After immigrating to the United States from the nation of Iran at a young age, Martha Charepoo was raised in a region of rural Pennsylvania where she and her family were the only individuals of Mideastern descent and others weren’t always tolerant.
“Sometimes people were cruel, so I’ve seen that side of things,” said Charepoo, a commercial litigation attorney who was named a member at Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice at the beginning of this year. “I grew up in a context where I had to maintain my identity while trying to survive, go to school and get an education.”
Those experiences did have one lasting effect.
“I wanted to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves,” said Charepoo.
Today, she can do that through her work in the legal field — but not just in a courtroom. Charepoo chairs her firm’s diversity and inclusion committee. She also is a member of The Missouri Bar Committee on Diversity and a fellow with the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, a nationwide organization dedicated to promoting inclusiveness in the legal profession.
But for Charepoo, diversity isn’t about titles, fellowships or committees.
“For me, it is about people feeling like they belong and feeling welcome,” the University of Iowa College of Law graduate said. “It is about feeling like you can be yourself and reach your true potential in an environment that is welcoming to who you are, regardless of who you are.”
“[The law] should be a profession that welcomes anyone who wants to devote their life to providing this kind of service for the community,” she added.
Charepoo sees diversity promotion as existing in several layers. One is educational and may involve initiatives such as implicit bias training.
Just as important, however, is understanding the day-to-day parts of organizational life that build a culture of diversity, such as observing holidays from marginalized or minority communities, she said.
“We encourage our attorneys and staff to participate in and take advantage of resources that are available in the community to develop awareness of diversity and inclusion from whatever vantage point you are coming from,” she said. “We try to bring awareness to all of the wonderful and varied traditions that are out there, even traditions that maybe our lawyers and staff aren’t a part of.”
According to her nominator, Charepoo has led the firm’s efforts to better align with American Bar Association initiatives to promote diversity in the legal profession, as well as working to attract and retain diverse talent and provide diversity-related programming and activities for the firm’s attorneys and staff.
Charepoo, who speaks five languages, said the focus is simple and goes back to her early formative experiences. As adherents to the Bahá’í faith, members of her family were part of a persecuted group in Iran. After they settled in the United States, she found herself making friends with the few other minorities to whom she was exposed. Again, she just wanted to give a voice to those who weren’t always being heard.
“Their issues became my issues,” she said. “I became an advocate for that.”