Naming Your "Non-Negotiables" - Rachel Dyke '03

Rachel Dyke ’03 likes to call trade, shipping, and logistics “the circulatory system of the world.” Just as veins and arteries carry blood to every part of the body, global logistics – the industry responsible for moving goods from one place to another – is indispensable to the world economy. Throughout human history, from ancient Mesopotamian caravans to modern-day delivery drones, people have been coming up with new and exciting ways to transport items and keep the beating heart of commerce alive.

Today, shipping is a $10 trillion industry – and Rachel works on the front lines. Based in San Francisco, she is the senior director of global pricing at Flexport, the fastest-growing freight-forwarding company in the world. Rachel sets the pricing that Flexport uses to ship cargo across the globe. And she loves her job.

“I spend every day trying to anticipate what’s ahead while solving fascinating challenges,” she says. “Basically, my job has three parts: I make pricing decisions, work on adding clients and cargo to the company, and help grow the actual company structure. That means I spend a lot of time figuring out the right framework for each decision we need to make. I also do quite a bit of hiring; I interview candidates for positions in Europe and Asia, as well as in the U.S.”

Rachel manages a pricing team that often meets several times a day. Bouncing ideas and feedback off one another, she says, is second nature for her and her team members. “On any given day, the decisions we make might range wildly – we could be discussing anything from what to do about a specific client to scaling our data solutions.” She adds. “Teamwork is key. We sit together and talk, finding ways to collaborate. And I always encourage my team to persevere when things get difficult.”

Being there for her team is part of Rachel’s career philosophy, which has guided her decisions and kept her grounded as she has progressed through the professional world. As the keynote speaker for Potomac’s 2018 Career Day, Rachel talked to current students about how naming the standards she holds for herself at work has helped her determine what’s most important to her.

She told her audience, “I think everyone should develop a set of ‘must-haves’ or ‘non-negotiables’ about the intangible aspects of their jobs. My own ‘non-negotiables’ include a belief in the long-term impact of the industry I work in, a culture of teamwork, leaders who hold me to high standards, and an environment where I can laugh.”

Rachel began developing this philosophy during her first full-time job out of college. After graduating from Stanford University in 2008 with a master’s degree in management science and engineering, she joined SunRun, which was then a small start-up dedicated to the expansion of solar energy in American life. Rachel would be their new manager of product and market development.

She recalls, “Back in college, I had studied international relations, but I ended up falling in love with renewable energy and falling out of love with the idea of going into public policy, at least right away. I became enamored with the complexity of the energy industry – its potential and its challenges, the human advancement it enabled, the international tensions that it caused. I knew that some people saw renewable energy as expensive and unnecessary and just for tree-huggers, but I began to realize what a positive economic force it really is.”

SunRun was a perfect fit for Rachel. Her master’s program had helped her understand the landscape of global energy companies, advanced her understanding of economics, and cemented her goal of pursuing renewable energy. She was ready for the challenge ahead of her. Still, she soon learned that working at a start-up is not without its surprises.

“A few days in, one of my tasks for the day was to build my own desk and chair,” Rachel laughs. “Before then, I’d been working at a glorified folding table. My boss, who was the president of the company, actually jumped in to help.”

Rachel found that life at a small start-up was full of this kind of teamwork. “I was working with so many smart, fiery, fun people,” she notes. “At the beginning, we were all in one room. If you needed to talk to someone, you’d just walk over and bother them at their desk. My coworkers were a fascinating mixture of software coders, people in sales, business analysts. With them, I worked to open markets, raised money, helped to develop bills and pushed them with lobbyists. We’d often wait with bated breath over deeply nerdy topics, like depreciation schedules, because they had the potential to really affect our business.”

She also learned a great deal from SunRun’s three founders. “If they saw that you were capable, they’d give you and your team more exciting stuff to do, which was great as time went on,” Rachel says. “They taught me a lot about entrepreneurship – I learned that being an entrepreneur can feel like waking up in the morning with 15 things to do and not knowing how to do 13 of them. It can be like pushing a boulder up a hill while most of the world is telling you that your idea is terrible, your competitors – and maybe the government – are trying to shut you down, and you’re the only one with the vision to see what it will mean when you get that boulder where it’s going. The founders’ grit showed me that great things are worth fighting for.”

The once-tiny company began to grow – and grow. Rachel was promoted – and promoted again. She also had some experiences that would stay with her for the rest of her life.

