Rachel Haot Might Be The Smartest Digital Powerhouse We Know

"Superwoman" is an ambitious, loaded term. Beyond just setting the bar for success incredibly high, it also comes rife with notions of women requiring superhuman powers to achieve — and setting themselves up to fail, striving to "do it all". But, when it really and truly applies, the idea of an extraordinary woman who betters her world is inspiring — and accurate. Even more importantly, it transcends our former idea of what having it all really means. And, in the case of Rachel Haot, the term most certainly applies.
The chief digital officer and deputy secretary of technology for the state of New York is in charge of all of the ways in which technology touches the lives of New York's citizens — starting with a complete overhaul of NY.gov (drawing inspiration from sites ranging from Google to Medium) and hopefully ending with adding tech-focused solutions into all of our lives in surprising and innovating ways. But, Haot is so much more than just her (very impressive) job and title. At 31, she's a new mom, a practical leader and levelheaded negotiator, and perhaps most importantly, a fearless trailblazer.
Formerly the CEO and founder of Ground Report, she's a champion of citizen journalism (and finding that love of transparency in someone who's working in government is extra-appealing). As a former adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, Haot taught social media and entrepreneurship. And, as the first chief digital officer of the city of New York (under Mayor Bloomberg), she established our first digital roadmap, laying out the ideals and goals for technology in the city's government with clarity that echoes the most leanly run start-ups out there.
So, yeah: The term Superwoman is pretty apt. And, like any hero worth her salt, she believes in paying it forward. Up ahead, Haot shares everything from the best advice Bloomberg ever gave her to the reality of unplugging when your life is about living and breathing technology. Some legitimately super ideas, right this way.
RachelHaot01_084Photographed by Winnie Au.
What's the most exciting opportunity you have right now, working with tech in New York?
“We couldn’t have gotten anything done without great leadership, without great support and input from the public [and] from technologists. And, there are things like open data and open government that enable this unprecedented collaboration between the government and the public, where people realize their own personal agency. They think, 'I am part of the government. I can actually make a better app if I don’t agree with how the government is doing something.' And, that’s something we want to encourage. I’m incredibly privileged to work with some of the brightest, hardworking, most creative and selfless people I’ve ever known. We’re so lucky that they’re working in government, and it’s really thanks to them and their partnership that we’re able to get anything done.”
Giulietta dress, Christian Louboutin pumps.
RachelHaot01_123Photographed by Winnie Au.
You seem to have such a passion for working in public service — for the taxpayers. Do you see yourself running for political office in the future?
“I really haven’t thought about that. I think there’s a large range of ways to give back, and it’s not even exclusive to the public sector. You look at private companies that are changing the world every day through technologies that really help to democratize communication, to give everybody a voice. That’s the type of thing that really inspired me when I launched GroundReport, which at the time was a for-profit organization. I’m just focused on my role here right now. I hope to always have a positive impact on some arena.”
RachelHaot01_165Photographed by Winnie Au.
What’s the best career or life advice that you’ve ever gotten, that you still rely on regularly?
“It’s hard to pick out the one. A couple of things — one, aligning interests, and that’s something I’ve just sort of learned naturally. And then, Mayor Bloomberg taught me to take a data-driven approach to problems. To really start with that phase of data collection when you are embarking on a project, because it can really help to guide everything about an initiative. And, when it comes to tech projects, it’s truer than perhaps in any other example, because you can get a sense of, ‘Here’s what my constituents are looking for, here’s how we’re going to have the largest impact, this initiative is what will really move the needle, in terms of impact on the public sector.’
"Beyond that, it’s obvious, but adding value wherever you are, in life [or] in work. As long as you’re adding value, I think you’re putting yourself in a good position and you’re putting your organization in a good position. As long as you focus on contributing, anticipating where you can add value, just taking responsibility without having to be asked, that's it. That's what has been helpful for me. Then, my husband has been a great supporter of me throughout my career, and he’s always given me the advice that if you don’t make a decision, someone else is going to make it for you. That comes to mind constantly.”
RachelHaot01_117Photographed by Winnie Au.
What about the worst advice you’ve ever gotten?
