Rushing Engineering CEO & Co-Founder: Rae Anne Rushing

Summary

Rae Anne was born in Fairbanks, AK and grew up in a trailer park; she admits that she didn't have good parenting growing up and essentials like food were scarce at times. She would grow an affinity for elementary school because of the troublesome home she grew up in. In high school, she began feeling like she couldn't fit in and ended up dropping out of school, which would lead her to not having a real home and eventually getting pregnant while not being able to support herself. After getting pregnant, Rae Anne realized it was a wake-up call and began looking for ways to dig herself out of the financial hole she was in. The University of Washington offered her a scholarship because she was economically disadvantaged, and she would go on to earn her bachelor's in mechanical engineering while working multiple jobs at restaurants & bars. After graduating college, Rae Anne would receive multiple job offers from companies and she would take the lowest-paying offer (explained in the podcast). After 18 years, she found herself working at the largest mechanical construction company in Seattle, making a great living wage. Was this all she ever wanted? Would Rae Anne quit her job and risk it all to start her own engineering firm? And, why in the world would she do that?! Today, Rushing designs engineering systems for commercial buildings in the pacific northwest, has over 300 employees, and is thriving beyond what Rae Anne ever could've imagined when she was in her twenties.

Podcast Transcript

Note:  There may be errors to this transcript (some funny, some confusing - we used an automated transcription software!)

00:00:00 Rae Anne Rushing: I wanted to have my own company, you know, like I was the six-year old girl. I lived in a trailer park. Two weeks after Halloween, I had the little store selling my Halloween candy. I saved it. I didn’t need it. I sold it. I wanted money.

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00:00:26 Ash Faraj: Hey! Welcome to the ExecuTalks Podcast. It’s the show that gives you insight to the personal stories of today’s top executives.  In this episode, you will hear from Rae Anne Rushing, current CEO and co-founder of the Rushing company, an engineering firm that specializes in sustainability for the built environment. In other words, they design engineering systems in commercial buildings in the Pacific Northwest. Prior to starting her own firm, Rae Anne got her degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington and worked for several engineering and construction firms. We’ve had many guests on the show that have inspiring stories, but I believe this is one of the most inspiring because Rae Anne really was at rock bottom. She was homeless. She was pregnant at 15, and she had all the reasons to give up on life. You want to stick around until the end to hear about how she was able to pull through and start one of the most successful engineering firms.

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00:01:31 Ash Faraj: Rae Anne grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, in a trailer park. She admits that she didn’t have good parenting growing up, and essential items like food were scarce at times. Because of the living situation at home, she felt safe and love for elementary school. But as she grew older and got into high school, she started to feel like she didn’t fit in and became very unmotivated which made her drop out of school at 15. A series of events would lead her to hit rock bottom.

00:02:03 Rae Anne Rushing: I was in an underprivileged situation up in Fairbanks. We didn’t have a lot of money. We lived in a trailer park. Alaska has great schools and I loved school. I loved school and it was something I did well, regardless of how hard it was at home and what was happening around me in my homelife. School became a real happy place for me and a refuge and a real strength.

00:02:41 Ash Faraj: What made you feel happy about school?

00:02:44 Rae Anne Rushing: Because I’m very competitive. I was always at the top of the class. I could win there, and I loved winning. I loved being the best at math in the class. I loved being the best reader. Whatever it was, I wanted to be at the top, and I usually got there. I loved that. It was success for me when you’re brought up in that kind of environment and things are scarce. I didn’t have a lot of good parenting happening. So, at 15, I did drop out of high school. At that point, I was done with school. I didn’t like high school.

00:03:39 Ash Faraj: Do you mind sharing? What do you mean?

00:03:43 Rae Anne Rushing: Well, you know, drugs and alcoholism in the family. Abuse. It was a rough upbringing. It’s part of why I work with the groups that I do. I ended up not having a safe place to live when I was 16 here in Seattle. I understand homelessness. I understand not being able to feed yourself. Like I said, I dropped out of high school, and I started trying to work. But, again, I didn’t have a lot of modeling of being an adult, so I really was kind of bouncing around in living situations and not doing very well.

