Getting to know alumna Rachel Kelly

This month we caught up with Rachel Kelly, Executive Director of CELF, Community and Enterprise Leadership Foundation, and Director of SparkTank Limited, a sales and marketing company she founded in 2014. Originally from Hamilton, Rachel said her first year at university proved to be a challenge, finding it hard to stay on top of her classes and overall workload. 
Rachel learnt from her experiences and used her five years at Waikato to hone her potential and prepare herself for future challenges. Rachel graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and a Master of Science in Analytical Chemistry with first class honours. She has always had big ideas and big visions, and what she’s achieved since graduating is nothing short of inspiring. Enjoy our Q&A with Rachel below.

What is your story? Recap the past five years.

Five years ago, I was an International Sales Manager (ISM) at a high-technology manufacturing company in California. As the second female hired into that role in 30 years, I took care of distributors and direct sales across South East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East and Africa. After my husband and I decided to have another child, I made the tough decision to step down from ISM and lead the company’s digital strategy for global e-learning and sales training. In 2014, we decided it was time to leave California and move back to New Zealand. In the first year back, I started my own sales and marketing company, Sparktank Ltd, which secured contracts up to $360,000 in the first year. While I hired people to help on the administrative and marketing side, without finding a business partner or someone with similar experience to me, it was impossible to sustain the workload. So, I Alumna Rachel Kellypivoted down to a pure independent contractor model and have been in the gig economy since, across digital strategy, technology, sales, marketing, executive directorship, and governance.

What have been some challenges that you’ve overcome, both in your work or home life?

While I hate to play the ‘female’ card, I have found this to be one of the most challenging parts of both work and home life. Let me qualify that a little further. Not just ‘female’, but a driven female. There have been countless times in my professional life where I've felt overlooked, talked-over, dismissed and under-estimated. I’ve often asked myself whether a man in the same position would have experienced all those things, or whether it was simply the execution that failed me versus my gender.

I’ve been involved with many projects where I was the only one ‘doing’ yet my male counterparts got all the public credit for my sweat equity.

There have been times where a man repeated my idea from an earlier meeting, to another one with the same people, only to be received with applause where I was previously dismissed. Perhaps my original idea helped plant the seed for consideration, with the second mention was timed more favourably. Either way, it hurts because you don’t get credit for your hard work or idea. Thankfully, there have also been men with influence who saw me for the asset I was, listened, gave me a chance, and opened opportunities to prove my professional worth. Without those men, I would never have had the opportunities I did, but I ensured a stellar performance.

From a home life perspective, I had to go through the loss of a son, the birth of two healthy children, three bouts of post-partum depression and a troubled marriage to realise my expectations of being a perfect mum and wife were pure self-sabotage. To this day, I must consciously fight for balance, turning down roles that would be an excellent fit for me, but not for me and my commitments as a wife and mother and my priority for a healthy family unit. I've found that focusing purely on work is infinitely easier than being a stay-at-home-mum working part-time OR a full-time working mum trying to do everything work-related in 40 hours AND dealing with all the above. I’m sure many stay-at-home dads or working fathers, who take on the lion’s share of family duties, feel the same way.

Tell us about a project or accomplishment you consider the most significant in your career.

Being promoted into the International Sales Management team was one of the best validations in my life to date. In New Zealand, I’m in the minority class of “tall poppies”. However, when I started working in California, everyone at the company was a tall poppy. I felt at-home but over-shadowed simultaneously, namely because they raised the standard more than I had previously thought possible. Being this young Kiwi in the middle of these outstanding Americans forced me to raise my game. In the fourth year, I was awarded salesperson of the year and given more responsibility, but I was hungry for more.

The year I spent as an ISM combined international relations and negotiations. I learned about and adapted to different cultures, sat at the president’s table, and actively participated in big global strategy using emergent data analytics and business intelligence. With it came the challenges I explained earlier, but the overall experience shaped my character. I grew the Middle East markets by 84% and worked with my distributors in Asia and Africa towards 5% growth during the global financial crisis. It is probably the job I miss the most and regret moving on from, but I cannot deny how important that decision was for my family at the time. One of my mentors said “Rachel, you can do everything you want in your life, just not at the same time”. I couldn’t agree more.

What have you got planned for 2017? What are your goals?

I plan to get more involved with the cross-government Open Government Information and Data Programme that works to optimise the use and reuse of public data. I also plan to start collaborating with the private and research sectors to extend the value of commercial and public data, not only for the benefit of corporates, but also the New Zealand social sector, and applied across the global landscape.

By 31 October, it is my goal to have a conversation with Sir Richard Branson about global analytic initiatives.

I also wish to find a way to work with the Obama Foundation and UN Women towards social impact and gender equality. These are big audacious goals that are currently intangible. I need to work on more concrete outcomes here to really call them ‘goals’. But that is at least my plan.

Finally, through my contract with CELF, I will continue working with the CELF team towards creating the most outstanding leadership development programme in New Zealand.

From your time at the University of Waikato, what skills and lessons have you taken with you into life?

When people say that university teaches you how to learn, I think it's true but short-sighted. Entering Waikato University and committing myself to excel was a transformational leap for me. In my first year, I initially struggled through chemistry, physics, calculus and the overall workload. However, my sheer determination and persistence was noticed by my lecturers, professors and teaching assistants. With their support, I built up my team of cheerleaders and enablers. My time at the University of Waikato gave me an invaluable life lesson and prepared me for my craft. I spent five years honing my potential, seeing the direct outcome of guts, grit and determination, making societal impact, learning how to accept help and building my team of supporters. This provided an incredible framework for my life.

What was it like returning to NZ after your time abroad?

I found the return very difficult. I had a great job lined up in Auckland before we left the USA. When we arrived, we started looking at housing in Auckland, got stuck in traffic, became dissatisfied with daycare options, reflected on the lifestyle, and concluded we didn’t just uproot our entire lives in California and travel 10,500km to settle into a smaller LA with similar problems.

Deciding to settle in Hamilton where my family was and where I grew up, was a conscious decision for the family and a huge leap of faith. My husband found a job quickly and I secured a contract with my old US company. I applied for more than 20 jobs in the Waikato, but ended up continuing my path with SparkTank.

While I think the Waikato has the best lifestyle in the country, I do think we need more commercial investment and high-level job opportunities for people to stay long-term.

Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing?

This is going to sound bad, but we came back to NZ to learn what else we like doing. For as long as I remember, we have worked and worked. As a family, we like exploring nature and camping. I’d like to take more picnics to the gardens or skim stones at Raglan.

What advice would you offer to your younger self?

Even though you are restless where you are and feel under-utilised and under-estimated, it is imperative to your future path to feel this frustration, for it to erode your spirit at times. It is through this erosion that your sense of purpose and determination will be polished to help you figure out where you fit, and give you the drive to execute tirelessly. You simply cannot create the magic you were born to create without this formative process, but trust me, one day it will all make sense.

What are you most excited or passionate about at this time in your life?  

I feel like I have polished my purpose and have a very clear vision of where I’m going, namely around harnessing big data and digital transformation to create massive impact. I’m excited to see it unfold, while also being very mindful of my priority toward a healthy family unit. Based on various opportunities I can see lining up, this year will be a pivotal one.

Tell us two of your favourite quotes you regularly reflect on?

“Be the change you wish to see in the world” ~ Gandhi

“You can do everything you want in your life, just not all at the same time” ~ David Townsend, Mentor