September 10, 2017

Eager to Make Ideas Happen: Rachel Happen Brings Her Dancer’s Sensibilities to Business

Rachel Happen built a professional bridge from her roots in dancing to the domain of business. Here, she elaborates on the choreography of her multidisciplinary career that carries two distinctive skill sets.

From ballet to modern dancing, wow! How did you become passionate about dancing?

I started dancing at such a young age that can’t really remember the process of falling in love with moving. It’s been a constant for me. I would say, more than moving to music, I’ve always been fascinated with how we move our bodies to express. Observing how people move is like listening to a language everyone can speak.

Do you still practice dancing? How do you keep this up?

I do! I now train in Hip Hop and attend a circus school. I take two Hip Hop classes every week and have been for the past two years. Unlike ballet and modern, Hip Hop is learned through imitation. Instead of doing a series of exercises to learn a movement pattern or body isolation, we just learn choreography, and pick up on the moves that make up the bigger piece simply by doing them. It’s a cool experience because my brain already knows how to learn choreography, but I have to consciously re-learn a bunch of details, like how to hold my hands, and that’s a challenge.

Circus school is an even bigger challenge! I train hand-balancing and fixed trapeze at Night Flight Aerial in Portland. I’m slowly building up my upper body strength to be able to do more tricks. I like how different “mastery” looks in circus than in dance, and how anything that amazes or awes is excellent, regardless of what other tricks other performers are doing or have historically done.

From dancing to business, double wow! What nudged you to go beyond the world of dance into the business world? Was there an experience that compelled you to start your path in business?

Creative frustration pushed me to dive into business. I was tired of performing in theaters for groups of my peers and other dance-insiders. I felt like my work would never reach a larger audience, or touch anyone who didn’t already consider themselves a part of the dance world. Creating products that anyone could buy felt freeing, like an opportunity to shed a lot of insular trappings of dance and make art and put it out into the world.

The debate persists on the MBA degree and its programs, 
its status, value, et al. Having an MBA, what are your thoughts on getting business-schooled?

I think getting an MBA is exactly as useful as going to art school. It’s an investment in yourself. As a creative person, business school was an opportunity to swim in an intellectually challenging environment, surrounded by people with very different world views and career aspirations, and see if I could be who I was and be valued. It was a chance for me to find my footing as a “creative person” who lives in business world, instead of becoming a “business person” in business world. Business school is like art school in that it gives you time and space to figure out what matters to you and how you want to make a life of that passion.

What from the dance-world remains a regular, 
even frequent, influence on your life and work?

More than any one luminary, I would say the constant pulse of newness that comes from the dance community, and particularly from Hip Hop, is an inspiration for me. When I shifted my professional world to be more business-focused, dance became less of a conceptual output and more of a conceptual input. It has become a place I go to get ideas and have experiences, instead of a medium I use to make a point. So it’s the dancers that I dance next to every week that keep me grounded, that inspire me with the ways they make the choreography their own, that show me how emotion and meaning can come—wordless, but still nuanced—from the way we move ourselves. Dance is how I stay present.

Was there an empowering concept from the business-world 
that’s becoming an influence on your life and work?

I was quickly drawn to Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design when I started researching how creativity was cultivated and applied in business. The principle of leading with empathy and appealing to people’s people-sides felt so intuitive and natural. I’ve coached Design Thinking for my alma mater, Cornell, and continue to draw on the practice of beginning by seeking to understand the people behind the business, opportunity, challenge or whatever you’re trying to get a handle on.

How do the disciplines of dance and business 
mesh to your advantage?

Knowing that I will always stand out (as I now do in both business and dance settings) makes me unafraid of looking foolish.

While getting your MBA, you worked at SYPartners. Fan of them and their work. Can you elaborate on this work experience? What qualities of their work culture did you cherish, even admire?