00:04:34 Ash Faraj: What made you drop out of school? Is it because you had to work?

00:04:39 Rae Anne Rushing: No, I didn’t fit in. When you come from that kind of background you feel real isolated in the world. I think that is a real common experience. I just didn’t feel like I fit in the high school scene. I did not like it. As smart as I think I might have been, or any of that, it didn’t really matter. I wasn’t motivated. I kind of spiraled down into this place of like, I’m going to give up on that. You’re young and you don’t really think about it. And then you find yourself not having a home, having a hard time feeding yourself, taking care of yourself. I got pregnant after I quit school. When my son was born, I was 17.

00:05:33 Ash Faraj: Was the person, the father, was he still with you at the time?

00:05:39 Rae Anne Rushing: Yes, we were together at that point, but he was kind of from the same background that I was. We weren’t real… I mean, a couple of kids banging around the city, trying to figure out how to live on the street or not. Then we had a baby and it was time to get serious. It woke both of us up.

00:06:03 Ash Faraj: Can you take us through? Some people may be in that situation. I’m just trying to imagine myself and other people that would be 15 years old, just had a kid. You’re probably having feelings of fear, feelings of insecurity, feelings of “Oh my God,” crazy negative thoughts in your head. How did you manage those?

00:06:27 Rae Anne Rushing: People in those situations, their options are what’s the better of two bad choices? That’s where they’re at. They’re not going to have great choices in front of them. They’re going to be, “What’s worse? Living on the street tonight or befriending this person I don’t know and hoping I’m going to be safe with this situation for the evening.” They’re trying to decide that. They don’t have a lot of positive options sometimes. People being aware of that and not judging. Sometimes they’re just making the best choice out of two not great options. Working your way out of that, digging your way out of that kind of spiraling up, takes a lot of trusting yourself. Believing in yourself.

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00:07:36 Ash Faraj: So Anne gets pregnant at 15 years old. She realizes that she needs stability for her baby to survive, and it woke her up. Luckily, the University of Washington was offering scholarships for economically disadvantaged people. Rae Anne would receive a scholarship to get a degree so she could dig herself out of the financial hole she was in. I think it is important to note that even her own adviser doubted her ability to get through a rigorous engineering program, but that only fueled Rae Anne’s drive and she would work even harder.

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00:08:15 Male Voice 1: During your college days and, you know, you’re an engineer; being a female engineer at the University of Washington at that time was -- or actually even in the STEM field was -- kind of not…

00:08:27 Rae Anne Rushing: Back then it was about 7% female. Today, in my specific field, which is mechanical, it’s 7.9. So it really hasn’t --

00:08:38 Male Voice 1: 0.9%?

00:08:39 Rae Anne Rushing: In 30 years 0.9%. Not great, so it’s still quite flam. The overall engineering, where you take all the disciplines, has increased a little bit; it’s about 14% now and it was 5%. There’s some improvement in a general sense, but again, 14% is nothing!

00:08:58 Ash Faraj: It’s disproportionate to the amount of the population. There’s more women than men in America.

00:09:00 Rae Absolutely, it’s nonsensical to me. A quarter would be nine weeks. I’d start the quarter. I’d get my stack of books that were like this for engineering school. I’d start looking at it and be completely intimidated. Like I’m never going to figure this class out. Then, lo and behold, by mid-quarter, I’m rocking through the quarter. Getting ‘er done. I never missed a day of school in six years I went to college, sick or not. Nothing. I always went. That was my process. If I could show up and hear the lecture, I was probably going to get it. I was probably going to do okay. Homework aside and anything else besides, if I could get to lecture and hear it, I could take the test and get through the class. That’s how I did college and working because I was busy. I had day care and I had to run the kids… You know, it’s really juggling all that; very crazy. And then we get a break, right? You get your 2-week break, and then I kind of fall apart. I’d get sick on break. I’d sleep. It was kind of almost regular. It’s like your body knows when it’s time to work and it knows when it’s time to rest. I would kind of fall into those cycles pretty regularly. On the breaks I would kind of hunker down and get well again, and I’d go back at it. It is so worth it. People are not very encouraging; they don’t believe you can do it either. There’s a lot of potentially that. That’s what I would see. “This is impossible. How could you ever think you could do this? You’re crazy.”