She recalls, “One evening, I came out of a meeting in which we’d just decided to make a fairly complex pricing change. In that meeting, I had learned of an important stakeholder meeting the very next morning in Massachusetts, which was one of the markets we had our eye on. We knew that Massachusetts wanted to promote solar adoption and was working on a complex policy to do so; we also knew that there was a good chance their chosen policy could either open up the market for us or box us out.”

Within hours, Rachel found herself on a redeye flight from San Francisco to Boston. Knowing that she also needed to execute the pricing change that her team had decided upon, which required rewriting a number of pricing algorithms, Rachel “spent the night writing code in my pajamas, on a plane.”

She barely had time to change into business attire after landing, and then it was off to the meeting, where she went head-to-head with a roomful of stakeholders who were significantly older than she. That didn’t faze her. Rachel was prepared.

“We got the policy we wanted,” she says, smiling.

After nearly eight years at SunRun, Rachel had “learned all about the energy industry – I’d become an absurd nerd about finance and energy topics, from org structure to company growth to team building.” She was the company’s director of market strategy and development, and she had acquired significant managerial experience. SunRun met each of her ‘non-negotiable’ requirements – it had a mission she believed in, a work culture based on collaboration, inspiring mentors, and a sense of humor.

But for the first time, Rachel began to wonder if it was time to look for something different.

She muses, “I knew that, in life, I wanted to tackle unknowns. SunRun was a very long first job, but it was great; for a long time; nothing else that I could be doing seemed as exciting as the next challenge there. Eventually, though, the unknown became more interesting to me. I wanted to step away, to do something new, even if I didn’t know what that was yet.”

SunRun was supportive of Rachel’s quest, and she left on excellent terms in early 2016. (By the time of her departure, the company had more than 2,500 employees and over $3 billion in assets.) For a while, Rachel traveled, giving herself time to think about the kind of job she wanted to pursue next.

She says, “After traveling for three months, I wasn’t even close to ready to go back to work – so I signed up for a white water rafting training class. For a long time, I’d had a dream of taking family and friends down a river. I went to what’s called ‘guide school’ in the mountains of Colorado and California. It was beautiful and it was fun, but it was also really hard. I hadn’t learned a fully new vocation in several years.”

As she had done at SunRun, Rachel gave 100% effort to mastering her new discipline. Then – still not quite ready to return to the world of desk jobs – she received an unexpected offer.

“At the end of guide school, they offered me a full-time job working on the river, and I said ‘sure!’” Rachel laughs. “I ended up doing that seven days a week, guiding new guests every single day. It involved so many challenging moments of learning!”

In the end, Rachel achieved her goal of being a raft guide to people close to her; she also kept up her new hobby, even after leaving her job with the guide school. Today, she guides white water trips on the weekends and often finds herself making river analogies when explaining new concepts to her team at Flexport. She says that her time on the rivers led her to an important resolution: “I’ve vowed to become a rookie again at something at least once every five years,” she asserts. “I learned a lot about myself by taking on an entirely new challenge.”

Once back in San Francisco, it was time to find her next job – and Rachel attacked that goal with a vengeance. She discovered that her accomplishments at SunRun had given her a wide range of options to choose from. It was time to look at her “non-negotiables” list again.

“I was introspective about it,” remembers Rachel. “I wanted a place where I could contribute, a place where I would have a deserved seat at the table, and also a place where I would keep learning. I knew from SunRun that I liked working in tangible, physical industries, rather than solely working with software. So I looked at industries that felt similar to energy, and I realized that shipping fit the bill really nicely.”

A friend already working at Flexport got Rachel in touch with the company’s supply team. From the start, Rachel says, “I was captivated by some of the problems Flexport was trying to solve; they related to real, physical assets, complex systems, and complex networks. Flexport also had the best people I’d interviewed with – extremely diverse, smart people expressing wild commitment to the company, with almost no filter on their demand for excellence.”

As Rachel learned more about shipping and its crucial role in the world’s economy, she realized that the first item on her “non-negotiables” list had been fulfilled: Like SunRun, Flexport was a company with an impact that she admired. As for the rest – did Flexport have a work culture of teamwork? Check. Would its leaders hold her to high standards? Check. Was it an environment where she could laugh? Check. Would she leave work every day knowing more than she had that morning? Check again.

Flexport told Rachel that they didn’t have anyone running a pure pricing function and that they’d like to change that by taking her on. Excited, she accepted the challenge. And she’s never looked back.

“My recommendation for professionals – at any stage in your career – is to invest in figuring out what sparks your passion and your energy,” she says. “Once you figure that out, you will be able to find a job that delivers your ‘non-negotiables.’ And the journey along the way will be fun!”