28 May 2021

Rafi Mottahedeh: 'Part of the joy for me is explaining byzantine tax laws in a way that makes sense to our business teams'

Cargill's tax counsel on the 'why' of tax law, being diverse in the legal profession and adapting to a Minnesota lifestyle

Rafi Mottahedeh Image courtesy of Cargill

You speak several languages – and have a university degree in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations. How did your path lead you to the law?  

Well, I wouldn’t say I speak several languages now. They’re pretty rusty at this point! I’ve always had a love for languages and cultures and have travelled to more than 50 countries. Similarly, I’ve always wanted to work in an international environment. When I was young, I thought that might lead me to a career as a flight attendant or in hotel management. However, when I went to the University of Chicago, we were required to read everything from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman to Karl Marx. I became interested in finance and the economic underpinning of our global economy. That led me to law school, a focus on tax, and then a second law degree (an LLM) in tax law from New York University.  

Many people might think tax law is something sort of dull.  What is it about tax law that interests you?    

When I was in law school, I found law really interesting but what it didn’t answer for me was the ‘why’. That is, we litigate about money, we have transactions that involve money, but what are the economic underpinnings of these things? I was an avid reader of the Becker-Posner blog on law and economics, but I wanted to be involved with thinking about money in actual transactions like you read about in the New York Times DealBook. Taxes affect the bottom line in a business, not unlike the cost of raw materials. So you could say the beauty of tax is that, unlike most other areas of law, you are closer to the business as taxes are a cost, not unlike corn or wheat or paper pulp.  

An aspect of my job that I absolutely love is how integrated I am with our business teams. Frankly, they usually see the huge value-add that a good tax team provides, because it all boils down to quantifiable amounts of money. At a US multinational like Cargill with operations in more than 70 countries, you get the added bonus of all the national tax systems overlapping with each other and the US tax system. So, you are in some ways dealing with a giant jigsaw puzzle of costs and consequences. Some of my friends like to equate it to conducting a symphony.  

This is work that really pushes me technically, and part of the joy for me in my work is how to best explain byzantine tax laws in a concise way that makes sense to our business teams. Cargill pays a lot of taxes around the world, which always keeps us on our toes! 

You told me how important diversity is to you, particularly as a gay man. Is there still a stigma of being a gay man in the legal profession?  

I have to say no. Probably only once in my entire career have I ever felt treated differently; that wasn’t at Cargill. One of the reasons I was attracted to Cargill is because of its exceptional commitment to diversity. It is not just lip service. I see their commitment every day, and seeing it done right, as we do it at Cargill, is a sea change in creating an inclusive, global environment. I feel comfortable bringing my whole self to work every day, and we are very fortunate at Cargill that everyone can feel that way.  

For most of your career, you lived in Chicago, a large urban area.  What was it like to move to the Minneapolis area?  

To be honest, I was initially apprehensive about working at an agriculture company in suburban Minneapolis. My apprehension was totally unfounded. Not only is Minneapolis a very international city with companies like Target, Medtronic, 3M, General Mills, and UnitedHealth Group headquartered here, but all these businesses bring people together from all over the world. As someone who likes to travel the world, I’m actually living my childhood dream—but it’s not at all the way I imagined it would happen. I know dozens of people from Brazil in what are called the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) who came here as ex-pats for work and stayed! It’s also a place where I had my first Somali meal, and we have an awesome community of Somali-Americans in Minneapolis.  

You seem to have taken to the Minnesota lifestyle.  Is that right? 

Yes, that’s right. Hunting is very big in Minnesota, and I recently went on my first hunting trip. There are many wild turkeys here, and we cooked one as part of a dish called Turkey Yucatan. It was a recipe in a cookbook, Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail by Hank Shaw. I mentioned the Somali influence here, which led me to buy another cookbook—In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean by Hawa Hassan. Maybe to offset all this cooking, I’m doing five triathlons this summer and an Ironman in 2022. I’m also going to start working on one of my bucket list items and become certified as a group fitness instructor.  

Based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, Cargill is one of the world’s largest privately held companies, with 155,000 employees in 70 countries providing agricultural products, services and risk management solutions.