00:10:47 Ash Faraj: Really? Someone told you that?

00:10:48 Rae Anne Rushing: The Dean of Mechanical Engineering -- when I looked into mechanical engineering in my sophomore year -- he told me, “There’s no way you going to be able to do this, so don’t even apply.” He told me that.

00:11:06 Male Voice 1: You got a message for him? [laughter]

00:11:07 Rae Anne Rushing: Well, so yes! I did it! It made me very angry, and I get that way. I said, you know, I’m going to show them. I think I’m one of the most underestimated people I know. Most people underestimate what I’m able to accomplish. I think that would be the message to anybody; you have much more capacity than me. If you’re there and you’re in that situation, it’s because you can do it. It’s because you can be that.

00:11:38 Male Voice 1: During your college days, I know you were waiting tables and supporting your family while paying for school. What were some key struggles that you had to overcome at that time? I can only imagine. I had a hard time doing it with a scholarship.

00:11:54 Rae Anne Rushing: I know. You know, making the numbers work and going to school. First of all, waitressing was a great gig because you made better than minimum wage with tips. I had a really good job on University Avenue in a bar.

00:12:15 Ash Faraj: Which one is it?

00:12:15 Rae Anne Rushing: It’s called University Bar & Grill. I don’t think it’s still there anymore, but it was there for years. A lot of people know about that place. A lot of fun times in there. I worked there for ten years. Even when I graduated from college and started working in my career, I’d hung onto the weekend work to make sure. I had a lot of desire to get myself out of a financial hole and I had loans, so I worked a couple of jobs for a while after I graduated.

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00:12:55 Ash Faraj: So there’s no doubt that it’s difficult for us to say we have enough money, right? It’s in our nature as humans to want more money, especially when we were poor at one point in our lives. When Rae Anne graduated college, she had several job offers from different companies. She accepted the lowest paying offer, something that really shocked us. I honestly was intrigued by her explanation.

00:13:22 Rae Anne Rushing: I graduated in August and I had four offers by May, before I was done. I had some good choices in front of me. Interestingly, I chose the lowest paying offer. However, they interviewed me five times, and because it was so hard, I wanted to work for them!

00:13:47 Male Voice 1: That’s competitive, huh!

00:13:48 Rae Anne Rushing: I am that competitive! It was like, man, these guys really are doing a good job of… They must really want me because they’ve scrutinized me really well. They know me the best. They gave me the lowest offer and I took the job. This was Brian Allen. Yeah! By the way, best thing I ever did! Best thing I ever did, okay? I really stand by that decision, but I’ll tell you when you’re in my shoes you think I would go for the money shot. I would say that’s a mistake people make. I negotiate a lot with employees, especially young people. You make yourself appear like you can be bought? That’s not a good quality, you know? It’s just not a good quality, and if it’s real for you, rethink that. Okay? Rethink that. If somebody’s the highest bidder on my head, I got more to me than that and I want to let you know that. Okay? If I’m just like, who’s got the highest? No, I am going to direct this program. I am going to work where I want to work, whether they’re the lowest, the medium, or the high. I’m going to investigate you. Turn it around on the employer. I’m investigating you; great benefits, good stuff, but what are you about? What are your values? I really appreciated that first employer, their values that they showed me; we want to be sure. They wanted to investigate. They wanted to learn about me. Those values that they showed me, I like that! I want to work for them. I chose that path as opposed to let money, some carrot, that is really vaporous. You know? Money is just a -- believe me, when you haven’t had it, I love it. Don’t get me wrong. [laughter] -- really, it’s a great tool. It offers tons of opportunity. It is much easier to be a happy person when you’re financially secure. I will tell you that. Much easier to work a program of daily happiness and principles. When you have that, problem-solve. But it cannot drive your heart and soul. I get myself in trouble if I forget who I am. Who am I? What are my values today?