“I’ve never thought about that. The worst advice someone has ever given me…you know, sometimes...and I feel like this is in Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, to some extent — and I don’t want to say anything negative, because it’s important to have mentors, and people to look up to. But, sometimes, the way this advice is presented, especially to younger people, it’s almost selfish. In every mentorship relationship that I’ve had, I’ve always seen it as more of an exchange, where perhaps the more experienced person is imparting wisdom to the less experienced person, but then the less experienced person also perhaps has a unique perspective or access or approach that’s very valuable. That’s what I would say, if people give you this advice to find a mentor, I think it’s important to sort of look for a symbiotic relationship that’s really a two-way street. It’s not like finding someone and sort of leaning on them. If you’re looking for a mentor, make sure that you’re as focused on what you’re contributing as to what you’re getting out of it.”
RachelHaot01_200Photographed by Winnie Au.
You always read about how super-productive people with tough jobs, or in positions of power always have these crazy morning routines. What about you? And, how has your new baby changed it?
“My morning routine has certainly changed since I had a baby — my son is five months now. But, you know what’s amazing? I think having a baby makes you much better at managing time and at prioritizing. So, my morning is probably more organized than it ever has been, because I'm forced to organize. Typically, I wake up sometime around 6:35 a.m. I will get Jack, and I’ll take care of him, I’ll change his outfit and I’ll feed him. Usually, we’ll play a little bit until my husband’s ready to take him to child care for the day. After that, I get ready. I live in Brooklyn, so I commute to work every morning. I work near Grand Central, in Midtown, so I kind of use that opportunity on the subway to get some things done. Usually I spend the morning thinking about what I’m going to achieve in the day, set some goals. I find that very important. I try to pick the two or three things that I really have to get done that day, so I make sure I set the tone for the day. Then, I’ll try to start the day by firing off some e-mails, drafting them on my way to work, so that I start to get things moving. Then, I get to the office and start.”
RachelHaot01_135Photographed by Winnie Au.
Do you have some required reading in the morning? Where do you get your news?
“Obviously, I look at Twitter. I probably check a wide range of digital publications in the morning, but Twitter [and] Instagram first. And then, I usually will look at the print headlines when I’m grabbing my breakfast in the morning before work. Then, some of the newsletters I get, like Politico. The Skimm. And then, Jason Hirschhorn’s Media ReDEFined. I think he has a great collection of content that he always pulls together in the media-meets-digital space. Then, Capital New York has a newsletter. And, obviously, my work Blackberry and my e-mail."
RachelHaot02_030Photographed by Winnie Au.
So, speaking of Politico, did you read their story titled "The Princess Effect," which made the argument that powerful women are harmed by being featured in women’s publications? What do you think about this suggestion that strong women can’t be portrayed in this sort of “female” way, if they want to be taken seriously?
“That’s interesting — I just pulled it up now. I hadn’t seen it. But, this just hasn’t been my experience — any of that. I think it’s ridiculous. I think leadership has to be authentic, and it’s all about who you are, reflecting who you are naturally and organically and authentically. And, leadership can come in many different forms — there’s no one specific mold for men being leaders, so I don’t see why there would be one for women being leaders. I think it’s the wrong conversation. It’s not relevant to be creating an issue or conflict where there isn’t one. There are incredibly powerful women across government, and I think we’re living in a really exciting time when there are so many role models to look up to. I certainly benefited from that.
"In terms of publications that target certain groups or certain audiences, I think they are important, especially if we are looking at diversity of leadership where we want to increase the number of participants in a specific group, why wouldn’t we be highlighting stories in publications that target that group or that audience? Whether that’s a publication that’s serving women or serving minorities, I think they’re very effective vehicles to teach that. I’ve heard that from so many people that I’ve met and seen, and I think it’s inspiring. I think it also recognizes the power of those publications and those audiences.”
Suno dress, Joseph trouser.
RachelHaot02_067Photographed by Winnie Au.
What do you think needs to happen, other than targeting publications like that, in order to bring more women and minorities into positions of power and positions of leadership?
“I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that because I think it is such a complex challenge and there are many groups and organizations that are looking to change that. But, I can speak to some of the ways that the state is trying to address inequality. For example, the state announced STEM grants — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics scholarships — where if you go to a state school, SUNY or CUNY schools, and study one of those subjects, and then you work in that arena for the next five years, you get a full scholarship, full ride, to any school of your choosing that you’re accepted to. Then, when the governor announced that program, he specifically also partnered with a range of non-profits and organizations that serve minorities and women to make sure that the word gets out to them.
