Rachel Scott was heading toward a career in medicine until she realized she didn’t like being around sick people. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Rachel Scott’s mother felt there was nothing more important to instill in her children than education.
Learning has been crucial to Scott’s life, no matter where she’s been or where she’s going, even now as the director of development services for real estate development at Rockford Construction.
Scott was born in Haiti and spent her first five years on the island nation before moving to the U.S., where her parents eventually divorced. She said it was her mother’s pushing of education, which has led to her and her two sisters’ success.
“As black immigrant girls, we were reminded daily about how important education is,” Scott said. “What our mother understands was having an end goal for us being prepared for any opportunity that might arise.”
Those opportunities have spanned a wide swath of jobs, including positions at Deutsche Bank and Citigroup.
Initially, growing up, Scott felt like being a doctor was in her future. She came from a family of doctors and felt it was the natural path. So at Yale University, she completed many of her premed requirements. Then, she spent an internship at a hospital.
“I didn’t like being around sick people,” Scott said. “That and I didn’t do well in organic chemistry. I like to say I didn’t take organic chemistry, it took me.”
It was while trying to finance that organic chemistry class she found her true calling: business. She worked in an administrative role within JPMorgan’s merger and acquisition group and she caught the “bug.”
“I loved the fast-paced, high-pressure atmosphere where numbers really drove quite a bit of what was going on,” she said. “Eventually, you find out it’s the people and politics, but in my naïve head, it was here’s an objective two-plus-two is four, regardless of what gender or race I am.”
Following college, where she graduated with a degree in psychology, she took an analyst job at Deutsche Bank. Once on Wall Street, Scott learned how to read the health of a company based on the numbers she crunched. She spent two years at the bank but instead of staying an optional third year, she joined the main managing director to the New York Investment Fund, a private equity group. She left the analyst role to gain a more holistic view of business, hoping to understand business beyond a spreadsheet.
As she worked with the private equity firm, she kept getting calls from family. Because she wasn’t a doctor or lawyer, they were confused as to what she did for a living.
“They kept telling me, ‘You need a higher degree. Don’t forget you’re black, you need one,’” Scott said. “So, I said, ‘OK.’”
It also was around the same time her interest in real estate really began to intensify. She felt her experience in banking and private equity would be an easy transition and liked the idea of having to deal with tangible assets. However, as she tried to transition into real estate, she had no experience and no MBA — that higher degree.
“It was a sign my mother was right,” she said.
She had a decision to make. Where to get her MBA? Her sisters were both at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Wharton had a real estate-specific MBA. But she didn’t want to be pigeonholed.
Instead, she chose Harvard Business School, which offers a general management MBA and could be applied to any industry through its case study method.
“We were always told to strive for the best and, for me, that was Harvard,” Scott said. “My mom came to America, and we didn’t know the schools. Someone told us those were the best schools, and she told us those are the ones you need to get into.
“She had high expectations of us, and we knew nothing else. It didn’t feel like pressure, it was just self-fulfilling.”
When she graduated with her MBA in 2004, she was recruited to the real estate firm Trammell Crow, which has since been acquired by CB Richard Ellis.
It was the transition and break Scott needed to fully immerse herself into the real estate industry. She spent a quick stint as a landlord representative, but her personality wasn’t a fit.
“I’ve got a great respect for the brokerage industry, but it was just not me,” she said. “My personality and that business don’t mix. If you’re not passionate about it, you won’t be successful, and I found it difficult to network.”
Had she been passionate about the brokerage side, Scott feels she could have pushed through the difficulty in networking, but instead, she transitioned into transaction management, which was “everything I liked about brokerage without the networking.”
Before long, she was behind the American Express account and handled all the transactions in North America and South America. After a few a years, she transitioned to be on the strategic side of things as a relationship manager for institutional clients.
In 2008, she transitioned to Citigroup as a senior vice president and led corporate real estate strategy for the bank’s institutional clients. But, it was a bad time for the jump.
“I used to say I hated working for Citi, but it was 2008-2010, it’s not fair to blame Citi,” she said. “It’s hard to build relationships when everyone is leaving.”
After nearly three years, she jumped back to Deutsche Bank in a similar role, director of corporate real estate services.
“Things calmed down in the economy, and I loved it there,” she said of Deutsche Bank. “I thought I’d be there a really long time until I got the tap on the shoulder from my husband.”
She met her husband at Harvard, and he had an opportunity to move to West Michigan to become division general manager of Parker Hannifin. So the family moved.
She felt like she had made it to a point she might not have to work ever again after commuting a week a month for six months. She stayed at home with their son, but she eventually got bored and made it her mission to meet people.
Scott then made it her mission to get into real estate development. She quickly tapped the network she had built in West Michigan and found her way to Rockford Construction.
“Similar to the way I chose college, I just gravitated to the best, and to me, Rockford is the top, so I decided I wanted a seat at the Rockford table to learn the world of development,” she said. “I didn’t interview at any other real estate company. I feel like I’m finally home.”
She still is settling into her role at Rockford, happy to be at a smaller organization than in her roles of the past. Scott said she likes the idea her role can ebb and flow with the needs of a company as it grows and being so close to some of Grand Rapids’ thought leaders.
That’s not to say the Rockford executives won’t value her experience.
“Rachel brings an incredible portfolio of expertise to our team,” Rockford CEO Mike VanGessel said. “She will be a key member of our development group, helping us turn impossibilities into opportunities for neighborhoods, businesses and communities in which we serve.”
While she doesn’t think much beyond two years into the future, the feeling of being at home at Rockford might stick.
“What’s the point of thinking too far into the future?” she said. “I envision, if they’ll have me, I’ll be here some time, just learning and continuing to do what I do.”