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00:16:20 Ash Faraj: There she was, 18 years. Out of school, working at the largest mechanical construction company in Seattle, making a good salary. After all she had been poor her entire life, and now she had it all. Or so we thought. Do you remember in the beginning of the show when Rae Anne describes her six-year old self and how she wanted to have her own company? Well that never went away. She would get a feeling of extreme urgency and leave the stability she had always wanted, risk it all, and start her own company.

00:16:55 Rae Anne Rushing: People with a calling. It’s a calling. It’s just knowing. A calling is a knowing. A calling is: today’s the day and you go. And you have complete confidence that it’s the right answer, even when everybody’s telling you it’s not. That’s exactly what happened for me, and it happened to me before in my life for other things. But where it hit me about doing this company, it’s just that experience. I’d always been somewhat of an entrepreneur; like I described my six-year old Halloween story, right? I’d always been like that. I like to win. There’s no doubt about it. I had tried to make some sort of business work in our business, and, again, I couldn’t figure the math out. And then again one day, it was late 2005, I got that feeling. I said to my husband at the time, start Rushing. Let’s do this. Of course, he thought I was nuts which is an awesome story in itself. But, nevertheless, I’m not to be deterred when I’ve got a knowing going on or calling going on. Nothing stops me. I put it all together by March of 2006. I had resigned and started Rushing. Scott was still not sure if he was going to quit. This might have just been me by myself for a while. Couldn’t find enough people. We got a 40-story high-rise; we won a project in March before Scott quit. I come home, you know, we got this project man, and it’s enormous. I got no CAD. I got no office. I mean it was right away, like how am I going to do this? But I’m going to do it, that’s all I knew. How? I didn’t know. I had a client on board. We went, and then Scott quit in May, finally. Then off we were running. The hardest part of the whole gig was finding people to support us and help us in hiring. My first hire, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was very, very difficult for me to bring on another family. This particular engineer had a family. I was now going to be responsible for his insurance. It was okay to screw my own life up, but I didn’t want to screw up anybody else’s. I was very nervous about hiring him. Today, I’ve probably hired, over the last 13 years, 300-500 people? I don’t know what the number is. But a lot of people have come and gone or interviewed or whatever. I don’t blink an eye anymore of course, right? But that first one, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I was just super scared. Super scared. That’s okay. Scared is okay. What’s it about if you can’t have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and part of this and that; it’s scary walking through that.

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00:20:06 Ash Faraj: Rae Anne would start her engineering firm in 2006 with her husband at the time. But three years later in 2009, they began filing for divorce. What’s interesting is that today, 14 years later, they’re still in business together. Now it’s one thing to have kids with someone and then go through a divorce, but getting married to someone, having kids, going through a divorce, and then remaining business partners throughout the entire process just takes incredible mental stamina. Of course, we had to ask Rae Anne what that was like.  Oh yeah, and we can’t forget to talk about what advice do you give her 24-year-old self if she could go back and talk to herself.

