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In the Field

Paper Executive’s Nimble Ascent

Ryan likens life to a jungle gym.

Photograph by Houston Cofield
Pocket Résumé
Sharon Ryan ’85: International Paper executive. Service with a Smile: As an appointee of the Tennessee Supreme Court, she served on the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission for nine years. She also served on the Chairman’s Diversity Council at International Paper. Wheels Up: Since retiring, she and her family have been to New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands, and visited friends across the United States. Coming up: Italy, Poland, and more.

Before Sharon Ryan ’85 bought her first car, she went everywhere on her bike. In fact, as a student she always rode to the BC Law campus on a bike she lugged to Boston from Miami on a plane. “I didn’t have a lot of money,” recalls Ryan. “I used to eat yogurt at lunch in the snack bar at BC Law. All I could afford was the cold stuff.” 

In June 2022, Ryan retired as senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary after thirty-four years with International Paper, one of the world’s largest forestry and paper companies. She launched her legal career with a law firm in Dallas and then, three years later, was courted by International Paper, a client. “I was in the right place, and they needed real estate experience,” recalls Ryan. 

Over the years, Ryan was tapped for a variety of progressively more responsible positions, including associate general counsel, general counsel, and ethics and compliance positions with various subsidiaries of the corporation. In 2009, she was appointed associate general counsel for International Paper and in 2011, she was elevated to the top general counsel spot. “Life is not a ladder, it’s a jungle gym,” she notes.  

“I was the only woman on the senior leadership team for many years. Every time someone came up for a job promotion, I asked, ‘Where’s the woman? Where’s the person of color?’ As a Jewish woman in a white male industry who adopted bi-racial children, I understood the challenges,” says Ryan, who credits her husband, Bill, with running their family’s day-to-day operations. 

To encourage diversity, Ryan co-sponsored Women in International Paper, an employee program focused on creating an inclusive, collaborative, and diverse workforce, and was instrumental in launching the International Paper Pro Bono Committee. She served on the boards of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis and the Association of General Counsel. In 2022, she was a STEP Ahead Honoree, the Manufacturing Institute’s top award for women leaders. “That was for my work in mentoring and developing women across International Paper, not just in the legal department,” she says. “I wanted people to feel engaged at work, and I wanted them to feel included.”

Like many BC Law graduates, Ryan has done well and done good. She was a longtime member of the board of Equal Justice Works and helped launch the Signature Pro Bono Initiative (SPBI), part of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, which assists residents with the expungement of criminal records, voter rights restoration, and driver’s license reinstatement. As a result of this work, the Memphis Bar Association honored International Paper with its 2021 Champion of Justice award. Ryan is now focusing on fundraising and programs for a variety of nonprofits, including Memphis Area Legal Services and her own family foundation.  

Looking back, Ryan credits her ability to get along with others as the key to her success. “I was never the smartest lawyer in the room, but I always felt like I understood people and could get along with people, that I cared a lot about how people were going to feel about their jobs. And I always did it with a smile on my face,” she says.