Interning with SYP was a fantastic experience. That was a formative summer for me; I met so many amazingly intelligent and empathetic people, and had the chance to practice voicing the softer notes of empathy, aspiration and emotional intelligence in unfamiliar business contexts. The biggest lesson I learned from SYP is to take the time to say what you mean. Be patient and persistent until everyone reaches understanding.

Paper prototype by jigsaw puzzle start-up Baffledazzle

Plywood version by jigsaw puzzle start-up Baffledazzle

Final design by jigsaw puzzle start-up Baffledazzle

Then after business school, you founded jigsaw puzzle start-up Baffledazzle. Wow-to-the-nth-power. When you “decided to start 
a jigsaw puzzle company to make the puzzles that dedicated puzzlers deserved,” how did you capture your vision of a jigsaw puzzle company and visualize it—Did you maintain a journal/log of thoughts, sketchnote, et al.? If Kickstarter didn’t exist, would you have still chased this ambition?

When undertaking a new project, I find that I make better progress if I just start! So, I don’t actually remember the moment that I decided to start a puzzle company, I just remember starting to design puzzles! My first puzzles were really horrible. The scale of the pieces was wrong; they were extremely fragile when cut, and the designs had a Frankenstein’s monster quality to them. That gave me a starting place. I could see what was wrong. As I worked to redo those initial designs, I started to think about how I could bring these puzzles to life, and why I had wanted to create them. I do keep a journal of ideas, though most of them are conceptual starting places more than visual puzzle ideas. I do a lot of research before I begin to design a puzzle. Since Baffledazzle puzzles are about discovering something new (maybe a rare species of animal, maybe an influential moment in art history, maybe a very old game from Jordan that you play with raw eggs, etc.), I believe every aspect of the puzzle should lead you in the direction of that discovery. So I’ve gone from act-first → think-later, to think-first → act-with-intention!

I do think I would have created puzzles with or without Kickstarter, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it as quickly, or to the same high quality. I would have had to contract the laser work out (personal laser-cutter below) and wouldn’t have had the same opportunities to experiment and dial in the manufacturing process.

All your pursuits and activities in dance and business easily paint the picture of tirelessness. How do you self-care?

I had to think about this one! My mental model for self-care is different from how I usually see that phrase used. I guess I think of self-care as how I prioritize my time, and I usually care for myself by cutting things out, not adding things in. I’m diligent about weeding out pursuits, jobs, relationships and circumstances that drain my energy. Though that felt ruthless at first, I was much happier and more at peace without those stressful influences.

Do you use any software/Web-based tools to help get 
organized and get things done? If so, what digital tools do you highly recommend?

Actually, I prefer to make paper charts to stay organized. I like the tactile pleasure of using a sticker to mark something as complete. So much of my work is screen-dependent that I like to keep things analog when I can!

How would you describe success?

It’s a balance point, not a destination. Success is being confident enough to value your own work, but hungry enough to continue to make yourself and everyone around you uncomfortable. That’s where the good work gets done.

How does the city of Portland, Oregon, contribute to your work? What makes it special for startups/business/creative community?

Portland is an incredible place to live and work. I’d say its urban planning is probably what makes it so loveable! It’s easy to walk where you want to go and passing things on foot is the primary way that I discover new creative happenings, businesses and events. It feels like the city was built at a human scale. But moreover, people who come to Portland come for its personality, which makes for a really cool community.

Must say: Fascinated with your last name. You make ideas Happen. Ta-da! Recalling Scott Belsky’s book “Making Ideas Happen.” You should write a book with a more proactive title: Make Ideas Happen. Any memorable story regarding your last name? Has it benefitted job interviews?

I love this idea! I also love last name jokes. I encourage them! I do think it makes my name more memorable as people tend to call me by both my first and last name. I like hearing the different slogans that people come up with for me, too. I’m fascinated by how the word “happen” can be either active or passive—you can make something happen, or it can just happen—but everyone always interprets my last name to be active. I like that!

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All images courtesy of Rachel Happen.

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