2013 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW major: Political Science
Age: 37 • Fox Point, Wisconsin
Partner, Gonzales Saggio & Harlan LLP
A Badger through and through, Serena Pollack lives her life in true Wisconsin spirit. At 37 years old, she is already a partner at Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan LLP, one of the country's largest minority-owned law firms. But Pollack's go-getter nature doesn't apply just to her career; it also motivates her to help others.
"I live each day with a focus toward giving back to the community in some way because of the opportunities I have as a result of my University of Wisconsin experience," says Pollack.
And to say that Pollack likes to help those in need is putting it mildly. Following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she left her comfortable life in Chicago and moved to New Orleans. Helping to restore the community on both a professional and volunteer level, she worked to rebuild homes with the St. Bernard Project (SBP) — a nonprofit organization that focuses on repairing the homes and lives of those living in disaster-impacted communities.
That was just the beginning. Later that year, she was selected to serve as a member of the Jewish Federations of North America's National Young Leadership Cabinet. Since then, she has held various leadership positions within the organization, as well as serving on the board of directors for the Anti-Defamation League of New Orleans. She and a colleague also helped to rebuild the Bayou Badgers — the Wisconsin alumni chapter of New Orleans.
In 2010, Pollack was working as an attorney in New Orleans, focusing on matters related to the local restaurant industry, when tragedy struck again. In the aftermath of the BP oil spill, she found another opportunity to put her skills to work. Representing a group of James Beard Award-winning chefs in a class-action lawsuit against BP and others, Pollack became a highly regarded advocate for the Gulf Coast seafood industry. Her success in this role led to an invitation last fall to attend the exclusive James Beard Foundation Food Conference.
"My University of Wisconsin education, which was reinforced by local UW alumni who I am honored and proud to call friends, gave me the confidence and motivation to become an advocate for an industry that was being brushed aside in the wake of the damage," explains Pollack.
She also credits her UW education with giving her the "chutzpah" to ask world-famous chefs and culinary professionals why they do not support the Gulf Coast seafood industry and to explain why they should. Although Pollack moved back to Wisconsin, she continues to spread the word about the importance of the industry through Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan's national restaurant and hospitality practice, which she chairs.
In her own words
What was your favorite class?
I had two. One was Physics for Poets. The professor was amazing, and I truly appreciated how passionate she was at bringing physics to life for those of us who didn't understand science as well as others. The second was The Modern Political History of the Olympics. I'm a total sports geek and also a history geek — it combined two of my favorite things, so I loved it.
What is the greatest benefit of a UW degree?
While I was a student, I didn't realize how well respected, on a national level, the UW is. A UW degree means that you have been challenged by the best and are capable of competing with the best.
Who is your hero? Who or what inspires you?
I have several and am fortunate that I've been able to interact or work with some of them. Of the most prominent, though, are Chef Susan Spicer, Julie Foudy and Sarah Robb O'Hagan.
Chef Spicer is, in my opinion, one of the classiest and most accomplished chefs in the U.S. Even though she has won James Beard Awards and owns one of the best restaurants in the country, she has no ego. She loves her profession and constantly gives back to shape the generation that is following her. She was the first chef to stand up for the Gulf Coast Seafood Industry after the oil spill and willing to attach her name to it.
Julie Foudy is, likely, best known as the former captain of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team. What she has accomplished since retiring, though, is what inspires me more. She started a sports leadership academy where she is shaping the next generation of young women to be leaders on and off of the athletic field.
Sarah Robb O'Hagan is just a badass. She recently left Gatorade to head up Equinox. She is relatively young. She embraces out-of-the-box thinking. She transforms brands from the inside out by looking at statistics and numbers that no one thought of looking at previously. In her time at Gatorade she literally transformed the brand.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?
If you love what you do it won't feel like work.
What occupies your free time?
During the fall and early winter, I spend a lot of time at Camp Randall or watching the Badgers when they play on the road. My free time and my job often intersect because I truly love what I do, so I spend a lot of my "free" time doing things related to the culinary industry. I often pinch myself when I think about who I get to interact with and whose food I get to try. I'm obsessed with soccer, so there is usually some type of soccer game or commentary on in the background of whatever I am doing.
What would you be if you hadn't chosen your current career path?
Knowing what I know now, I would have likely gone to culinary school after completing my undergraduate degree at UW.