learn that no such thing existed.

So she and fellow Aaron’s in-house attorney Brennan Stewart set out to launch the Aaron’s Women’s Leadership Network (ALWN).

The women’s leadership program aims to attract, develop and retain female talent, not only within the Atlanta-based corporate office but throughout the company. It also raises money for Atlanta-based Warrick Dunn Charities, which provides housing down-payment assistance, mainly to women who are single mothers. The group also teamed up with the Boys & Girls Club in Cherokee County to host Lead Like a Girl, a weeklong program that provides at-risk teenagers with computer science, finance and interviewing skills.

The program also focuses on mentoring, the topic of Georgia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sara Doyle’s remarks. Calhoun says Doyle became an invaluable mentor to her when the judge was a partner in Holland & Knight before being elected to the bench.

Calhoun is a graduate of Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law. Stewart, who has moved to Rheem Manufacturing Co., graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law.

What was the biggest challenge to setting up Aaron’s Women’s Leadership Network?

We faced the same challenges that come along with the introduction of any new idea or concept being brought to fruition in a business as far as giving it life. We likewise tackled these challenges in much the same way: we established short-term and long-term goals, we obtained appropriate buy-in and support from executive leadership, and we sought feedback from other women employees.

With women making up about half of all law students, do you see women accounting for about half of leadership roles within any large company’s legal department?

It is common for the legal department in any large company to be regarded as a department leader within a company, and in that regard we do tend to see a greater integration of women in key roles in comparison to some other internal departments. It’s especially pleasing to see an increase in women holding general counsel positions in both private and public companies. Having said that, a lot of opportunity still exists in the business world, both within and outside of the legal spectrum, for gender parity.

What accomplishments are you most proud of within your personal in-house practices?

Brennan Stewart: Many years ago my dad (whose legal career also included in-house counsel for both public and privately owned companies) gave me some sage advice. My dad was my first real mentor, and early on in my career he advised me to look at each day as a “new start.” This meant to work positively and creatively each day to find a solution to company issues and problems—but with integrity. I have endeavored to follow that theme, by doing my best and to “go for it” each and every day. I enjoy a challenge and believe my adapting to a variety of working environments in my legal career has been my biggest asset. This includes addressing complex legal issues and finding creative solutions for the business. My focus has been, and is, visualizing the sound, practical solution and, when necessary, finding the members of our team to execute the solution.

My makeup reflects self-motivation and determination, so I find myself gravitating to others with similar qualities. Association with others who have passion and enthusiasm is gratifying when obstacles are overcome or removed.

Heather Calhoun: As an in-house lawyer, I am most proud of my continuing transition into a true business partner within the organization rather than being viewed only as a roadblock, as some in-house lawyers in other organizations might be perceived. This manifests itself most often when a colleague outside the legal department feels comfortable enough to stop by and ask my opinion on a business strategy being considered. My mentors have emphasized the importance of departmental collaboration to the success of an organization, and I am proud of the contributions I have made and continue to make in the spirit of collaboration as in-house counsel at Aaron’s.