"In addition to that, women — minority- and women-owned businesses have a range of benefits when it comes to working with New York state, so that helps to support more entrepreneurs who are women and who are minorities, by making it easier for them to do business with the state — that’s a very exciting program. I think it’s about making sure everyone has access, making sure that there are economic opportunities for companies that are being launched by women and minorities and are growing, and making sure that people are aware of them through engagement. It’s not my area of expertise, but I think there’s a long way to go. But, the simplest [solution] is just encouraging and highlighting those who are making it work. There are so many success stories that we can learn from today.”
Ed Note: Our shoot location fits in neatly with this idea of furthering opportunities. BioBAT is part of SUNY Downstate's Medical Center's Biotechnology Initiative. It's a Start-Up NY tax-free site located at the Brooklyn Army Terminal (BAT) on the Brooklyn waterfront in Sunset Park, and functions as an incubator for early stage biotech start-ups. Haot was particularly excited to be photographed here because "StartupNY is a critical part of New York's digital roadmap because it supports goals in education, industry and even engagement, as these firms create new technologies that change the world and help us better serve the public." Some photos were taken elsewhere on the BAT campus, a thriving industrial complex managed by New York City Economic Development Corporation, which is home to over 100 companies creating economic opportunity for New Yorkers every day.
RachelHaot03_157Photographed by Winnie Au.
Who are the role models and mentors that have really inspired you, personally?
“I would have to mention my mother, who’s just been a phenomenal supporter of myself and my sisters. She has worked in the public interest and public service her whole life. She hasn’t worked in the government, but she’s a registered nurse. After I was born, she was a full-time mom, and was incredibly active in our school. She served on our school board, she was the head of the PTA when we lived in Brooklyn. Even though she wasn’t actually getting paid for any of her volunteer work, she was very active and helped to really make a positive change in our community. She not only instilled the importance of working hard in school and being creative [in my sisters and me], but she also gave us a lot of confidence and support — that we could do whatever we put our minds to. After my brother was old enough and he was in high school, she actually went back to work and has had this incredible second career. That’s been really exciting to watch. She manages more than a 100 people now, and she manages services for medically fragile children across New York City. She just does amazing work, and it’s exciting to see how her focus and priorities have shifted, and how she’s been able to be effective.
"Also, Katherine Oliver, who was my boss at the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. She really had the vision. She began as the leader of the film commission, and extended that by taking on, at the mayor’s request, the TV channels that the city runs, then launched the digital focus as well, and really did so with a phenomenal leadership style. That was very helpful for me when I became chief digital officer, and she really provided me with a lot of guidance and mentorship throughout my time there — and of course, unparalleled opportunity.
"And then, people like Diane von Furstenberg, who’s a fantastic entrepreneur and has done so much to support women throughout her career. I think she really sets an exciting example and has been supportive and reached out when I first started in my role."
Did she reach out out of the blue, or did you know each other?
“We were connected after I began, in the context of as a woman who is passionate about supporting other women. She was interested in learning more about our digital focus as well. I think [her outreach] was part interest in supporting other women, part women in connecting along the lines of innovation.”
Mantu shirt and skirt, Chelsea Paris shoes.
RachelHaot03_141Photographed by Winnie Au.
Do you ever get the opportunity to disconnect completely, since you work in such a technology-driven role?
“I think it’s really important. For me, yoga has been a constant focusing practice over the years. It’s been really helpful in helping me to keep the big picture in mind and stay focused and centered. And now, of course, since my son was born, playing with him. You’re really forced to disconnect because he requires complete attention. My favorite thing to do is spend time with my husband, Max, and my son, Jack. Whether that’s hanging out in our home in Bushwick or going on a day trip — visiting my parents or going to the beach. I find it very important to have those kinds of opportunities to unplug. Of course, the great thing about technology is you can always control the flow of information. You can connect and you can check in as needed, but it helps in terms of long-term perspective to disconnect every once in a while.”
RachelHaot03_078Photographed by Winnie Au.
How do you carve out the time to really disconnect, though?
“I think it’s important to do that, even if it’s only for a couple of hours. People know — you know, you set up a system with your team and with your colleagues where they know that can call you, for example, if there’s something urgent. But, if there isn’t something urgent, you’re not necessarily being more productive or strategic if you’re just constantly checking social media feeds and e-mail. It’s something that, perhaps more than any other generation before, we have to be really conscious of. But yes, I try, even though it’s ironic, to be disciplined about unplugging when I’m spending time with my family — and really being present. It’s something that I can certainly do a better job of, but I at least know it’s something I want to focus on.”