Very excited to have had the chance to get the inside scoop on one of our regular contributor’s—Leah Hacker—awesome education and career journey. Leah’s written some amazing pieces for SG, so when I heard she founded a strategy firm this year—Rebel & Co.— I knew I needed to share her story. She shares even more insights rooted in her experience through our interview, so make sure you give it a read! Thank you, Leah!!!
Name: Leah Hacker
Location: Lakeland, Florida
Education: USF, Psychology (Bachelors) & Northwestern University, Predictive Analytics (Coursework)
How did you determine what to study in college?
Actually, I was considered a “non-traditional” student. I was 24, and a young mom of two girls under the age of 5 when I returned to university. I wasn’t entirely sure what my options were being a young mom returning to college. I felt lightyears behind everyone else and sense of urgency to not fall even further behind. I also wasn’t dead set on what I wanted my career to be. All I knew for certain was that I wanted a better life for my girls and I wanted them to believe they could do anything they set their mind to. No one else in my family had a college degree, so I set out to change the trajectory of what was possible. But, I didn’t have a roadmap to follow or a real example, so I made the rules up as I went.
I thought a lot about medical school, maybe a nurse practitioner. I completed my AA in Nursing and then completed a preceptorship, where I worked with Physician’s for 6-weeks each, alongside them in the operating room, the Office Visits, and Hospital. After completing rounds in Cardiology, OB/GYN, and Infectious Disease, I decided I most definitely did not want to do medical school. I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. I took a Research Methods course and was hooked. I loved it. Throughout university, I specialized in clinical research, specifically ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I joined research labs, was appointed to a graduate research team, even built a research lab from scratch at All Children’s Hospital. But, it wasn’t until after I graduated, when I started to apply those areas of expertise to systems and business. It turns out, there’s a lot about those fundamental human principles that informs my everyday work today.
What led you to grad school?
After being in business for a few years, I recognized quickly that the type of data we are creating requires a different set of skills to analyze. I knew as a researcher I needed to be flexible and adaptable. Which meant I would need to learn to work with varying types of data and much larger data sets. And this also meant I would need to learn the basics of coding. From a strategy perspective, I wanted to have the skill sets to work with any data that a company can create and have the expertise to apply that data to achieve business goals. I explored lots of different grad school options and ultimately settled on Predictive Analytics specialization.
Walk us through your initial job search strategy and how you landed your first full-time role.
Ha, well, my first-time role was born of pure hustle. I was no stranger to hustle. I worked three jobs in high school and in university, I hustled—I volunteered in research labs, I stayed after to talk to the professors, I did the extra work, I tried for publications and speaking engagements. I treated University like a job and my goal was to get to the top. My first role was Principal Researcher for a clinic with All Children’s Hospital and the University of South Florida. My job was to build the clinic from the ground up—protocols, participants, funding and published work. How did I get there? All that hustling landed me in a meeting with the Head of the Department. The meeting was about something else entirely. But, he’d heard about my work and offered me the opportunity on the spot and there was no way I was going to say no. I had not even graduated with my Bachelor’s yet. I took the job and hustled my way through it.
My strategy early on was to just never say no and then work like hell to figure out how to get it done. In all honesty, that’s how I’ve gotten all of my roles. I would identify where I wanted to be, who I needed to talk to to get me there, and hustled to put myself in front of them. Never ever underestimate the power of showing up and hustling consistently.
How did you go from that first role to recently founding Rebel & Co.—what was that journey like for you—and how did you know it was time to launch your own company?
It’s still a little surreal, founding your own company. I didn’t start out dreaming of owning my own company. I was content being the effective “number two”—driving business goals through the finish line. I never saw myself as a visionary. But throughout my career, I’ve maintained that “don’t say no and work like hell to figure it out mentality”. I worked with my clients to lead deep business transformation, working to integrate consumer insights and business strategy approaches to product development and design. And my roles put me in front of leadership at big names such as Uber, Goldman Sachs, Hotel Tonight and AT&T, which I am so grateful for. But, as my career developed, I wanted more.
I watched as there was a disconnect between how companies pursued innovation and the people they were innovating for. Companies would spend millions of dollars in hot pursuit of the next big thing and then their innovation would hit the market and it would fall flat and they would wonder what happened. I decided innovation needed to be done better. That spending the time upfront to connect and understand your target market, developing real solutions that solve real problems and bring value to people is always far more profitable than innovating on instinct alone. I don’t believe we can solve problems we don’t understand and it’s impossible to design solutions for people we don’t have empathy for. Moreover, I found myself working on teams, often times the only female, and I was frustrated with the inequality. Strong voices and a real connection seemed to be void of the world of “move fast and break things”. The step out to start Rebel & Co. was definitely born out of a rebellious sensibility on how we’ve always done things and a personal pursuit to bring more to the table—and to challenge my clients to be more.
What makes Rebel & Co. different?
So many things. It’s the way we approach projects and who we are as a team. We don’t believe in “move fast and break things”—we don’t just love the mantra of intentional innovation, it’s what we do. When we outline a strategic roadmap forward, it’s based on data, trends, and real insight from your target market in the context of your business, your industry, and your market. This way we minimize the unnecessary spend and risk associated with innovation. The end result is a truly disruptive innovation built to scale forward.
What advice do you have for young women who want to first explore and then get their foot in the door in your industry?
Take on new things even if they scare you—especially if they scare you. Adopt the mindset of just don’t say no and work like hell to figure it out. Build your network, meet people, follow up, make the phone calls. Read. Read a ton. Learn opposing viewpoints and study how the systems work—you’ll need that information one day.
What is the biggest career hurdle you’ve faced, and what did you learn from it?
Oh man. I’ve had a lot of hurdles over the years. I’ve always started at the bottom. Meaning, I wasn’t well-connected when I started out. I didn’t grow up from a family of means. I didn’t attend University until most of my peers were graduating. But, it taught me a few important things about who I am as a person: 1. I have the ability to hustle. Probably better than most. And over the years, I’ve grown to love the hustle—and I love that. And 2. Give me 5 years and I can build just about anything.
All good things to know about yourself.
Do you have a mentor? Who do you look to for inspiration and support?
Over the years I’ve built a network of what I call my “inner circle”. Less than 5 women who truly know me. They’ve watched my failures and successes, they are the keepers of my secrets, and they push me—sometimes quite hard—out of my comfort zone. In fact, the decision to finally begin Rebel & Co. had a lot to do with that group encouraging me, challenging me that now was the time.
If you are open to connecting with our readers, how can they reach you?
Absolutely! Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Linkedin.
Final words of wisdom to all the young women out there who are strategizing to reach their career goals?
There will come a time in your life when you have to take a bet on something. When you are given the choice, always, always bet on yourself. Even if it ends up exactly where you didn’t want it to—the dividends on that bet will be paid in droves. You can’t lose.