00:20:48 Rae Anne: Sometimes I look back at her and I think I’d sure like to talk to her because she is rocking things. She was rocking it. Sometimes I would want to go talk to her to help me get inspired today. That’s what I would tell her. You know how inspiring you are Rae Anne? These people that are struggling through school; I didn’t know how inspiring I was to people. I didn’t, but I was. I can see that. Because I’m 54 today and I think about that girl a lot. And I think, man, that was me! That inspires me today. I would like to go talk to her and I would tell her she’s inspiring. I did not know that when I was that age. I didn’t know what I was doing was kind of extraordinary. I didn’t know. Yeah, just did not know. I think that’s kind of fun to think about. Because that’s what I tell people when I run into people that are really doing these kinds of things in their lives. Do you understand the impact you’re having? You may not really get it until you’re 50; to really fully see and reflect on the ripple effect of what you’re doing today. Nobody gave me a handbook on how to start a business. Nobody gave me a handbook on how to raise kids. Nobody gave me a handbook for these things: how to be married, how to get divorced, and have a partner, you know? I’m making it up as I go, usually learning because I might walk into a wall or two. That’s how it works. Again, it’s not a mistake or a failure. It’s like, oops. Okay, maybe I don’t go that way this time. Let’s go this way. Let’s try this; course-correct. My attitude about divorce is different I think than a lot of people. Most people think it’s a relationship-ending process. For me it’s a relationship-changing process. I think when you go about divorce in that mindset, you’re going to have the opportunity to possibly have more success with something like what Scott and I have created and staying friends, staying business partners. It’s been 10 years since we got divorced. We divorced three years into the business, so 2009. We started in 2006. In 2009 we started getting divorced and here is 2019. Relationships of people for me they can change. I don’t have too many. I have my best girlfriend in the world. I’ve known her since we were nine. We were little girls. She’s still in my life. My very best friend, she lives here in Woodinville. I’m a fan. That relationship has changed of course over time, but deeper and deeper and deeper. Same with Scott. I’ve known him for 30 years; not married, married, not married. Business partners throughout for 30 years pretty much, but richer and richer, deeper and deeper as we’ve gone on. Be open to those kinds of ideas with people. It can change, and it doesn’t have to be the end of the world, right?

00:24:16 Male Voice 1: We want to switch gears just a little bit. We want to play a fun, quick game, all right? In your opinion, what’s the most important life skill?

00:24:26 Rae Anne Rushing: Adapt to change.

00:24:29 Male Voice 1: Number two: if you were stranded on an island and had access to one meal, what would that be?

00:24:35 Rae Anne Rushing: Oh, my goodness. I love a rib-eye steak. I’m a total carnivore. I love steak. A good rib-eye.

00:24:45 Male Voice 1: Number three: what is your biggest pet peeve?

00:24:49 Rae Anne Rushing: Oh well, [laughter] long goodbyes. Like, hey, you said goodbye. Weren’t you leaving like an hour ago? Right? I hate that. At a party or something. Didn’t you say goodbye to me like an hour ago? Get the hell out of here. [laughter] Long goodbyes. But also, signature on your email, man. Get your phone number on there.

00:25:12 Male Voice 1: People don’t do that?

00:25:13 Rae Anne Rushing: I know, it happens! Like, come ‘on! I don’t want to go to the bottom of the string to find it. Every email. Hello!

00:25:22 Male Voice 1: Number four: you had a lot of mentors in your life. What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

00:25:29 Rae Anne Rushing: Don’t do a deal if you think the guy or gal is going to screw you. No matter what the contract says, right? Just don’t do the deal if you got a gut sense that you’re going to get screwed. Trust your gut, yeah.

00:25:45 Male Voice 1: This is personally my favorite one, all right? Just as quickly as possible. You got three kids: Evan, Amanda, and Anton. Who’s your favorite? [laughter]

00:25:55 Rae Anne Rushing: Oh well, Evan. He changed my life. I was 17 when I had him. He changed my life, my whole perspective on life. I loved that baby boy. Really. I pulled myself out of somewhat of a little bit of a depression and decided to rock this planet over that little guy. So yeah.

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00:26:15 Ash Faraj: Thank you for tuning into this episode. If you enjoyed listening, please subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Please leave a review so we that we can better serve you. Take care, dream big, and we’ll see you next Monday.