Aguirre: Business law scholar studies socially conscious firms

Emilie Aguirre

Emilie Aguirre, a business law scholar who studies the challenges facing companies with social and environmental goals in addition to profit, joined the Duke Law faculty on June 1.

Aguirre was previously the Earl B. Dickerson Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she received a PhD in health policy and management from Harvard Business School in May. Her dissertation, “Pairing Purpose and Profit,” was based on empirical research with 14 companies, and she continues to do field work at two sites, one a tech startup and the other a large multinational corporation.

“I am delighted to welcome Emilie Aguirre to Duke Law School,” said Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law. “She brings a deep interdisciplinary background, facility with diverse research methodologies, and clear talent in the classroom to our already stellar business law faculty.” 

Aguirre, who is teaching a fall-semester seminar and will teach Contracts in the spring, said she is thrilled to have joined a cohort of business law scholars who teach, research, and write across a range of subjects, including corporate finance, securities regulation, banking, tax law, and entrepreneurship. “I’m excited about the fantastic research community and business law faculty at the Law School, and about the interdisciplinary engagement at the Law School and more broadly at the university,” she said. “And I am really looking forward to being in the classroom with 1Ls and upper-level students and integrating into my teaching my experience with companies and real-world examples of the types of contract law conflicts and corporate law, corporate finance, and corporate governance issues that they’ll see.”

Aguirre’s scholarship focuses on companies that pursue both social purpose and profit, ranging in size from small startups to household names. While they have the potential to help solve some of the world’s most serious problems, including climate change, health care delivery, hunger, and inequality, they face managerial and legal barriers to their success.

“These barriers remain little understood in both the management and the business law literatures,” Aguirre said. “My research seeks to understand the challenges and tensions facing companies with objectives beyond profit and what role business law does and should play at each stage of the business lifecycle to facilitate their success.”

In “Beyond Profit,” 54 U.C. Davis Law Review 2077-2148 (2021), Aguirre examines the difficulty these firms face scaling up under current business law. Using retail platform Etsy as an example, she notes that companies seeking social impact often drop their pursuit of such goals when founders are replaced or their influence is diluted following a public offering, acquisition, or other mechanism of growth. To address this, she proposes a “voluntary commitment mechanism” that would require that companies choosing to be public benefit corporations tie executive compensation to social impact metrics and maintain equal board representation between members elected by shareholders and members elected by social purpose stakeholders, such as relevant nonprofit organizations.

In “The Social Startup,” (forthcoming), Aguirre examines the specific problems for these companies in their earliest stages, entailing “all of the challenges and risks facing regular startups, but while also juggling multiple organizational objectives often in tension.” The article uses in-depth qualitative research gleaned from over a year in which she was embedded with a food technology startup to seek to understand the role that legal or quasi-legal tools designed for socially conscious business play in their survival and how they interact with managerial practice, corporate governance, and corporate finance.

“Emilie is an engaging interdisciplinary scholar who brings a much-needed innovative viewpoint to corporate scholarship and to the Law School,” said Professor Gina-Gail Fletcher. “Her insights into early-stage companies explore an under-studied area of corporate law that is and will be rising in prominence in coming years as more socially conscious startups try to figure out how to be both profitable and true to their founding social principles. Her research methodology of being embedded in these companies provides her with unparalleled access, allowing her to develop theoretical and practical insights into the operations, mistakes, and successes of these increasingly important entities.”

Added Lisa Kern Griffin, the Candace M. Carroll and Leonard B. Simon Professor of Law who chairs the Law School’s entry-level appointments committee: “Emilie asks deeply interesting questions and tackles them with originality, ambition, and creativity. She brings insights from sociology, organizational theory, and management to her research, and she combines qualitative and quantitative methods, including field work embedded at both startups and established companies. She will be a tremendous addition to the faculty and a terrific resource for our students.”

Aguirre’s interest in the law and its intersection with business and equality began in an unlikely place. For her senior thesis as an undergraduate at Princeton, she conducted an ethnography of taco trucks in post-Katrina New Orleans. When local authorities repeatedly shut down the truck on which she was working, she began calling lawyers for help.  

“Eventually, a couple of different legal teams, including the ACLU and the Institute for Justice, took on the case and resolved it in a phone call, and I just realized the power that these lawyers had,” she said. “I knew then that I wanted to go to law school and have that same power.”

In her third year at Harvard Law, Aguirre developed an interest in food law through a clinical project in which she studied access to health care for diabetics in rural eastern North Carolina. Through a post-graduate Fulbright fellowship to the University of Cambridge, she studied U.K., European Union, and U.S. law pertaining to diet-related disease and the food supply. That research ultimately led her to UCLA School of Law, where she began investigating intersections of corporate law and the food industry.

“I started working with a lot of food entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and really understanding more of the food supply chain in Los Angeles and more broadly, and realized that there was this lack of research and understanding on how companies could pursue multiple goals — wanting to do good, wanting to make money with their business, and wanting to be sustainable,” she said. “They had all these different goals and there weren’t frameworks for helping them do that. I started with the food industry, but I quickly realized these problems extended across industries and applied to other kinds of businesses as well.”

Aguirre, who is Mexican-American, is a participant in Duke’s Culp Colloquium and Emerging Scholars programs, which seek to improve the diversity and inclusiveness of the legal academy by assisting minority candidates in the job market. She credits former Duke Law Professor Guy-Uriel Charles and other mentors with encouraging her to pursue her interest in socially conscious companies through a career in the legal academy. She said she never imagined that her work on a taco truck would lead her to become a law professor.

“Emilie is an innovative and insightful scholar who works on questions that matter,” said Deborah DeMott, the David F. Cavers Professor of Law. “She also brings infectious enthusiasm to her work and her interactions with others. We’re fortunate that she’s come to Duke.”

Share this article:

Magazine Cover, Fall 2021

Fall 2021
Volume 40 No. 2